Retail has always been a highly dynamic industry, intensely competitive and fighting for a share of the wider consumer spending pot. This is an industry used to dealing with a constant diet of change. However, the change we are seeing today is far more profound than anything the past has thrown up. We are now seeing by far the most challenging period in retail history. A reshaping of the industry’s structure and economics is unfolding, and most of the real change is yet to happen.

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Monthly Archives: February 2018

Restructuring redefined

Talk of restructuring Poundworld is a good example of the growing gap between the past and the future in retail. The word restructure has always applied to the cost line and the need to make it smaller. This has usually involved exiting leases but sometimes cutting overheads too. For many years, the trading background was characterised by market growth within an economy with some inflation. A lower cost line reset the business and as if by magic, a profitable company emerged. That formula needs to be redefined to work now.

Today\s market is not growing and there is little prospect of that changing for some time. Moreover, massive (and growing) oversupply makes raising prices very difficult. There is very little genuine inflation in UK retail, especially when compared with a depreciated pound. So no help from the wider economy.

By far the major weakness in most retailers today is weak sales. Chronic oversupply is a massive double whammy. Aside from its direct impact, generations of easy retail growth through physical expansion has made most leadership teams focus on costs. The “build it and they will come” of physical immaturity took care of the sales line. Now that this benign market has gone, so many retailers have been found to have sub-prime propositions.

Restructuring the cost line alone will last for X time – months, maybe a year or two. Restructuring must include the sales line. Indeed, it must start with the sales line and go on to define the optimum costs required to deliver and sustain that revenue. An arbitrary restructure of costs is like random surgery.

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Tesco and strategic response

Fascinating to hear that Tesco is to launch its own version of the discount store. Those of us who have been around for long enough may get a sense of deja vu here. In the early 1980s, Tesco dusted off a brand it had owned for some years and used it to launch a discount chain. Then as now, it was responding to the relentless expansion of Aldi (and Lidl). It didn’t last long. Tesco sold the stores and used the Victor Value brand as its entry level label within the overall offer.

Will it work this time? As a principle, I think this kind of strategic response is very weak. The best response Tesco can make is surely to be more Tesco, not to be Aldi. The fundamental weakness of the plan is the need for Tesco to be as good as Aldi at being Aldi. Today’s retail market is awash with disruption. The most common strategic response is trying to match the disrupter in what they are good at. So, we see the crazy expenditure of capital in trying to be second (or fifth or tenth) best at delivery and fulfilment, behind Amazon. We see retailers with full price models trying to discount and match the value delivered by retailers structured to make returns off narrower margins. This is not smart.

By far the best strategic response is to understand exactly what you are best at, and leverage it better. Tesco is better than Aldi in certain key areas – choice and service for example. However, the company’s body language suggests it is weakening in both these areas and planning to follow Aldi’s agenda. Meanwhile, Tesco ties up capital, management time and attention. Aldi will be delighted by this news. A battle on a ground of its choosing, using weapons of its choice. It doesn’t get any better than that.

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