Retailbiz speaks with the executive director of Australia’s largest retail peak about this year’s retail awards winners and some of the peak’s exciting new plans for the year ahead.

We caught the head of the ARA Russel Zimmerman after the year’s biggest retail awards to chat to him about the big issues – from customer abuse of retail staff to an exciting announcement that is soon to come.

RB: What was it that made the winners of this year’s ARA Australian Retail Awards stand out?

What we were looking for was retailers that are relevant to today, the connection with customer and a focus on new tech. We heard Vodafone talking about their people. They were the sort of thing we were looking for but with a focus on change depending on the type of award. Birdsnest is a classic example of a retailer starting with nothing and growing to what they are today with 140 staff. That’s what we were looking for but overall what makes a good retailer is getting back to the basics.

RB: Petstock did incredibly well taking out three awards. What do you think it is that’s behind their success?

They’re a retailer trying to move up in the industry and get their name known. What they’ve done really well is appeal to a niche market and that’s something important, being able to deliver something different.

RB: What would you say are the biggest issues that the ARA is grappling with at the moment?

RZ: The biggest issue in retail generally is the fact we’re looking at an industry [where most people have the attitude it is] a job not a career. The single biggest thing we want to do is make sure we get the industry out to the general public. There’s some really exciting jobs in retail.

I spoke earlier about the buyers and planners course we have. If you can get yourself into a job as a buyer planner there’s some really exciting opportunities. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at being an area manager or a state manager, there are some really exciting jobs.

Unfortunately the general view is, ‘I’m going to go to university and become a lawyer and accountant.’ We’ve got to change that. If people want to be a lawyer we need to encourage them to do it in retail. There’s so many roles in retail that need those expertise.

RB: What work is the ARA doing to encourage people to think of retail as a serious career avenue?

What we’ve got is a learning and development committee and one thing they are doing is mapping jobs in retail. The first thing they’ll do is try to understand what roles there are in retail. Once we know that then it’s a matter of promoting those roles. You will see much more of that over the next few years. We want to work with state and federal governments because if we can get out to the general consumer that there are really great jobs in retail, then a. we can change the perception of retail and b. we can get some really good people into retail.

RB: What is the second biggest issue the ARA is grappling with would you say?

The independence of small retailers and a lot of issues in terms of rent and an imbalance in rent. Another area of concern is the You Don’t Deserve a Serve campaign. Unfortunately the biggest single issue raised by members is: ‘what is the ARA doing to help us and support us in this?’ We’ve got the campaign, that’s the first part, getting awareness out to the consumer. Then the second part is how would you feel if someone abused you, why would you want to be in retail? So we really have to help retailers through those areas and give them support so they can get back into retail.

As an example I had a retailer and they had a healthcare business. A lady came into the shop and abused a staff member and the staff member quit and said ‘I don’t need this, I’m going to work in the public service.’ Two days later the woman came in with a box chocolates and gift card but it was too late. That’s a huge cost the retailer had in retraining someone.

RB: What other work are you doing to address the issue, surely a big part of it is the need to work with the government so customers know there’s repercussions for abusing retailers?

That is part of it. Unfortunately I can’t talk about one aspect of what we’re doing because we have a government contract on something so I can’t talk about it now but will in a few weeks.

RB: You mentioned before the issue about retail leasing and the need for more support. What work are you doing there?

We’ve worked with Lease One and the first thing is helping retailers understand what their costs really are. In some states in Australia you can get this kind of information if you are going to open a shop. Unfortunately you can’t do it in Victoria but you can go to someone and get info on what their lease is, when it started, the term and base. You can get a lot of good benchmarking information.

For instance, if you are going to open a shoe shop and you know there’s ten retailers with the same kind of product you can find out if the amount the landlord is asking for is worth paying.

The other thing is we need to work closely with landlords because of that imbalance in how rents are increasing with the way in which retailers are growing.

RB: Russel, any final words of advice to retailers?

One bit of advice is that industry associations can help retailers a lot – whether through employment law, tenancy, HR matters or consumer law – that’s why you join an association. So if you want to see the industry grow, join an industry association.

The more you give an industry association, the more we can go and challenge and work with government to get better outcomes for retailers.