ANAYSIS: Brexit – what retailers say

With the EU referendum coming up on June 23, we ask a range of KBB retailers which way they’ll be voting and why

If there were one phrase to sum up the thoughts of the kitchen and bathroom business on the European referendum, it would not be “we should go” or “we should stay”. It would not even be “I haven’t decided yet”. More accurate would be “I haven’t got a clue” or even “I don’t care”. Just as in the Euro debate more generally, there is a lot of uncertainty about.

Of course, there are those committed one way or the other, such as Paul Etheridge, director of Coastal Bathrooms (see panel), who is a firm leaver. But more often the British KBB retailer is likely to plead ignorance and avoid pledging their vote either way. Some suggest that, on balance, we should stay, but less from commitment to the European dream than a sense that change is inherently riskier than stability.

Typical is Craig Matson, managing director of the top-end kitchen manufacturer and retailer Roundhouse, which has several showrooms in the wealthier parts of London. He says: “We are a British manufacturer, although we do buy some raw materials from Europe. I suppose my position would be that I don’t really know what the implications [of staying or leaving] are, so any response I have is likely to be an emotional one, which is not a very good basis on which to vote.

“That said, my personal view is that we are probably better in than out, partly because I suspect Brexit would affect us in some ways that I can’t think of. It’s a slightly scary place to be when you don’t have enough information on which to base a rational decision.”

John Lewis, director at First Choice Bathrooms in Hockley, Essex, is another who is frank about his lack of certainty.

He says: “I am totally confused by it all. I don’t see how you can get an unbiased view, although I suppose my instinct is to stay in, because I don’t want to rock the boat. But I also think we are not being given enough information. I’d like to see a real list of pros and cons, put together by someone who is not necessarily arguing one way or the other.”

That sort of objectivity is hard to come by, partly because balanced analysis is very difficult to achieve. A possible starting point for retailers is the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which like many trade organisations has declared itself “neutral” on the vote, presumably on the grounds that as its membership is divided, it should not favour one side of the argument over another.

brexit-flag-flyingThe problem here is that declared neutrality and actual neutrality are not necessarily the same thing, although the BRC’s report on how Brexit would affect retailers is well worth a look for anybody trying to familiarise themselves with the arguments as they affect retailers more broadly, at least from the BRC point of view (see panel).

Many in the kitchen and bathroom business probably won’t do this because they are not only indifferent to the politics of the debate, but doubt whether staying or leaving will alter their business in any way.

Alex Rae, director of Christchurch Bathrooms in Hampshire, says: “I’m not hugely into politics and I’m not sure it would affect our business one way or the other. I suppose I would rather we stayed because things seem fine and so why change them? I haven’t really spoken to other people in the industry about it. We mostly talk about sales.”

Perhaps, at least for some, the lack of interest in the Brexit arguments is simply that deals are regarded as more important than ideals.

Even those who do listen to some of the increasingly fierce media debates about the referendum are sceptical about what they are hearing, although there are some firm views on how British kitchen and bathroom firms have fared against their European rivals.

Ian Foster, chief executive of System Six, the Exeter manufacturer and retailer, says: “I don’t tend to take much notice of the media, as I find it’s biased one way or the other. I do listen to LBC and have found this to be a good source for heated debates on the Brexit subject.

“I travel a fair bit and wouldn’t want an exit to impede getting in and out of other European countries, so on that basis I’d like to stay in. Commercially, I’d like to make it more difficult for the British to buy (in particular) German kitchens. We have a fantastic manufacturing offering in the UK, but too often lose out to the misled kudos attached to the foreign brands. I have been making kitchens for 30 years and in my opinion we Brits make a better quality and better value product than anyone else in the European Union. It’s time for the UK government to show some backbone and patriotism and get behind me and my fellow kitchen builders.

“Alternatively, we could stay in and simply adopt France and Germany’s approach by only adhering to the Brussels laws that suit them…”

If there is a tone of the leave campaign in those last comments, Foster’s mixture of wanting the UK to guard its own interests more vigorously but probably stay in rather than leave the EU, is echoed by many others.

George Wade of Harvey & Wade, another West Country kitchen supplier in Taunton, says: “We buy a lot of appliances from the Germans, but most of the furniture is ordered from UK-based suppliers. People seem to want to keep things as local as possible and more and more want to go for UK-produced products – it’s almost like self-sufficiency.

“But as far as staying or leaving the EU is concerned, I really don’t have a view. I wouldn’t have thought it would make much difference to the way our business works.”

This is not exactly indifference, but does echo a feeling shared by many kitchen and bathroom retailers, which is that whichever way the nation votes, it won’t alter things a great deal. For many, this seems to indicate that any change will probably not be worthwhile.

Peter Henshall, director at Powell’s Kitchens and Bathrooms in Oxford, says: “I can’t see why you’d want to rock the boat. The least attractive things about Europe, like the euro and the Schengen Agreement [which led to the creation of Europe’s borderless area] we are not signed up for anyway.”

For many of the UK’s kitchen and bathroom businesses, it seems that as far as staying or leaving Europe is concerned, it’s a toss-up between indifference and a mild inclination to stay, on the basis that change is likely to be more troublesome than the status quo.

PrintThe BRC view

The British Retail Consortium, like most trade organisations, has found itself in a tricky position over the European referendum. That is why its official position is neutrality on the issue, although it has made serious efforts to keep its membership informed on the issues that might affect them following the outcome.

This includes its report ‘How Would Brexit Affect Retail?’, which examines in some detail the consequences of leaving or staying.

The report does this through asking questions including how leaving might affect the UK’s free trade position and what the UK’s trade policy would be in the case of Brexit.

For those that want to get abreast of the arguments, this is all useful reading. But it is worth remembering that even the best informed about the possible consequences of staying or leaving the European Union will usually admit, when pressed, that intelligent speculation is not the same thing as certainty in such circumstances.

Nobody is completely certain about how things would play out if the UK left and, as the leave campaign often retorts, nobody can be completely confident about what would happen if the UK stays in either.

scottish-flag WEBThe view from Scotland

For Scotland, there is a surreal quality to the European ref-erendum, coming, as it does, hot on the heels of the one in 2014 on remaining part of the UK.

So what do its KBB retailers think about the Brexit proposal? For John Bacigalupo, who founded and runs Napier Bathrooms in Edinburgh, this is a less important vote than the 2014 one.

He says: “To be honest, whatever happens the rain will still fall, the sun will still shine and we will still get on with business. I am more against Scotland leaving the UK than I am against the UK leaving Europe. The UK has never fully signed up to the European deal and we are still seen as something of an outsider.

“I sell German, Italian and Spanish products and I don’t think that leaving the EU would mean those sales would either rise or fall. I would still be buying those products in British pounds, which avoids the devastating effect the euro has had in Europe.

“But I think it is good to be part of Europe in the sense that it is good to be part of something bigger, so probably I am in favour of staying. But I don’t think it would be a disaster if we were to leave.

“I don’t think I could say the same if Scotland ever left the UK.”

brexit-flag WEBThe committed Brexiter

For retailers such as Paul Etheridge, being out of Europe is a better option than staying, partly because they feel it would give the Government more freedom to support UK companies.

Etheridge, who is director at Coastal Bathrooms in New Milton, Hampshire, says: “I think we should be out of Europe, yes. It would mean that UK manufacturers would get a bit more encouragement. Plus I think Europe can create more competition but in an odd way, that is more of a pain than a benefit.

“For example, Hansgrohe recently had to reduce retail prices by about 30% in its UK subsidiary to compete against German-based websites selling directly into the UK. This type of thing doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a strange sort of competition where a firm has to reduce prices because of its own products getting sold more cheaply from Germany.

“I think that if the UK had more control over policy, it would be more clear that whatever happened was done for the UK.”

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