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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.

Richardtalksretail is focused on analysing this change, anticipating the implications, and mapping how the key players across the various sectors are dealing with it. The regular Blogs in this public section of the site are a taster of the much more detailed analysis and forecasts in the premium section, reserved for subscribers.

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Monthly Archives: July 2019

Retail needs to be more entrepreneurial

We have all grown up in an era of upward-only economic growth. The rate has varied and we have had the odd short-lived recession. But in the consumer economy, growth has been almost guaranteed for generations. For most of this period consumers’ spending power outpaced capacity growth. Today, many of the fundamentals have reversed. This is the background to where we are today and helps to explain the widespread turmoil we are seeing.

Whatever the increasingly unbelievable official data might say, we are in a retail recession. Strategies that have generated reliable growth in the past, are often now nooses gradually tightening around retail necks. Every retail sector is oversupplied, with too many stores, units are too big, and ranges far too wide and deep. All this was designed to attract a widening customer base. And for generations of growing demand, growth was relatively easy. Naturally, some businesses grew more than others but even quite mediocre retailers were able to report modestly positive numbers.

This is all now in the past. Against the background of massive online growth, physical space has continued to expand. With deep uncertainty and Brexit looming, demand is increasingly softening. Market forces are exposing the fundamental weaknesses of many retail businesses.

The industry has become increasingly corporate. Smaller, niche brands developed by entrepreneurs were grown to a size where they attracted attention and usually floated or sold, sometimes to trade buyers but more often to PE Houses. The overwhelming majority of teams at the top of our industry have skill sets that are more managerial and less entrepreneurial. And in a trading market where the depth and rate of change is accelerating all the time, this is a critical point. Successfully dealing with change on this scale is foreign to the vast majority of today’s leadership teams. And this in turn is why the overwhelming bulk of our industry narrative today is around cost cutting.

The biggest issue for most retailers today is not around their costs being too high. It is that their propositions are not good enough. They lack focus and have lost sight of who their core customer is. The fat I mentioned before is killing them, slowly and painfully. Retail is a high fixed cost business. Cutting costs relatively fast almost always involved cutting people. My view is that most of the remedies currently being employed in “rescues” are very short term at best. Most actually diminish a retailer’s ability to generate sales growth. In today’s retail/accounting vocabulary, the word restructuring only applies to the cost line. CVAs never make the company a better retailer. Restructuring must apply to the top line to have a real chance of success.

There are no silver bullets and in fact there is only one way a retail business can secure its future. Sell more product. And doing this in a sustainable way requires a clear, focused and relevant proposition. I think this is the essence of entrepreneurialism. Understanding your market, what it wants, and investing in delivering exactly that at a price that represents value and allows you to make a competitively defendable return.

This requires true leadership. Very few retailers out there today are investing in their top lines. Stakeholders need to understand the new reality. Historic returns are exactly that – history! The quality of leadership is vastly more important than in the past. And leaders need to have the courage and vision to critique their offers and invest in making them better. Invest in customer service, don’t cut it. Focus much on your core customers and much less on the others. Be more entrepreneurial.

** I support retailers and stakeholders with strategic advice. If you think I can help, drop me a line – richard@richardtalksretail.co.uk

CVAs, distress and the slippery slope

Yesterday it was Monsoon. The day before, Office is apparently also considering a CVA. In recent weeks Arcadia “successfully” persuaded its landlords to keep the life support machines on for longer. Philip Green then told landlords via the Today programme that Arcadia hadn’t been anywhere near close to going under. However, this does sound close to him telling them they have been legged over. How many of them already knew this is a moot point. What is clear however, is that a successful CVA vote is in no way a vote of confidence in whichever retailer we may be talking about. It reflects the plummeting confidence landlords have in their own offering – retail property is no longer the licence to print money it once was. Supply greatly exceeds demand.

For retailers, this distress we are seeing is just the beginning. Indeed, CVAs, pre-packs and other lifelines are ensuring the turmoil will last longer and be more damaging. Stakeholders are demonstrating an extraordinary appetite for denial. One of the striking aspects of this current narrative of distress and restructuring is that it only ever applies to costs. Too many  retailers believe that if they lower their costs, everything will be fine. It won’t.

Preventing market forces exerting natural selection is like ignoring the root causes of an illness and simply treating the symptoms. Will lower rents make Arcadia’s brands better able to reverse market share declines? Will they allow Monsoon to move away from its highly stylised branding and create a totally different, relevant handwriting? Without focusing on the key problems – weak propositions, weak brands with too many options – they are certain to get worse. The clock is ticking.

We are seeing unprecedented turmoil across the industry. So far, the reaction has been mostly panic, with little coherent thinking. The success record of CVAs is awful. I see no sign of that changing at all.

** We support retailers and stakeholders with strategic advice. If you think we can help, drop me a line – richard@richardtalksretail.co.uk

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