Listening to the past

Most people would accept that it makes great sense to ask advice from people who have faced the same experiences. But it is equally true that so many people choose to ignore this simple rule - despite it often coming for free. I was reminded of that in the last few days having attended an evening organised by Retail Week in London. The magazine invited, as part of its 21st anniversary year celebrations, three retail veterans for an informal evening of questions and answers. In the audience were today’s generation of retail leaders who were keen to tap into collective decades of retail experience sat before them. The three veterans - or retail legends - were John Hoerner, the American retailer who has lived and worked in the UK for many years now helping to turn around several large scale store groups and more recently, helped develop clothing for Tesco. He was joined by Lord David Wolfson, veteran of mail order group GUS and then chairman of Next and Sir Geoff Mulcahy, former CEO and creator of the Kingfisher Group which he built into a multi sector, multi brand retail giant.

They were asked for their observations on the current retail climate and comparisons with former recessions. The sense from the veterans was that the panic was over but that it still seemed like an uncertain future. That aside, they all declared themselves to be optimistic about the opportunities for retailers - provided they were prepared to seize them of course. Geoff Mulcahy, for one, offered great advice that he felt this market was going to be extremely receptive to new innovation across all aspects of the business, particularly product. When consumers are driven more by wants rather than needs now, it was vital to focus on the “new”. He said that his rule at Kingfisher was to look at every new idea - from store format to design to new product and to ask whether it added “at least 25%” more value to the existing propositions.

David Wolfson, commenting on what they learnt at Next when they needed to revive the business, was that it was the store managers who knew most about the business and what needed to be improved. It proved to be a valuable lesson. With many head offices still operating a command centre mentality, David Wolfson said that this change proved to be extremely cathartic and helped put the business back on track.

Many of the questions were understandably about how the internet could change retailing. Interestingly, whilst they agreed, their message was that retailers shouldn’t be frightened of it but that they should adopt an attitude that says that everything in the business is likely to change dramatically, whether in the short, medium or long term. Plan for that and you won’t be caught unawares.

Not bad lessons learnt in just an hours conversation - and all for free!

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