There are a lot of retail industry conferences out there, and if I combined the industry ones and the academic ones (assuming cost was no barrier) then I am sure I could readily conference the year away. Boring, repetitive but possible.
So you have to pick and choose. And for the last couple of years my industry conference of choice has been the British Retail Consortium’s Retail Symposium. So last week I rolled up again to hear the great and the good of British retailing set the retail world to rights. As before the Symposium was great value and both listening to and reflecting on what was said and discussed is valuable for me as an academic – and thus for my students. The BRC do a good job with this event.
So what were the things that caught my interest, now I have had a few days to reflect? Some of my immediate comments can be found in the twitter conversation (#brcsymp) of the day. I remain a novice with twitter and I am not sure how it should be used at conferences, but it provided some feedback and immediacy to the proceedings.
But reflections … the themes for me were trust, digital/service and high streets. Woven through all of these was, as might have been expected, some running commentary, from various positions, about rates and tax.
Justin King (CEO Sainsbury’s) opened up on the theme of trust. Drawing on examples from the trading front (where he said retailers were confusing consumers), corporate responsibility (where the industry was failing to work together) and provenance (where whatever the rights and wrongs, consumers felt wronged) he argued that the sector needed to realise that being legal did not equal being trustworthy, whereas being right stood a better chance of being trusted. Easy to say, but trying getting an entire sector to sign up for this, on for example the issue of tax, or pricing? He may be right, but is the sector capable of listening and acting?
The late morning session had three very contrasting speakers – Michael Ward (MD Harrods), Terry Duddy (CEO Home Retail Group, let’s say Argos) and Nick Wilkinson (CEO Evans Cycles). Michael Ward lambasted “high street” retailers for losing sight of the essence of shopping and for being boring, functional and without experience or life. Logisticians in his view had taken over the high street and ousted the retailers. He contrasted this to Harrods and their focus on theatre, service and aesthetics, arguing that the luxury approach to retail could save the high street. I’m not sure about this. Terry Duddy demonstrated the ways in which Argos was having to change to meet the digital challenge and to recognise the changed retail world. Nick Wilkinson pointed to the ways his business was trying to build an emotional element to the brand; highlighting his view that we have overdone the functional aspects of the digital switch and now needed to use technology and stores to build more interesting and emotional attachments.
For those who had not seen Howard Saunders (Founder & Creative Director, Echochamber) present before, his afternoon session may have seemed to have come from a different universe. With his distinctive style and strong visual messages Howard put over a view of post-apocalyptic retailing (i.e. the retail we need now to save our high streets). This seemed to over-focus on gourmet food saving the world, and I am not sure that Brooklyn is the right role model for Brechin, but the sense of local, craft, distinctive, mashed-up, interesting retail spaces has to be a part of what our high streets should look like.
There were other interesting contributions but these noted above stood out for me in content terms, though Stuart Rose was his usual entertaining self and Richard Pennycook sadly missed the opportunity to name the C’s (culprits that is) in in his 11 c’s of turnaround (good luck with Co-op Bank by the way). Philip Clarke (CEO Tesco) took to his bed and sent his Chief Marketing Officer to present his speech; which was interesting on the way in which Tesco might re-use some of the space in their Extra hypermarkets and on building engagement through their technology purchases, but lacked the edge Clarke’s presence might have engendered!
And the Minister … also failed to turn up. But he sent a short video. Which was kind of nice if you like that sort of thing. I don’t. Apparently he was called away to do things to the Royal Mail.
Trust, digital and high streets – three areas where retail is really at a crossroads it seems and where there is limited agreement on the way forward for the sector, though the retailers who are beginning to get it right are worth watching.