Took a break from internal and external examining to attend to the British Retail Consortium’s Annual Symposium in London. I attended last year and thought it was a very strong programme of senior retail speakers and this year’s programme looked every bit as good. One of the good parts of being a retail Professor is close engagement with the retail industry and retail practitioners (something we pride ourselves on and encourage in Stirling) and I try to make the most of every opportunity. I am not sure how anyone can be a professor in this subject without that relationship.
This year the programme was opened by the new CEO of Tesco and closed by the pretty new CEO of Asda. In between there were presentations, Q&A, conversations and panel sessions with various senior executives, mainly CEOs and Managing Directors, from amongst others Visa Europe, Harrods, QVC, Blacks, HMV, Waitrose, Crabtree & Evelyn, Starbucks, Multiyork and Alliance Boots , as well as an interview with Vince Cable, Secretary of State for BIS (fewer pantomime boos from this polite audience than might have been expected in some other settings).
So what seemed to be the issues that most concerned the speakers and the audience?
- Multichannel – From Tesco’s early statement of intent, right through the day, multichannel retailing was never far away. Two aspects dominated; first, how do retailers make it work for them as well as the customer i.e. the practical nuts and bolts, stock handling and sharing, apps vs mobile web sites and so on. Secondly, is multichannel good or bad for the high street and physical shops. On this, opinion was mixed, though the rise of multichannel (most speakers had seen exponential growth at a time of poor sales overall) must inevitably have an effect, unless fulfilment becomes an issue, and a focus, for physical shops.
- The High Street and Mary Portas – some cynicism was evident about this review, though most thought that retailers (and the BRC and other organisations) had to engage with the review to try to get a balanced sense of what is needed in the high street and to actually get something done. The Chairman of the BRC took the opportunity to complain about the denigration of leading retailers and their successful businesses in this context – wanting them to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Any attention on retailing could be helpful. But others also argued that much of the fate of the high street was in the hands of retailers themselves, who had to realise what customers wanted and start to provide this for them, rather than the same old dreary functionalism. In a barn-storming post lunch session Howard Saunders from Echochamber took retailers to task for not understanding consumers and acting accordingly.
- Regulation – the reduction of red tape on retailing has been a common refrain for years and this conference was no different. Add to that concerns about planning (a subject I must return to) and the sense of impediment on the sector was palpable, though not all retailers see it that way of course. Vince Cable did say that Mary Portas was going to be looking at planning and that whilst the government wanted to reduce red tape, all governments said that, but then acted the opposite. If Portas is to look at planning in the context of high streets, then there could be trouble ahead as the options/issues would seem to be something on use class freedom, action on compulsory purchase orders and the tightening of town centre first regulations, perhaps with added dimensions on diversity. None of these are easy topics and none necessarily get to the heart of the problems.
One final thought did strike me. On occasions I get annoyed with the media and others denigrating the education sector on the back of a retail entrepreneur who learned everything from the “University of Life”, and seeing this as the only model for business. There were 16 speakers in the symposium programme, and whilst not all provided full biographies, a quick count from those that did shows 3 first degrees, 2 masters degrees, 3 MBAs and 3 with PhDs. I am not sure the large audience was as well qualified, though there were two retail professors! Skills are a big issue for the retail sector, with often adverse perceptions of the types of jobs the sector offers feeding a mis-match with the skills potential employees and managers possess. There are lots of issues here at all levels, but one way to begin to sort it out is for retailers (of all types) and education providers (whether schools, colleges or universities) to get more closely involved. Go and chat to your local University – you never know, your next CEO may be there.