Karl McKeever Column - June 2017

Stop, collaborate and listen

Some of you may be too young to remember that particular Vanilla Ice hit – it was nearly 30 years ago – but as far as retail success goes, that one line in the song has never been more relevant.

When it comes to winning over shoppers, retailers are increasingly turning to collaboration as a way of creating new value. Recent partnerships have seen Japanese designer Kenzo link up with H&M and Miami-based Webster join forces with the luxury department store Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. Victoria Beckham has also been getting in on the act, lending her name to a clothing range for US budget store Target.

Of course, this is nothing new. Designers normally known for their exclusive collections have been working with well-known high street chains, including supermarkets and discounters, for decades. Such relationships are mutually beneficial – the retailer has the kudos of being associated with a luxury brand, while the designer has the chance to reach out to a wider audience. It also enables ordinary shoppers to share in the thrill of owning a designer piece, albeit one produced for the mass-market.

But away from the publicity that surrounds these high profile campaigns, some of the most effective partnerships are happening right now behind the scenes. If last month’s Retail Design Expo (RDE) was anything to go by, there is plenty to get excited about, and it was great to see so many leading industry figures sharing knowledge, ideas and best practice.

During the event, I had the opportunity to chair the VM Conference and later share best practice thinking on how to measure the impact of visual merchandising when delivering retail transformation. Drawing on my own experiences, it opened up a fascinating dialogue with delegates and we all took away some valuable lessons and insights.

Large-scale industry events like this do not come around very often, so exploring new ways to regularly engage with peers and other experts is vital. Recently, I joined Nathan Watts, creative director at retail and brand consultancy FITCH, Paul West, strategy director at creative agency Dalziel & Pow and James Breaks, associate director of design at rpa:group, to take part in the newly-launched retail podcast series, The Retail Exchange. Speaking to these highly regarded specialists, both during and outside of the recording, underlined just how crucial it is to discuss ideas openly and freely. Without this kind of fresh thinking, the whole sector risks stagnation.

Retail brands that have transformed their proposition – and consistently deliver on store performance – understand why collaboration with internal stakeholders matters. Discussions about what direction a brand should take are, of course, healthy but success cannot be achieved without first setting clear goals. Implementing change requires buy-in from everyone at the top level so that objectives can be communicated across all departments, from marketing and VM to the customer-facing store teams.

As efforts to step up collaboration increase, retailers should remember the role agencies play in enabling it to achieve meaningful change. Each one may have its own specialism, whether branding, retail design or digital, but leaving them to operate in silos is no recipe for success. In bringing everyone together, all thoughts of ‘treading on each other’s toes’ should be banished in favour of connected thinking and working together towards common goals.

It was this kind of inter-agency collaboration that proved so vital in delivering Sainsbury’s ‘Making Life Taste Better’ campaign back in the early 2000s. By running a series of ‘agency day’ workshops, the retailer created a valuable opportunity to bring the whole brand team together, enabling everyone with responsibility for handling the brand to align, inform and agree the approach. Only by doing this could Sainsbury’s ensure there was consistency across the brand delivery.

Today’s technology makes inter-agency working easier than ever. As well as regular meetings, partners can share information via remote access to computer systems, video calls and project management software.

Finally, retailers should not forget that collaboration extends to shoppers too. Retail transformation requires major investment, not just financially but in terms of time and resources too. However, it is all for nothing if it fails to increase sales.

It is not just a case of ‘thinking’ like a shopper or making assumptions about what motivates them. Instead, retailers should conduct research at every stage, asking for early input to set them on the right track. Measuring how successful this change has been will help avoid costly mistakes, and secure long-term buy-in from both internal stakeholders and investors.

In the same way that LEGO has crowd-sourced its product design ideas to customers, inviting them to become part of the journey, retailers and agencies should place greater emphasis on finding out what people want to see in stores.

The fact is that too many retailers are standing still or failing to effect real change across their stores. At the moment, the pool from which our ideas are drawn is not as big as it could be – and even though there are plenty of smart, clever people in the industry, we are in danger of simply repeating our best work without being aware of it.

To listen to the first Retail Exchange podcast visit www.theretailexchange.co.uk

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Exclusive Q&A


Michelle Kyle
District Visual Manager




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