Annual Retail Lecture 2016 – Our takeouts

* 3 min read

Last week we got a chance to attend two excellent retail events. The first in question – the Annual Retail Lecture– pulled in an engaged crowd and as always, offered sessions at a very high standard. With notepads at the ready, we caught some of the industry’s most influential figures. As you might expect, we came away with plenty of useful insight.

It’s no secret that the retail landscape is transforming at a tremendous rate. And it’s not just the rise of the discounters that have changed things – with the introduction of Amazon Fresh and the prospect of its new own label, we’re only set for further disruption.

Graham Cooke, CEO, Qubit

First off, Graham Cooke was a real highlight for us. He cut his teeth at Google so he knows his stuff especially when it comes to tech. With three more ex-Googlers at its helm, his company, Qubit, which provides data-led services for the likes of TOPSHOP, John Lewis and Uniqlo, has grown from strength to strength.

Graham’s talk emphasised the need for disruptive innovation. It hinged on a revealing quote from Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop: “we didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost”. Graham made the point that Nokia ultimately didn’t adapt fast enough. It let its customer offering stagnate, a fatal move in this fast-moving environment. In 2016, the learning here for retailers is the importance of hyper-personalisation. According to Graham, and many other commentators, we’ve started to expect everything to be about us. To avoid going the way of Nokia, retailers have to put the consumer at the heart of everything they do.

Moving forward, Graham made clear that advances like artificial intelligence and machine learning are only going to become more important. Predictive technologies and enhanced processing power have valuable applications especially in terms of customer experience. They allow for something more than just improved understanding of the customer; they allow you to anticipate their behaviour.

Simon Wolfson, CEO, Next

Simon Wolfson, who delivered the event’s keynote speech, followed a different theme. He spoke on the complex topic of economics in a natural, engaging way. He’s had unrivalled personal success, becoming the youngest chief executive of a FTSE 100 company at the age of 33. But he remains down-to-earth and exudes a humility that’s refreshing.

According to Simon, a blocker to retailer and economic growth is the council planning obstacles in the way of opening new branches. The UK is hardly known for its lack of red tape. So how do you launch in a streamlined way?

Under Simon, Next has implemented a clever solution. By setting up a Facebook pages before launching new stores for example, Next is able to drum up interest before a branch has even opened. There’s additional thinking behind this too. As its consumer insight capabilities have evolved, Next knows where the demand is. It knows where to build and exactly who would benefit.

It’s a simple strategy that presents a convincing case to planning authorities. If a Facebook page or Twitter profile already has a lot of engagement, the path of least resistance ceases to be prevention of the store. It promises jobs, high street footfall and puts pressure on the right people. From the viewpoint of local government, it’s now in their interest to open a new Next store. Using social media in this way has fascinating implications for a variety of sectors. Digital is well and truly affecting country planning.

In fact, both Graham and Simon’s talks go to show that whether it’s social media strategy or emerging technologies, retailers are starting to rethink the way they implement their bricks-and-mortar offering.

For retailers to truly thrive they must adapt. Physical stores are here to stay, but under entirely different circumstances.