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 – firstname.lastname@example.org