The huge challenges facing the high street were laid bare during our latest Vital Topics debate. Chaired by retail expert and senior lecturer at Alliance MBS , John Pal, a panel of leading retailers and consultants discussed the future of the industry and its leadership.
As Craig McGregor, Retail Director of Topshop/Topman, summed up:
“After the recession we expected things to go back to normal, but that did not happen. The growth of internet, digital and social media magnifies everything and the end result is a very savvy customer. When customers walk through our door they know exactly what they are looking for.”
The point was echoed by Nigel Murray, Commercial Director at supermarket group Booths.
“People learnt how to shop differently during the recession and they now take time to shop around and seek value. For a retailer just being good at one thing is not good enough anymore.”
Fellow panellist Nicky Unsworth, Chief Executive of creative agency BJL Group, said such trends were validated by a recent piece of research her firm had carried out with 3,000 consumers.
“What we found was that consumer behaviours became entrenched during the recession. Since then, even though the economy has got better consumers either don’t believe it or don’t feel it. Because they still feel financially stretched they have developed savvy shopping habits.”
Retailers have had to become savvy too. As Nigel Murray added:
“In each of our stores we need to accentuate our offer to be slightly different to the people that shop in those areas. Being agile, different and unique to everyone’s individual needs is one of the big challenges that retail faces as the demands get ever more complex. You have to accept that change is constant.”
Nicky Little, Director and Head of Consulting at Cirrus, agreed that retail leaders needed to be more agile.
“They need to be saying to themselves ‘what do we need to be doing to adjust to these new consumer behaviours? How do we need to react and turn ourselves around quickly to respond to the fast-changing consumer?’ Customer expectations are so high today.”
She added that retailers had to be incredibly clear on exactly what they stood for.
“If you say one thing about your brand but then your leaders operate in a different way counter to that, or your employees simply don’t ‘get it’, then you have a real problem.”
Also on the panel was Peter Donohoe who is leading the Business in the Community Healthy High Streets Programme designed to breathe new life into towns which have been hard-hit by the rise in online and out of town shopping. He said one of the key findings of their research so far was that local solutions generated by local partnerships were likely to be the most sustainable.
“Those solutions that take into account local customer needs in conjunction with the requirements of the local community give high streets the best opportunities to prosper alongside an enhanced online and out of town offering. No two towns are the same, so towns need to work through what is their USP.”
He said the initiative was already helping increase footfall and develop a sense of greater pride in the targeted towns.
Nigel Murray agreed that being an integral part of the local community was essential for retailers.
“We expect our stores to work with the community and there was no better example recently when we worked with the Cumbrian community following the floods. That sort of response is important, it is about the values we hold as a business and which we also extend that into our supply chain.”
Asked what makes a successful retailer today, Craig McGregor said it boiled down to three key points.
“It is about having a vision about where you are taking the business. It’s about people who can lead, engage and inspire. And it’s about great execution of your strategy.”