Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Liberty of London

Somehow, despite many London visits, I had never actually visited the Liberty store. 

"Since 1875, Liberty has been synonymous with luxury and great design. Arthur Liberty's intuitive vision and pioneering spirit led him to travel the world looking for individual pieces to inspire and excite his discerning clientele. Liberty's vision... continues today within the iconic Tudor building." 

The distinct difference between Liberty and London's other luxury department stores, Harrod's, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols is the atmosphere of the 5 floor store. First of all, the staff are ready to help with any quiry. But most importantly, walking around from room to room, I kept wondering what treats would be just around the corner. Despite losing my bearings quite a lot, I was very much willing to overlook this confusion for the wonderful displays of antique furnishings, mannequin styling and fabulous merchandising of gorgeous product.

Return to Topshop

As always, a trip to London wouldn't be complete without a quick visit to Topshop's flagship store on Oxford Street.
Before even entering, there were camp visual displays unlike any I'd seen in Topshop before. The window display mannequins sat upon oversized plastic flowers. Walking into the store, I was faced with garden style platforms and a parked vintage van with mannequins sitting in and around it, dressed suitably for the upcoming music festivals this summer. A bit over-the-top but it definitely grabbed my attention. 

I tried on quite a lot of things and fell in love with a pair of vintage Doc Martens and this dress with a cut-out section under the bust.  But I had to behave, I wasn't there to spend, I was there for the conference! *Sob*
Downstairs there was an interesting use of coloured ribbons strung from floor mannequins to high level displays. I have always found it inspiring how Topshop utilise props, graphics and fixtures to define one area/collection/trend from another. 

The window display for some of the in-store collections featured a more subtle colour palette and upsidedown vintage furnishings - a lot more stylish and less garish on the eye.

NOTE: Just visited the Topshop website and came across this behind the scenes video of their latest 'High Summer' photoshoot.

Interview with Sir Stuart Rose

A pessimist would have shied away from an interview where they were likely to face tough questions regarding the very real economic struggle their business finds themselves in. But Sir Stuart Rose is no pessimist.

By far and away the biggest draw to the conference was an interview with the Marks & Spencer Executive Chairman. I was extremely enthusiastic to hear what he had to say now that we are in the midst of a credit crunch. Previously, I had witnessed him speak last summer at Marks & Spencer's HO (neighbouring the conference venue; the Hilton Metropole) where he predicted the tough times ahead to his staff. 

Unfortunately, Rose couldn't discuss M&S's year performance as it was in "closed period" but speaking in general terms, he didn't bury his head in the sand regarding sales figures and share prices and gave a typical example of the situation M&S find themselves in. Apparently M&S sells 22% of the UK's men's suits (although he was more likely than not Saville Row clad). He explained the company are still selling the same volume, but at a much lower price point. What was originally a £199 suit went to £125, and now is £99.

Giving advice on how retailers should try to get through the recession, he gave 3 points of wisdom, summarized below:
  • Stick to your core values. (For Marks and Spencer, this means keeping Plan A central to their strategy, whilst giving value for money).
  • Keep innovating. (Rose explained that he believed rate of innovation within a company is directly proportional to the rate of sales)
  • And "grit your teeth".
Referring to the recent criticisms M&S has received from particular members of the press, Rose defended himself and the company by stating "If anybody seriously thinks M&S in 2009 is the same as in 2004, they obviously have a poor memory." 

When pressed for information of his eventual retirement, he implied it would be in 2011, unless  he was no longer wanted before then:

"I've got a sell-by date, like our food."

He summarized the interview with what he hopes to achieve before he leaves Marks & Spencer:

"I'd like to see the business have a clear passage through the slowdown, to have a coherent plan for here and overseas and a seamless and successful transition to new leadership."

Rising Stars of Retail

Featuring 3 award winning up and coming retailers, the next panel discussion was intended to explain to other retailers, how they are "leading the way forward". The panel was made up of Ian Jones (Managing Director of Azendi), Ben Phillips (Managing Director of Steamer Trading Cookshop) and Oliver Tress (Managing Director of Oliver Bonas).
The values of these companies are similarly alligned towards great customer service.

Azendi is a contemporary yet timeless jewellers where the displays are kept simple and classy; the jewellery range offers something for everyones taste (and to an extent, price range) and the staff are extremely helpful. A reassuring aspect of the company, is there ethics towards diamond dealing. "At Azendi, we insist that all our suppliers guarantee that all diamonds are from legitimate sources not involved in finding conflict and in compliance with UN resolutions".

If you live in London, you will probably be familiar with the Oliver Bonas brand - the lifestyle store/website specialising in stylish gifts. Whilst Tress was at university, he used to bring handbags and watches back on request from Hong Kong where his parents lived. The entrepreneur in him spotted a retailing opportunity which has grown to include 15 stores across London since 1993.  
Oliver Bonas cater for men, women and kids at all price ranges and apart from the products they offer, the brand is very proud of their exceptional customer service.

The Steamer Trading Cookshop is a family-run kitchenware specialist "passionate about what we sell and the customer service we offer". Ben joined the business in 2001 that his parents had set up in 1985 and has transformed the company from 1 store to 18. Their stores all have a very different look and the company tend to seek out unusual buildings to set up shop: all of which they feel helps to add to the customer experience.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Innovation Showcase: Part 1

My favourite and personally highly anticipated discussion was to be given by John Ryan (Stores Editor for 'Retail Week') and Lorna Hall (Senior Retail Editor for WGSN). 

I had used the WGSN website before to research upcoming trends for this Spring Summer when I did a placement within a M&S buying team last summer. 

John Ryan went straight into looking at examples of great, creative shop floors. There were so many examples but here is one particular one and I shall add more when I have time:

Rough Trade East

With a free WiFi lounge and a cafe at the front (with somewhat uncomfortable looking chairs), it is clear that the record store staff want you to stick around. The store opened in 2008and is situated in the trendy part of the east end, off Brick Lane, near Spitalfields. 
As you might imagine the interior tries to emulate the alternative or underground music scenes with an edgy black and white theme; the rough beaming and pipes kept on view as well as the exposed strip lighting. As with any music store with "indie" credibility, the vinyl collection is extensive. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and complete the service package by writing up their own personal summaries of the records.

A must for any musical connoisseur.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fit for a Sustainable Future

Day 2 of the Retail Week Conference kicked off with further discussion from Best Buy, Unilever and Argos.

However, it was a panel discussion about Corporate Social Responsibility that I was most intruiged by, particularly because of the companies involved. Jim Allaker (VP & General Manager of Nike UK & Ireland), Richard Gillies (Director of Plan A at M&S), Peter Marks (Chief Executive at The Co-operative Group), and David McCullough (Deputy Chief Executive of Oxfam GB).

The discussion began with how brands need to not lose focus of the strive for socially aware and sustainable production in the midst of a downturn. The Co-op is a brand that seems to lead the way in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility).

Nike added that their new DNA is about sustainable performance and by 2011, all their shoes will have been made considering waste reduction, construction efficiency and using more environmentally friendly materials. I'm happy to see the importance Nike are now placing on CSR. Not bad for a company that for years seemed tainted with the reputation for turning a blind eye to appalling work ethics in their Asian production factories.

It wasn't until near the end that the "Clothes Exchange" between M&S's Plan A and Oxfam came up. 

I had already been aware of the campaign to reduce landfill waste, encouraging people to hand in their old, unwanted Marks and Spencer clothing to Oxfam in exchange for a £5 M&S voucher. I wasn't aware of it's success. 
Sir Stuart Rose has previously described the move as "a triple win - it's good for customers, good for people in developing countries and good for the environment." According to Richard Gillies, the success was also seen in M&S sales.

Friday, March 20, 2009

It's good not to know everything!

A fascinating and engaging story of how the Dutch ex-Heineken COO with little retail experience, transformed the falling Morrison's brand into a success story, which isn't even letting the Credit Crunch knock it back down. 
Bolland feels his lack of retail knowledge benefitted him when he was appointed to CEO of Morrison's. Coming from an outsiders perspective, he didn't understand what the brand stood for and had to start from scratch in repositioning Morrison's, often acting against the advice of those "in the know". Speaking to real customers, he established that there was a feeling that the brand didn't offer the same service that say, the high street could.  
By weighing up the market competitors such as Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Asda, Bolland established that he wanted to position Morrison's as a predominantly food retailer (when everyone else was moving into non-food) with competitive yet quality product. He made the decision that every single penny needed to go into making the food valuable and fresh. Today Morrison's is the only supermarket who buy entirely from farmers. 

Bolland also discussed their adverts featuring celebrities but stressed that the likes of Denise Van Outen and Alan Hanson were real Morrison's shoppers who appreciated value and fresh produce. When questioned on pumping lots of money into flash advertising, he responded by stating that there was very little increased budgeting for their ad campaigns and that the real difference was in the advertising approach.

Strengthening your team.

2 different speakers with similar success strategies were Robert Willett - Chief Executive of Best Buy International and Ian Cheshire - CEO of Kingfisher (parent company to B&Q).
Both discussed the importance of the employees and customers being "partners" or "part of the team". 
Training staff on the importance of Customer Service skills is a vital ingredient to success in both cases. Setting goals and having the right people goes a long way in staff motivation, company efficiency and making sure the customer is central to the brand's intentions over e.g. growth. 

Social Media

A controversial subject for some but an undeniable force in new media; Social Networking as a means for approaching your customer base was the topic of this presentation given by American Blake Chandlee - Commercial Director of Facebook. 

Chandlee stated that Facebook was not about forming new relationships but about "building on existing relationships". He also stressed that unlike Bebo and myspace, the majority of their users are over 25 years old. Some rough facts I picked up:
  • Social networking has overtaken porn as the most actively accessed thing on the internet.
  • Facebook attracts 600/7oo thousand new people every day.
  • About half of registered users go on every day.
  • There are currently over 600,000 companies making new Facebook applications.
  • 40 out of 50 of the UK's top brands are involved in Facebook. 
The discussion changed to the way people talk about brands through social networks such as "Becoming a Fan of..." This form of viral marketing along with profile choices can in some cases provide brands with the knowledge of where your interests lie, and what brands appeal to you. The likes of the Topshop fashion application (where users point out to friends what garments they want and receive feedback) is a fantastic example of the power of social media. 

Chandlee also pointed out the benefit in having the 24 year old entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg as his "boss" - being of a younger generation, he looks at the world entirely differently and has tremendous vision of the future.

Customer Insight

Being an ambassador of Customer Service and keeping the customer at the forefront of retail and design, I was extremely excited to hear a panel discussion on the matter. 
(The discussion featured Alex Gourley - CE of Health & Beauty at Boots; Doug Hargrove - Chief Marketing Officer at Torex and Gerry Johnson - Managing Director at Waterstone's).

To me the most interesting point raised was on how to enhance the customer's experience through loyalty benefits such as the Waterstones' card and Boots Advantage card. It was stressed that it is vital that you have all other aspects of a customer's experience in your store covered and that loyalty cards should not look to replace or make up for lack of service elsewhere.
Further to this, cards give vital information to the likes of Waterstones as to how the individual shops; their preferences and buying patterns. Waterstones give recommendations (Amazon stylee) based on this knowledge. N.B. I found it surprising that Boots doesn't use data from the cards in this manner since the Boots Advantage card is so popular. Perhaps this is where they can learn from Waterstones' experience...??

Investing in the Future.

Chief Executive of SPAR International, Dr Gordon Ramsey, gave us an interesting insight into the vision of Europe's most popular convenient store. He stated that in changing times, it is essential that retailers keep to their values but perhaps reinvent their model and strategy. 
Showing inspirational examples of flagship stores such as this one in Dublin, Ramsey discussed how they are implementing new ideas into flagships (as far away as China, India and Zimbabwe to name a few) and then filtering these down into existing stores globally. 

Beating the consumer downturn.

The conference proceedings began with some opening remarks from Chair, Declan Curry (of BBC 'Working Lunch' fame) regarding the intentions of this year's conference. Then Justin King - CE of Sainsbury's (who last night won Retail Leader of the Year award at the Oracle Retail Week Awards) - took to the stage. 
Some interesting points about how Sainsbury's DNA is evident in all of their advertising, past and present. Their core ethics still represent those of the brand in it's beginnings 140 years ago.
  • Their customer seeks "Value without compromise" and Justin feels it is necessary to speak to their customers in a language that they understand whilst continuing to innovate the product they offer. Particularly in times of economic crisis. 
  • The sign above their 1969 Dury Lane store read "Quality Perfect. Prices Lower" and they try to continue these values today whilst remaining ethically and environmentally responsible.
  • The key message was that retailers need to stick to their values and not lose sight of what their customer's expectations are.
A panel discussion followed featuring Justin King, John Lovering (Chairman of Debenhams) and Phil Wrigley (Executive Chairman of New Look). Many interesting points came out of the discussion.
  • Offering value is not a short term solutions.
  • It was suggested that perhaps the majority of businesses who have collapsed over the last 10 years had a view to serve yesterday's customer. 
  • With it being "25%" more expensive today for British retailers buying from suppliers and with the strength of the Euro, New Look have intentions to expand globally. 
  • Retailers aiming to survive the recession must "Kill or be killed".
  • The encouragement of staff through leadership and enthusiasm is vital in order to retain a vision of the future for your company. 

Retail Week Conference '09

It has been a hectic couple of days. I flew down to London on Tuesday morning and went to visit some fabulous retail consultancies. Then on Wednesday and Thursday I was given the fantastic opportunity to help out at the annual Retail Week Conference featuring some of the biggest names in the industry.
I learned so much from the experience I shall have to write all about it over different posts so bear with me. Thanks to Jo and Stuart at Emap who allowed me to become part of the team for 2 days!

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Wore my Dolce and Gabbana boots to the after show party last night. Got rave reviews! :)

It's Show Time!

I have been extremely bad at posting recently due, in large part, to my participation in a musical theatre production of 'The King and I'. Here's a couple of pictures of me and the girls in our costumes.   

The King of Siam has his women dress in crinoline dresses for the visiting English. It was so much fun wearing a wire ringed skirt underneath these beautifully decorated dresses and I would wear it every day if I could! I'm the one in the middle.

King Simon and his slaves - I am the slave on the left and yes these masks were a nightmare. Particularly since we were doing very energetic dancing and couldn't see, hear or breathe. 

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Window Shopping

Check out this amazing project by graphic designer Chris Clarke, "For the Public by the Public".
In Chris's small home town of Bedminster, he felt there were too many boarded up shops. Being unpleasing to the eye, it was having a negative affect on community spirit.

Chris asked local shop owners to write a message about their experiences of the local area. These messages were communicated in graphically designed posters and placed in the windows of the derelict shops for all who passed to see. What a beautiful idea, this shows how designers can make a visual difference to shops which are no longer even in use!