As part of a series of interviews, we have been asking ‘what lessons retail should have learnt or should be learning as we deal with the ongoing pandemic’. This interview is with Retail Remedy Consultant Emma Reed whose years in fashion buying for bricks and clicks has timely advice for those facing the current pandemic challenges.
So Emma, what is your biggest criticism of retail at the moment?
Any business that is not completely and utterly focused on their customer right now, will be feeling the pain. Boards spend too much time worrying about their shareholders and manipulating their financial reporting to appease them. They don’t spend enough time anticipating what their customer will want next, in terms of product and experience. I would challenge leaders to get to know their actual customer, not the one they think they have, and to make it their absolute priority to focus their product, their marketing and their brand experience directly at their actual customer. In doing so they will look after their shareholders.
How does a focus on the customer translate into business structure?
In answer to this I would like to add to points already made about the importance of simplification: The more isolated, separate teams there are, the less understanding of the business as a whole, within the culture. Eliminating “them and us” and facilitating “we” is essential. It’s a small business approach that needs to be applied to larger businesses in order to truly focus on the customer. Too many retail businesses are like huge oil tankers: The course is set way in advance and deviating from this course is to admit a certain amount of failure. They are too overly complex to change direction effectively. They often have many disempowered employees, who do not feel responsible for their actions because decisions are made by committee. Speed, autonomy, agility, flexibility and a one team approach have to be a priority to cope with the pace of change and the fluidity of job roles in retail.
What would you say is important for multi-channel retail?
A flexible structure facilitating the buying of stock for each and every channel is the way forward. It’s amazing how many retailers run their website, stores and international business as completely separate entities. I’d go as far as saying that they are competitive in some cases. Stock shouldn’t be owned by one channel or another and should be directed to where it is most needed, according to demand. The same messages should be reflected in stores and on the website. The stores are the physical experience of the brand and the website is the virtual experience. Both need stock. Both have a role to play in the brand’s success and to neglect one channel at the expense of the other will lead to diminished sales overall in a multi-channel business.
How does the supply base have to change?
I have been a buyer and I understand that buying the vast majority of stock up front is neat and tidy and easier for stores to manage. But it is so much more likely to lead to crippling stock levels and high mark-down, if sales do not go to plan. I’m not advocating fast-fashion or ultra-fast-fashion models either! A flexible supply base, willing to make smaller quantities, so that businesses can maximise trading opportunities, is more important than extra margin points. I would be looking for suppliers, who work together with retailers, to switch production according to demand. A supply base offering smaller minimum quantities, closer to home, which can operate at speed. I would be looking closely at how the supermarkets work operationally to maximise sales without creating huge excesses of stock and to apply some of those ways of working to other retail categories.
What about the role of physical retail?
Great product is still the most important requirement for building customer loyalty and repeat sales, but experience is increasingly important, especially in physical stores. The lesson learnt for me before lockdown and confirmed during lockdown is that the role of stores is changing and those lacking in customer experience will ultimately suffer. Retailers need to be seriously asking themselves what they are offering their customer by way of a unique in-store experience.
Where would you focus attention?
Safe is inevitably boring and boring does not lead to great sales. Give the creative teams freedom (and the budget) to inject personality and uniqueness into brands. The race to have the right product, at the right price, at the right time, no longer cuts it. Too much focus on the competition has led to a diminishing U.S.P. The customer wants to understand what a brand stands for and why its product is right for them. He/she wants to see this reflected in the product itself, not just in the marketing. Average, diluted, without character, like everyone else’s won’t work, except in the very cheapest of cases.
Anything else to add?
Invite an alternative opinion. Don’t dismiss a challenge. Explore all the alternatives up front and then make decisive moves. Empower your employees and let them take full responsibility for the decisions they make.