15 Jul 2019

The Giftware Association's Sarah Ward Talks all Things Retail

We sat down with Sarah Ward, the CEO of our partner companies the Giftware Association (GA) and the BTAA, to find out more about the current state of the retail market and where she sees it going in the future.

What is the Giftware Association?

The GA pure and simple is a not for profit organisation that supports any retail company in the gift industry, be it a start-up or a company in excess of £10 million. We support them and guide them in anything they need. We are effectively trying to ensure this industry survives, so that in the next generation there’s still a gift industry. The meatier part of my job is to act as a spokesperson for the industry.

What is the BTAA?

The BTAA was set up to support the leather industry. It was created around the black country in the midlands where there was a strong leather industry. The BTAA is now in its 100th year but it has had a tough time because that industry isn’t as prevalent as it used to be. It had no funds to continue so I took it under my wing. Anybody who is in the retail sector who makes leather, fashion accessories, or travel goods is welcome to join. We are really working hard to give it a new voice in the industry.

What are the benefits of joining these communities?

The benefits are exhaustive, we deal with anything they need. If someone needs anything their first port of call should be us, from wanting to export to America to coming up with a catalogue. We also offer operational, legal and HR support. We do everything from helping our members find manufacturers, to giving them some space in the warehouse while they grow. Our voice in the industry is so powerful and we have so much to offer. As an association we our struggling to stay at 800 members but we really need to grow to over 1000. The more members we have the more influence we will have in the industry, so it’s really important that we are continuously growing.

How do you think the current retail market is doing?

I work very closely with a chap who took over from Mary Portas, who works with ONF and the government. We were in a recent Bank of England meeting and he was explaining that the retail industry is up from £366 billion in 2017, to £380 billion in 2018. Non-food stores are up 2.8% and small shops are up 5.2%. The reason for this is that we are all spending money in lifestyle environments. Smaller, more trendy retail stores have huge opportunity.  

Giftware Association

Sarah Ward speaking at our February show Spring Fair.

Where do you see the future of retail?

There’s a view that in 10 years’ time retailing will evolve more, and the UK will become more like Europeans. It will be less about big stores and more about smaller lifestyle stores.

I think that gift food and gifts for pets will grow a lot in the next few years and computers and phones are already on the decline, so I see that declining further. Gift food is just huge with all the farm shops and delis.

Are bricks and mortar stores really declining as much as the headlines suggest?

I would not say that at all. There are some real challenges in terms of the costs of running any size shop, but they are still going strong. In the gift industry alone, the churn is 20% per year but the number of shops opening remain really strong. Those that are suffering the most aren’t forward thinking. Social media is really important and those that are coming up with clever ideas and looking at things a bit differently are doing very well. The quality is very much there.

Where do you see online retail going in the next ten years?

Online is not growing quite at the speed we are led to believe. People are actually using online in conjunction with stores. They are looking in the store and then going online to buy it. Online sales rose to 18% of total sales which is 71 billion. But the analysis suggests that non-food online sales were down 25%. Online is not the be all and end all. It would be dangerous to think that is the only way to go forward for a business.

What do you think is the best way for retailers to succeed in today’s environment?

It is incredibly important for retailers to seek out new product and keep their offering fresh. Social media is also at the top of my list, it’s vital to have a really strong social media presence and to manage that very well. It’s also important to really critique the business and stand back and ask are we really the best at what we do?

I think there is a lot to be said for good old fashion training and good customer service. If you are treated really well, you buy more. I recently put clothes back because they had no passion and no customer service skills. It reminds me of years ago when used to work for Next. We had to do a training on the features and benefits of a white t-shirt, and we went in laughing but suddenly we got so passionate about it.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own retail business?

Preparing adequately before you start is my number one piece of advice. Get loads of advice and help before you purchase the retail business and ensure you have enough capital to run the business effectively.

How important are trade shows for retail suppliers?

They are massively important. You don’t build relationships without meeting people and a trade show is a fantastic opportunity to this. Retails want to be out there to see the products in person. They are invaluable support.

Looking for more retail insights? Sarah Ward will be hosting the BTAA awards at this year's Autumn Fair. Visit our September show for free workshops and seminars. 

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