Blackfriar: Retailers need to be more showbiz if they are to thrive

Roger Burnley is Asda's new chief executive.
Roger Burnley is Asda's new chief executive.
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“Bricks and mortar retail is not dead but boring retail probably is.”

In a week in which once again we have seen a veritable mixed bag for the sector, the words from new Asda chief executive Roger Burnley in this week’s The Yorkshire Post have proven to be particularly eloquent.

Ian Filby of DFS  Picture Scott Merrylees SM1005/17a

Ian Filby of DFS Picture Scott Merrylees SM1005/17a

Mr Burnley is currently on his second tenure with the Leeds-based retail giant and helping to lead its turnaround programme following a rough few months.

While the supermarket is focusing on value and pricing harder than ever, particularly with the advent of the discounters, his current focus is beyond the price tag, saying that retailers need to offer “theatre”.

Rather than suggesting an impromptu rendition of Macbeth in the produce aisle, Mr Burnley is taking in a wide spectrum of extras which retailers must offer consumers in order to survive and remain relevant in the modern age, when digital, convenience and ethics are as important as saving a few pennies on items.

The year of 2018 has already been a year in which many trusted and hardy perennials of the retail world have gone to the wall. Toys ’R Us, Maplin, Bargain Booze and Wine Rack have all succumbed in one shape or another to a world in which piling them high and selling them cheap is no longer relevant.

Undated Handout Photo of a model wearing Conscious Exclusive Kimono, H&M. See PA Feature FASHION Sustainable. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FASHION Sustainable. WARNING: This picture must only be used with the full product information as stated above.

Undated Handout Photo of a model wearing Conscious Exclusive Kimono, H&M. See PA Feature FASHION Sustainable. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Handout. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature FASHION Sustainable. WARNING: This picture must only be used with the full product information as stated above.

The announcement this week from clothing retailer from H&M, once one of the high street’s stellar performers, that it is looking at ways it can slash its prices to shift clothes unwanted by consumers tells you all you need to know about the ever shifting landscape.

The convenience of online shopping is impossible to ignore but will always have its limitations.

Take for example, the comments today from DFS boss Ian Filby who makes the point that for a sofa, the consumer has an innate desire to experience it first hand.

In that regard, retail is far from stepping in to its ‘music industry period’.

The advent of file-sharing for the record industry began in earnest as the 1990s died away, a period in which record companies were printing money and enjoying a boom time they thought would never come to an end.

When it became aware of the potential for the web to share music for free with virtual impunity this golden period had imbued it with such self-confidence that it viewed it as a passing trend that was not worth its attention.

In the end it proved an unstoppable force which the industry only just survived.

Mr Burnley is right. Retail has nothing to fear provided it can remain relevant for the future.

The days of renting or buying massive high street venues with your wares are gone.

Consumers today expect a hell of a lot more.

Ethically sourced packaging, easy return policies, low carbon footprints, extremely strong online offerings, cutting edge technologies are now as important as pricing for many people.

Going back to supermarkets, it is amazing to see how much their offering has changed.

Ready meals now range from the bog standard family meal staples to a meal one might happily expect to see on the menu of a decent quality restaurant.

Craft beer, vegan meals and a whole host of once niche products are now taking up more and more space on the aisles.

Shoppers are getting smarter and more discerning by the day and if the large chains don’t fit the bill then somebody will quickly come along to take their place.

Mr Burnley’s point on theatre is perhaps more key than ever.

Consumers want to feel attached to the things they buy and the person who sells them it.

David Potts has managed this at Morrisons, reinventing an increasingly faceless and bland business as your corner store spread over thousands of square feet.

Increasingly, Mr Burnley is achieving this at Asda. Retail needs more leaders like these guys if it is to thrive.