What a difference a year makes

New York in early January would never seem to be the most hospitable of months to visit this great City. The winds that whip through the Avenues and Streets can cut right through you. A year ago, when retailers converged on New York for the NRF convention, the mood matched the weather as the full realities of a recession that was leading to a sales free-fall were still sinking in. One year on and the mood, the sales picture and the optimism levels felt completely restored.

You could sense this just from walking through the Convention and the Expo hall where the technology companies suddenly found themselves talking to retail clients that might actually have a budget to spend on IT infrastructure. And presenter after presenter talked of the exciting opportunities that now present themselves.

Is this all hopeless optimism when economists are still worrying about double dips and the threat of ill-thought out government interventions to pay down national debts? As always, that is hard to call, but what is clear is that retailers have restored their confidence and their sense of what they need to do. At the same time, it is also clear that all those predictions that retailing is undergoing dramatic change are coming true. The survivors of the global recession are becoming easy to spot. They are usually large corporations who have attacked their costs bases and their inventory. They have also returned to first basics and are talking the language of “shopper experience”, innovative and new product, brand values and service in order to win through.

One of the best summaries of that new retailing was provided by Ian Cheshire, group CEO of Kingfisher which has operations across western Europe, Russia and China. He said that we are now entering an era of “self help” retailing. What he meant was that the market, the economy won’t provide any help or favours to retailers. Instead, he argued, the only help a retailer can expect is from what they can achieve from within itself. This involved the whole organisation having a clear understanding of specific goals that will make a real difference to customers and the business. And in Kingfisher’s case it is clearly working as the results show. “It is energising the business,” he said.

Other retailers used different language, but there was real consistency around this new determination that retailing has got the measure of this new economic era and that the only growth is going to come from winning market share.

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