Economy

Where do people fit in your retail strategy?

Brian Walker /

Retail is detail; retail is a brand game; retail is about the numbers. Heard it all before? Well, so have I, and I’ve actually said these very catch-cries more than once in my career.

Here’s a confession: They are all true and paradoxically are actually, in many cases, the undoing of many retail strategists’ work, because above all else we are in the business of people; our type, style, behaviour, motivation, bias, the conditionality upon which we accept or reject, the messages we hear as distinct from what we are told – all these elements contribute to forming our uniqueness.

Put another way, more than we give it credit for, strategy is simply about understanding people. To elaborate on this point consider the multi-channel strategies that focus purely on product, or location. With some exception, these “product push” strategies invariably fail and often because they are so easily replicated and copied.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu is in my mind mandatory reading for ‘fit’ strategy and amongst the sage advice it simply says that to win a war we must have a great army.

Again, how many strategies have we witnessed that fill in the people piece as they go along? The first people fitness piece is to understand in great detail the capability and preparedness of the team as a vital input to the strategic implementation. Forecasting future needs in up-skilling, deployment and succession planning is critically important in the planning rather than implementation phase.

Multi-channel deployment is a case in point: What are the influences to the team and their deployment with the introduction of adjunct methods of distribution?

Look to the boards and senior team that have senior HR capability with strong influence and you will see that they “get this piece”.

The second fitness step concerns the ‘good old customer’ and aren’t they lucky to have us retailing to them?

I’m not sure how many retailers test their strategic implementation with their desired or actual customers. What I can tell you is that this is a significant ‘fitness’ step to ensuring that the desired market provides much-needed feedback in the gestation stage of retail strategy. Better to learn in the dress rehearsal than on opening night.

There is very strong evidence to show that up to 50% of strategy is rolled out by the CEO and team, endorsed by the board with little or no customer involvement.

Creating assumptive ‘product push’ methodology that presumes to understand the customer? Saved some money in R&D, and then spend an awful lot more if they have it wrong at the coalface (and some do).

The third fitness step is to deeply understand who our customers are with more research and definition than ever before.

Have we understood who our market is and ‘who’ our customer is? What, why and how do we have permission to consider that we actually have this understanding?

It’s also equally apparent that the definition of market and consumer is rapidly changing, such that last season’s product strategy may no longer be relevant to that fast moving and elusive core customer.

Demographics are increasingly becoming superseded by ‘customer behaviour motivation sets’. Where we live is becoming increasingly secondary to who we are and our preferences. To test this point I recently purchased product from a London-based retailer online. These products were delivered to our home in Sydney from London within seven days.

I am now on the database of that English retailer – importantly, where we live is increasingly secondary to our customer motivations. A classic demographic slice would never pick that up.

The fourth fitness step is simply about communication and the alignment of strategy, branding, messaging through to the internal language of our business on the shop floor: The more complex the messaging, the less clarity in understanding, the greater the risk of breakdown in communicating. Simply testing understanding in communication helps the process of clarity significantly. (It’s not rocket science, is it?)

Walk into a highly ‘fit’ retailer and you will see clarity in communication, alignment of purpose, articulated expectations, staff feedback and above all else a culture of performance, mutual respect and winning.

These four fitness steps all have one glaring commonality and that is the engagement of all stakeholders as vital fitness inputs to a successfully aligned strategy and operational implementation.

Happy ‘fit’ retailing.

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Brian Walker

Brian Walker is founder and chief executive of retail consulting and advisory company, Retail Doctor Group. He specialises in the development and implementation of retail and franchise strategies, and is the Australian elected member of the global retail expert's alliance Ebeltoft Group.

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