Team GB is currently running a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #IAmTeamGB and asking the question, “What message would you give your younger self?” I’ve spent almost my whole working life in the retail industry, and my stock in trade is to use my experience and expertise to advise others. But what if my client was the young Martin Newman? A man coming to maturity in the late 1960s, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to be sure, perhaps a little idealistic and wide-eyed, knowing what he wanted but still to learn how to get there. Apart from “invent the internet” or “do your homework”, what would I say to him?
The first piece of advice I thought of was not very in keeping with fashionable management practice of achieving work/life balance, but it’s this: never stop thinking. If you’re passionate about what you do, then it will seep into you like water into a sponge. Be that sponge. Look and listen to everything. See everything as an opportunity and an inspiration and use your imagination to make connections that you hadn’t previously made. Maybe no-one else has either. Maybe you’ve got the edge.
The point is this: retail is a very basic process. Money is exchanged for goods and services, and… well, that’s it. The rest is all window-dressing. But it’s not the ‘what’ that makes a difference, it’s the ‘how’. Analysing, understanding and influencing the ‘how’ will either allow you to surge to the top of your profession, or plunge you into abject failure.
It’s all about what we now call “disruption”. The term was popularised in the advertising industry in the early 1990s by Jean-Marie Dru, the French marketing guru. But it has a wider application than just advertising. It’s about out-thinking your competitors, seeing those new, quirky opportunities, and being at the bleeding edge of your profession. It’s inherently high risk, but it has to be, as the rewards are potentially huge. An ability to size up your risk appetite is vital in retail, but remember: if you need to be 100% sure, you’ll 100% late.
The other piece of advice I can’t reiterate often enough is this: put the customer at the heart of everything you do. It’s trite and a truism, but people still seem to lose sight of the fact that, without customers, you have no business. And customers are complex machines, with sometimes-illogical, emotionally driven responses. You have to use empathic analysis to measure and anticipate the way they behave, what they want, what they’ll pay for, what will make your proposition more attractive than anyone else’s. Get this right, and they’ll come flocking. Get it wrong, and you’re leaving money on the table.
So how do you achieve customer centricity? First, and perhaps most importantly, you have to make your retail experience an easy and convenient one. It should be designed from start to finish around the customer’s journey, not around what suits your needs. Provide customers with whatever tools they need: click and collect, online shopping, apps, well-trained and helpful sales staff, accessibility for potential customers with visible or hidden disabilities and all delivered with the environment and being socially responsible at the forefront. If you don’t, unless you’re such a niche concern that you have no effective competitors, then the customer will decide it’s too much effort, and move on to the next retailer. And that’s a zero-sum game: not only have you lost the income from that sale, but it’s gone to one of your rivals.
A classic example of this is online retailing, the sort of thing which Amazon made such a powerful force. In its early days, it seemed utterly transformative. It was quick, easy and good value, allowing customers to buy at competitive prices from the comfort of their own homes. And it suited the retailers too. No more expensive and high-maintenance shop fronts, no need for legions of sales staff, the ability to buy in bulk to drive down costs. But these were all things which made it easier for them, not necessarily for the customer. As the market has reached maturity, we have found that some customers actually want to do some face-to-face, hands-on shopping, with the ability to talk to a member of staff, or see and handle a product, or compare different shops along the high street. So, you must provide a multi-channel opportunity, a mix-and-match of approaches encompassing the internet and bricks-and-mortar stores. Whatever suits the customer, that’s your goal.
There’s much, much more I could tell my younger self. But the success I’ve achieved over the past 35 years has been built in no smaller part in understanding these two concepts. They’re high-level and can be applied to a wide range of businesses, and you can break them down in a number of ways. But that’s the message for my younger self: stay on your toes and concentrate on what the customer wants. My final piece of advice as cliched as it sounds, “there is absolutely no substitute for hard work!” So, as my fellow countryman said many years ago, ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.’ In this day age you might call this ‘test and learn!’ The day you stop learning is the day you stop living.