Karl McKeever Column - August 2017

Going places this summer?

Whether you’re jetting off or staying closer to home this summer, the holiday season will hopefully provide a valuable opportunity to re-charge, regroup, reflect, and gather your thoughts. On a personal level, I’m indulging in a little reflective thinking of my own at the moment. The start of summer not only marked another new financial year for Visual Thinking, but also the beginning of our Silver Anniversary celebrations.

Like most of you, I’m not sure where the first part of 2017 (let alone the last 25 years) has gone. I have a suspicion that for the retail executives amongst you, a large portion of it has been spent simply trying to swim with the tide. If you stop and think about it (should you find a precious spare minute to do so), the speed at which most of us within the industry now routinely work is truly staggering. Little wonder then that a week or two away from desks, hopefully somewhere hot, is so warmly received.

Notwithstanding the fact that your well-earned holiday will no doubt fly by in the blink of an eye, there are rarely ever enough hours in the day. Waiting for you on your return will be the usual flurry of seasonal instore events, providing another busy end to the year. From the launch of AW collections to Halloween, Black Friday, and (dare I even mention it?) the C-word – Selfridges has already once again dared to steal a march on everyone by launching its Christmas shop before July even ended.

All these seasonal events will offer a welcome spike in trading activity. But they also serve to reinforce the short-term, tactical nature of the retail world we now operate in – one that is, it seems, increasingly focused on immediate priorities and results, with less and less time afforded to strategic thinking and sustainable success.

A study presented at this year’s World Retail Congress suggested that retail executives are keenly aware of the need to consider and implement a longer-term vision for their businesses. According to the research, 80 per cent of retailers understand the need for delivering instore transformation programmes. Despite this, under a quarter of retail executives say they know what transformation looks like on a day-to-day basis. It’s perhaps not surprising. Simply ensuring that routine instore tasks are completed is often challenging enough.

In reality, there is no shortage of retailers for which instore transformation will be a commercial imperative in the months ahead. The Body Shop, now under new ownership, fashion retailer New Look and DIY retailer Bunnings are just three of the names that immediately spring to mind.

In some instances, the answers to the question of what real transformation looks like may already exist within. But often, even when they do, there is rarely sufficient time for internal teams to realise them on their own. In the time-starved world that today’s retail executives operate within, accepting external specialist support is increasingly a must-have, rather a nice-to-have. The rewards of doing so can be enormous. From identifying the reality of what is currently happening instore (as opposed to what you believe is happening – typically two very different things) to providing strategic guidance and gifting leadership teams with the ability to make more decisive and informed decisions. One thing is certain: if you don’t deliver positive and effective retail transformation at store level, others will.

One retailer for which a clear strategic vision is starting to pay dividends instore is Morrisons. Much maligned in recent years, its star is now in the ascendency under the stewardship of David Potts. In recent weeks, I have spent some of my own time with those responsible for delivering change within Morrisons on a day-to-day basis. Talking to them, in my role as an industry awards judge, the sense of transformation and, most importantly, the engagement and energy behind the retailer’s transformation strategy were both palpable and truly inspiring. The retailer’s extended foray into clothing, via its Nutmeg range, could yet demand further transformation, both in terms of strategic approach and practical visual merchandising, if it is to deliver a truly winning shopper experience cross-category. But what I saw with my own eyes is proof that the time invested at a strategic level is starting to pay dividends, and is matched by a willingness at store level to make it happen.

So, perhaps now is an opportune moment for other retail executives out there to reflect on how you should divide your focus when you return. Maybe take the time to think like the lifeguards that you will come across while on the beach this summer. As the saying goes: good lifeguards rarely get wet – because 95 per cent of their work is preventative.

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