Are you irrelevant?

Some retailers in the crisis are having a resurgence, others are staring into the abyss. How will they all fare after life returns to a kind of normal?

Everyone’s ideas about where they fit into the consumer’s life have changed utterly. Halfords cannot have expected to see a 500% leap in sales of cycles and accessories or that Boris Johnson would ever be talking about a ‘Golden Age for cycling.” Meanwhile, toy retailer The Entertainer cannot have expected sales to reach Black Friday levels, otherwise it would not be running its warehouse at 40% capacity, although it had to in order to safeguard staff.

While it is easy to see how these sales spikes have come about as Lockdown Britons have been forced to change by returning to a life that more closely resembles the 1950s – cycling, outdoor games, arts and crafts, cooking and so on – can we really predict what might actually take hold longer term.


Serial CEO and now writer, Margaret Heffernan, has been talking about her new book, Uncharted: How to map the future together. Her contention is that we rely on predictions because we crave certainty but that predictions simply don’t work in a complex world and should not be relied on.

The dust jacket says it all, “We want to know the future. But the complexity of modern life won’t provide that. Forecasters g can’t see more than 400 days out. History doesn’t repeat itself; even genetics won’t tell you everything it promises. This refreshing book challenges us to resist the false promises of technology and efficiency and instead to mine our own creativity and humanity and create the future we want.”

Creativity is not just a badge

She says there are better ways to plan but what might this mean in retail, an industry that is led by arch determinists, namely the CEO, CFO and shareholders. Is the answer simply to hand the future stick over to the creative types, deep thinkers and corporate mavericks? A balance sounds like the right answer, but how likely is this to come about? I’ve never seen it; I think most retailers pay lip service to creativity and innovation in the way they speak and in the way they create little pools of experimentation by throwing money at say, a tech labs unit.

What we all hope is that the creative thinking that has come upon us all during lockdown will survive to become embedded in our future thinking and behaviour. Halford’s no doubt hopes that, while the sales spike must come soon, enough people will have got into cycling that they can bank their future on it.

While the crisis continues, we can continue to dream and hope that the big idea that we have been searching for arrives before the pubs re-open. For retailers, I am less hopeful, because the everyday hurly burly will take over immediately, pushing the good ideas into the trash folder; like going to a conference and getting fired up for change, but then losing the energy as soon as you are back home. How to keep the faith and get change done?

Do your customers care about you?

The place to start is to question where you fit in your customers’ consciousness. Even before the virus hit, we were all talking about how consumers valued experiences over stuff, wanted to own less and rent more, were living in smaller spaces, were buying more on line and visiting stores less often. To that, we now have to add to what extent will these trends accelerate or slow after the crisis?

And if that wasn’t bad enough, how will retailers manage all the inventory that has been piling up while all their competitors do the same. If they are forced to promote to shift, will they still run out of cash as some have already done?

It’s a gloomy picture, but hopefully one that causes retailers to recognise that they need to promote a wider set of talents into decision-making roles and start to think the unthinkable; that’s the kind of golden age I’m hoping for.

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