Choppy times ahead for retail, but passion and integrity will win out
Greetings to you not from my usual North East, but from my hotel room in London, where I’m reflecting on an intense but inspiring afternoon at the inaugural Retail London conference. I hope to post fuller reflections on the event following tomorrow’s second day, but I’ll try to keep my tiredness at bay while I give some initial reactions.
Today’s sessions brought together a varied and eyecatching line-up of speakers, with comedian Ruby Wax – an inspired signing – in the role of moderator. In the context of an event that is otherwise very slick and streamlined, Ruby’s unscripted repartee with the speakers – and unsurprising lack of retail industry knowledge – brings a welcome light touch to proceedings.
The event opened with a passionate and note-free speech from former Asda chairman and chief executive Andy Bond, jokingly introduced by Ruby Wax as “nobody now”, following the end of his 16-year-stint at the Walmart-owned retailer. Unsurprisingly, current economic challenges were a recurring context in this and subsequent speeches, with Bond arguing that UK retail is in for “a tough time” this year and next, and that the “retail recession is ahead of us” rather than behind.
However, he sought to offer a practical perspective on how retailers can rise to those challenges, highlighting the three imperatives of, firstly, delivering what (increasingly empowered) customers want; secondly, building a competitive business model through employing great people, building a business based on purpose and integrity, and being passionate about product; and, thirdly, driving ones own personal development.
It was on the third point where Bond was perhaps most persuasive, emphasising the importance of “following your passion not your wallet” and drawing from his own love of cycling to highlight the value of balancing work with “other things you’re going to do in your life.” Later, philosopher and writer Alain de Botton used his eloquent speech on the philosophy of the global modern consumer to endorse similar values of integrity, honesty and “fitting with who we are”, in the context of work being one of the pillars – along with love – upon which modern expectations of happiness are based.
Following up Andy Bond, Bob Thacker from US chain OfficeMax gave an entertaining and insightful account of how a retailer that’s not a market leader can build its brand and a niche by having “big ideas” rather than “big bucks”. Passion, creativity and curiosity in marketing are, he argued, especially important in the context of a world where “people are paralysed” and have “hit the pause button” on retail spending. Later in the afternoon, fellow American Glen T Senk, the CEO of Urban Outfitters, gave an equally rich and interesting account of how the company has built a distinctive and “emotional” brand, underpinned by the principle of “wowing the customer” in order to “build the business for the long term.”
On an afternoon dominated by inspirational stories and themes, the speech by Deloitte economist Ira Kalish on the changing shape of the global economy was the only incongruous note. While Kalish came across as clearly very knowledgable on the world’s emerging markets, the presentation suffered from its surfeit of information over inspiration, and its lecture-style seemed to go down less well with the audience than the more engaging feel of the other speakers.
So, what can we draw from the first day of the conference? For me, two key threads have emerged.
One relates to the unavoidable economic reality in which we find ourselves, and the recognition that things may yet get worse in retail before they get better.
The second thread, however, is a more optimistic and celebratory one. It reminds us of all those qualities that shape, and have shaped, the most successful retail businesses and leaders – among them passion, integrity, honesty and creativity. Today’s speakers left the audience in little doubt that retailers who subscribe to these values will be best placed to weather the present economic storm.