Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

Doing the right thing pays dividends

Raising money for good causes is good for retail businesses

Last week’s D-Day commemorations were a powerful reminder of the huge sacrifices the last generation made for us. What can we do in return?

In Iceland’s case, the answer is a clear and practical one. We’re going to raise a million pounds for The Royal British Legion to support its efforts to help disabled service people back to work, and to support often elderly veterans and their dependents in their homes.

We raise at least a million for our Charitable Foundation every year. Since 2011, we have given more than £3.1 million to Alzheimer’s Research UK to help fund its vital research. Our money-raising efforts have also served a valuable secondary purpose, helping to raise awareness of the huge epidemic of dementia across the country.

Why do we, as a retailer, put so much emphasis on our support for good causes? First and foremost, obviously, because it is the right thing for every business and individual to do. But also because it is a great way of building our people’s team spirit, motivation and morale.

Every year in Iceland Charity Week I am stunned by the range of challenges our people volunteer to take on, from sponsored cycle rides to parachute jumps, running marathons to walking miles in wellies filled with custard. Their dedication embarrassed me into climbing Everest, abseiling down The Shard and trying to walk to the South Pole.

Iceland’s people do this because they believe in the causes we support. Our nearly 850 stores across the UK compete eagerly with each other to see which can raise the most money during the week, and have a lot of fun along the way.

This is absolutely in tune with my philosophy that there should be no conflict at all between doing a good job and enjoying yourself.

I always say that I’ve only ever had two jobs, and been fired from both of them. The first was with Woolworths and it taught me everything I needed to know about how not to run a retailer: hierarchical, humourless and inward-looking, rather than focusing on customers and what they want.

It’s not rocket science, but the first lesson for anyone contemplating a retail start-up must surely be to keep your staff happy. Happy staff make happy customers, and that is what puts cash in the till.

It’s not all about money, either. To many people’s surprise, Iceland does pay the second-highest hourly rate on the British high street, but I can’t claim it’s a fortune. Yet our staff have twice voted us The Best Big Company To Work For in the UK and for each of the last three years they have been more content with their pay and benefits than any other employees in the Best Companies survey. In 2012, they were even famously happier than the well-bonused bankers from Goldman Sachs.

Times are hard for some food retailers right now, though if truth be told I don’t remember any time during the last 44 years when it has seemed spectacularly easy. In hard times the temptation is always to look for easy savings, but you should make the charity budget the last place to think about cutting back.

Working together for a good cause undoubtedly helps to build morale in any business – and in retail we have the great advantage that we can involve our customers, too. What could be better than doing the right thing for society when it also helps to make your people and customers happy, and your business more successful?

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