Enabling agility for sustainable change in retail

As our circumstances change daily, we truly find ourselves in uncharted territory. At a time where the future is uncertain, we have time to reflect on our businesses, our home life and society at large.

Understanding retail

I have found myself reflecting and drawing on past experiences to plan and project for the future. I have worked in the retail industry for 35 years, in fact, the whole of my career. I began working at The Burton Group and Debenhams in the mid-80s before moving on to Burberry and then on to Harvey Nichols. At Harvey Nichols in 2006 I become IT & Logistics Director and then in 2009 was promoted to Group Retail Operations Director. During my 35 years, there have been many highlights. At Debenhams we deployed their first POS system – including the introduction of the barcode! We rolled out a national Wedding Gift Service that introduced customer kiosks and customer self-scan, generating £20m in sales, and a client server and object-oriented solution for sales forecasting and WSSI reporting to name a few.

During my time at Burberry we replaced POS and Merchandising systems across Europe and saw retail grow in strength. Whilst at Harvey Nichols we brought IT under control and again replaced most core systems whilst reducing overall operating costs; we did this alongside a physical move of the Distribution Centre and a change of 3PL provider. Most importantly we had a ‘can do’ attitude and developed core solutions alongside tactical enablers. We delivered real time stock, click & collect from store stock and store fulfilment; and this was in 2005. There have of course been some failures, though I prefer to think of them as learning experiences, and things I would do differently in the future. Overall, I have overseen significant positive change across several retail operations. So, what does this mean for the times we are currently living through?

The balance of courage and caution

Retail is a great industry to work in when things are going well; when the economy is buoyant, your customers love you, serendipity rules over everything, you attempt to improve your position and give yourself an advantage over your competition.  But a retailer’s life is not always an easy one in fact it can be anything but easy. Retail is always the first industry to suffer in a downturn, and often the last one to truly recover when things start to look up.

I remember the financial crash of 2007/08 and how it dramatically shifted our focus from investment in the future, to survival in the present. I was at Harvey Nichols at this time, and the business had a cost base that was built to support a financial performance aligned to the good times which predated the crash. As the effects of the downturn took hold, we were left watching our sales and margins diminish rapidly. There were hard decisions to make, and cost reductions were urgently implemented to ensure our survival. But simply cutting back is not enough. You must also set the vision of how your business will look after recovery. Failure to look to the future, to not see the light at the end of the tunnel and to retrench into inactivity, is to admit defeat. It can be incredibly difficult but we must find the right balance between courage and caution and create a future that all stakeholders, staff, customers, suppliers, and financial backers can engage with and support. You must build enthusiasm around you for what comes next.

Creating a fighting chance

Whilst I have a great deal of experience and have plenty of stories to share about things that have happened in the past, I cannot claim to have played a part in how retail has recovered from anything like the COVID-19 crisis. Nobody can because these times are truly unprecedented. What I can do is share my opinions on what we can do to give our industry a fighting chance of not just recovery, but of building growth in the future.

We have seen local retailers respond rapidly to change. As an example, my local shop has built an external serving area, installed an outdoor sink and marked social distancing guides along the footpath. They have adapted to survive, and they have seen increased trade as a result. Whether their success can be sustained as people return to old ways is a different question, but they have created the opportunity and have adapted.

I have always believed in rapid change, agility and using innovation as an enabler. As IT & Logistics Director at Harvey Nichols, we enabled and delivered extensive change at a pace with minimal but focussed resources. We were not constrained by convention and we were not gridlocked by debate and pointless governance. We got things done. Technology deployment, in many but not all situations, now seems to have lost its way.

We need to revert to ‘getting things done’. Retail is by nature a reactive and often consumer preference led sector. We need a technology and process architecture that acknowledges and supports this. I have observed retail businesses investing in technology where a million pounds overspend is deemed ‘not too bad’. We must remember that a million pounds is a lot of money! When you look closer at some of these change programmes you see vast amounts of money being invested (wasted) on design and governance, on armies of consultants trying to reinvent the basics of retail. The basics of retail are simple, why change them? To enable ‘getting things done’ and to give ourselves the opportunity of delivering agile solutions that can drive competitive advantage, we must first focus on these basics.

Compounding this challenge, so many established retailers I see are constrained by legacy environments, disjointed solutions and fragmented data. This has been a natural consequence of reactive and tactical decision making over many years. We will not be able to stop this approach, nor should we force it to change. It is intrinsic to an industry constantly evolving to circumstance, customer needs and demands.

Driving and enabling agility

After a career in retail with The Burton Group, Debenhams, Burberry and Harvey Nichols I have seen many projects done well but equally I have seen many projects achieving little. This experience drove me to return to the technology world to deliver meaningful solutions with Itim before finding frustration with NCR. This collection of experience led to the formation of Retail247 and the principles on which it operates.

In my opinion we must allow agile and sustainable change but at the same time build this on a sound and uncompromising foundation of core retail data. Product, Stock and Customer should be at the heart of any solution architecture. These strategic ‘engines’ must be the point of reference for all tactical solutions and we must suppress the spreadsheet and the well-meaning Access database being used as sources of operational data. When we achieve core data that is curated and protected, we can free solution development to innovate and deliver. The app culture is constantly hungry for change and our propositions must keep pace. Tactical solutions are acceptable as long as they are done with cognisance of strategic direction and do not directly oppose this.

We must remember that technology in isolation is not always the solution. Process change should also be embraced and constantly assessed. However, poor technology implementation can often be the problem and, in the extreme, can be the downfall of organisations. So, we must:

  • Build change on a sound foundation of Product, Stock and Customer.
  • Use a framework of control not a safety blanket of governance.
  • Allow change to be agile and even disposable.
  • Acknowledge that the journey will change and evolve and not let the Statement of Work be a constraint. Welcome the Change Request, it shows that people are engaged.

At Retail247 we focus our solutions and services on this philosophy – delivering innovation in a pragmatic and relevant way, focussing on the basics and enabling the journey to sustainable change.

I wish you all the best during these difficult times, and success on the road to recovery.