Afro American Automobile Association…..

Or in common Poker parlance ‘four aces’.

Equality of the sexes has a long way to go in the UK. It has come a long way, but there is work ,yet to be done.

However, with the appointment of a female head of the metropolitan police, a second female  Prime Minister, and of course the Queen (even though she has nothing to  do with equality, more to do with the inequality of birth) nevertheless there are three females at the pinnacle of UK society. 

Yet only 7% of the CEO’s of the UK ‘s top 100 companies are female. It is similar figure for the total number of women engineers. Within the STEM  job statistics(science, technology,engineering and maths), the female representation is about 12%. 

Consequently, we have two opposing pictures. At the very pinnacle of power, we have women but just beneath that, the movers and shakers are still predominantly men.

So what ? We are , or indeed have, entered a period of much social and political change. Nobody is very clear in what direction we are going . It is not a new phenomena. During the twentieth century, much changed after both world wars. In the nineteenth century , the industrial revolution quite literally revolutionised for good and bad, much of the world. 

Much of what is happening today has one overriding common factor the main players within this change have been men. I am not arguing whether these changes are good or bad, the point is who are the driving forces. Ironically, one of the ‘players ‘ participating in this change (albeit unintentionally) Hillary Clinton, lost out probably , in part, due to her connection to a male dominated political history.

There are only four heads of government in Europe who are female , if you extend that to the entire world you can add another three. Despite two hundred years of  rapid social change , there are times when it may seem that the underlying forces remain unchanged.

So back to the four aces. We have,maybe, 2 aces and a Queen (after she is only a Queen, and there by dint of birth). If perhaps we had a female head of the judiciary and maybe a female Archbishop , we could lay claim to the full set. And the point would be? Perhaps, there would be a more balanced and less hysterical approach to the way in which we organise society. 

I say ‘perhaps ‘ because we don’t know the outcome. We don’t know the consequence of a more equal gender based hierarchy. Some would say that women who attain power, assume the negative trappings of men, in that ego, vanity and the corruption of power take over. Maybe they do when women are in power on their own, maybe they have to , in order to maintain power. Yet despite this, a hand full of aces has got to be worth a try.

I am sure every poker player gets over excited holding two aces. For the more cautious among us we can see the benefits of holding on for the full set. Whilst politically the aces may not suit all, but as the  other various UK political parties fail to offer female alternatives , we should accept what we have and seek to encourage the rest of our society to embolden other able females to seek out their futures as aces. 

Rightly, we are told to learn from history. With the odd exception, it repeats itself. The one thing history cannot teach as what would be the consequence of an equal society. We have never really had one (occasional small matriarchal communities). Until we do, we won’t know what it can achieve . What we do know , and what cannot be argued is that it would be equal.

Try being an exhibitionist …..

Within our industry, you could spend the first six weeks of the year, every year, crossing the globe from China, through Europe to the States attending trade fairs. I am not suggesting this is a good or desirable plan, however there are the hardy few that try.

Over the last ten years trade exhibitions of every variety (not sure about armaments exhibitions) have suffered falling attendances. There are exceptions but they are few and far between.

I have worked out that I have spent 18 months of my life working away at exhibitions. I have not climbed Everest , I have not trekked across the Antarctic , neither have I warded off a herd of rampaging elephants with my bare hands. But I have spent a load of time standing , on what, increasingly became a few expensive square metres waiting for people to come and talk to me , or rather have me talk to them. Then go to a mediocre restaurant and finally  sleep at loads of mediocre hotels. So no comparison! But what is quite odd is I have totalled loads of different everyday activities, from having my hair cut to spending time in car parks. The total number of days amounts to more than my biological age. So I don’t recommend anyone trying the same calculation.

I digress.

 Falling attendances are attributed to economic cycles,less buying points, ever higher travel costs and buyer apathy to name but a few. I believe when things are tough and there is a load of uncertainty, exhibitions should be ram jam full. 

Trade exhibitions of any hue, are opportunities for buyers to look at new suppliers, feel and touch new product, look at trends , network with their industry colleagues and finally , the simple act of standing outside of their own business and taking a broader view of the market place without the daily stresses and strains of being surrounded by your own commercial constraints.

There are few clients I visit, whose second question  isn’t (first being ‘hi, how are you, are you well? Lousy weather, so are you ok?‘ . For non native English speakers, that means ‘how are you?’ ,the complete sentence is then repeated after receiving an answer .) ‘ what is happening out there’  . And it is not just a polite question, it is a genuine request on information on what is happening in the market place.

The answer to this question is limited to the views of the person you are asking and what part of the distribution chain they represent . Within an exhibition environment you can access views of every level in the chain, apart from the end user, but you are in contact with them in your business. Some exhibitions are very focused i.e. They only represent their own market place , whereas the Spring Fair in Birmingham, for example, represents a whole host of retail market places, from Party, toys, and greeting through housewares, jewellery and luggage. There are, I believe, unparalleled opportunities to take a very broad view of the retail market place in all its glory or otherwise. I must emphasise I am no apologist for this Show as it has many faults , but its outstanding USP is the breadth of product and a vision of the UK retail High street.

Yet visitor numbers continue to decline, or worse, you get the comment , ‘I come every ten years’. What I do find strange is that there are still visitors who come for 3 maybe 4 days every year, and there are others with a similar business model , who only visit every 3 or 4 years. There is a direct corollary between the relative success of the former against the later.

We all need to step outside from the confines of our own businesses and take a wider look at what is going. A good trade exhibition offers this facility. It is the one opportunity to take a peak at the near ‘future’. Something we cannot, nor should not ignore.

Think on this, Exhibitions are becoming increasingly expensive to show at and to visit. However, The Nuremberg Spielwarenmesse, the world’s largest trade toy fair, although suffering declining attendances, is still successful. Buyers from all four corners of the world travel to a town in Germany at the height of winter,where they will have to pay a small fortune for a basic hotel room in central Nuremberg. Then,when they get to entrance of this trade show,have to pay another small fortune to get in. And they do in their thousands. They can’t all be wrong. 

Trump is the least of our problems…at least for the moment….

In the next twelve months we all face many unknowns. Unknowns are problems in their own right because being ‘unknown’ makes it very difficult to plan and act, we can at best be prepared to react.

What we can plan for are the ‘knowns’ .Retail analysts , much like most other analysts aren’t necessarily the best indicators of things to come ,but you can’t avoid their historical data.

U.K. Retail sales in December were apparently down 1.6%, this was against an uplift in November. Whereas, the total figure (including online) is not clear , it is very evident that footfall is down. Springboard , a retail data analyst states that there was a fall off 20% in the footfall in shopping centres for the New Year sales.

There could be a whole bunch of reasons for this but what is clear there appears to be less people going out to shop and then they are spending less . Again, this has to be taking into context and considering a number of factors, such as online, changing habits , lack of confidence, ‘don’t need anything’ syndrome, and a mistrust of retail ‘sales’; to name a few.

Backed up against this there have been reports from some retailers, which were surprising. Waitrose ended with Christmas figures better than expected and even Marks & Spencer’s experienced like for like growth and that was with clothing as well as food . In fact, according to the Kantor World Panel half a billion pounds (wrote this as I don’t the number it equates to, nor did the journalist who originally reported the figure). So the figures don’t really equate, percentages down, figures up . What do we believe?

Whatever the real picture there are two ‘knowns’ on the retailing horizon, inflation for the consumer and rising costs for the retailer (living wage being one example). Both of these are financial sponges. They suck money out of the people’s pockets. Yet, even if there are these storm clouds and consumer spending is hit, our fellow consumers will spend approximately £300 billion per quarter (Office for national statistics)! A load of money by any standards. Any good retailer’s first priority is to ensure that they get their share of this . 

Now in expressing my opinion I may part company with the odd reader ( it maybe all, as ‘the odd reader’ may well define the total number of readers). The retailers that survive and prosper are those who are innovative and progressive. Those who are over cautious , are most likely to suffer. The ‘cut back on stock, not try anything new, just sell what we have always sold ‘ brigade , just won’t sell enough. Sticking to what sold yesterday, is not tomorrow’s template. The consumer has and is changing, they will expect the retailer to change. If they walk into the store and it is not well stocked and there are not new and fresh products, they may not come back so often or worse still they may not come back at all. This , in itself, is hardly a new approach but is ever more important. Consumers expect and demand new offerings.

Julia and I have just come back from a trade show in the States and we visited some party stores as well. Yes, that great big mega consumer society, suffers from similar problems. We saw at first hand, the difference between well stocked, big choice ,good  customer service and the opposite. The difference being customers. The former, obviously, had a lot more(the same day,an hour apart) than the latter , of everything.

Retailers, who started during the financial crash understand the need to innovate. Those who are longer established , tend to err on the cautious. Perhaps ‘cautious innovation ‘ is a path.

It requires a great deal of boldness and a great deal of caution to make a great fortune, and when you have it, it requires ten times as much skill to keep it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (19th American philosopher)

What won’t work is battening down the hatches and hoping yesterday’s plan works tomorrow.

Trump is one of the many unknowns. We have no real idea whether his Presidency, will have any effect on us. As is the case of Brexit, it is a complete unknown, as we don’t what it is or will be. We need to deal with what we know…who knows maybe aliens are coming ..that will sort the wheat from the chaff.

Wind beneath my wings…a breath of fresh air ?

The title is a bit of a stretch to the blog content, but sounds a lot more catchy than Alchemy , or maybe it doesn’t. There again, does Alchemy Wings mean anything? As a test of severely limited ingenuity, I shall try to create  a meaningful link to the title, by the end of the blog.

Alchemy Wings is a startup in central London, offering an online delivery service to a  trial of 50 corner and convenience store, delivering crisps, snacks, and drinks (both alcoholic and non alcoholic) to their immediate customer base. Nothing especially exciting or revolutionary about that.

What I think is revolutionary are the startup’s backers, organisations such as Diageo, Coca Cola, Mars and Heineken. They are taking the view that whilst the biggest percentage of their retail sales come from the giant National Chains, their biggest profit margins come from the Independent. They don’t want to see a  further decline in the number of independents. Finally, the penny is starting to drop (not related to any drop in the Pound!).

How the thing works is that if you live ‘locally’ you can order your six pack and crisps from your local shop online (via Alchemy Wings web site) and get delivery in one hour. The trial service is confined to inner London , but if it works the plan is to extend it to large towns throughout the UK. Whilst the concept of setting up a web site for local independents is not new, the support given by big and powerful brands is,and perhaps sheds a little light at the end of the tunnel for many retailers.

I am not  expecting an explosion of corner shops. That is never going to happen, there are too many other obstacles not least , are the  independent shop owners (particularly corner shops) who are rubbish retailers. Yet, it does indicate that major suppliers are starting to understand that the future does not lie just with multiples. 

Suppliers in every retailing sector should take note. It is not an easy balance, as in some sectors independents are either not in sufficient numbers or not sufficiently professional. If the numbers stack up, in terms of outlets and professionalism, creative  ways of supporting the good retailer should be investigated and pursued. 

If supported, there is plenty of evidence that good independent retailers will continue to prosper despite intense competition from online operators, multiples and multiple discounters. This independent engenders loyalty to creative and supportive suppliers. It is just very surprising to see such initiatives coming from such big brands. 

Unfortunately, good retailers not only need support from good suppliers and consumers, they also need support and understanding from local and central government. Perhaps, the involvement of major international brands may help in raising the volume of that call.

It goes without saying, 2017 will be a tester. At every level of the chain , we,all, need to be creative and supportive. Happy 2017 !

So finally back to the title : Wind= Alchemy, feet = independent retailer and  finally ‘the breath of fresh air’ = major brands. That was a bit easier than I thought.

Party Snacks…unexpected guests….

Reading the Times on Christmas Eve, thinking all was well with the Christmas World in our house, I got slapped in the face by a wet fish .

Julia, we must get down to the shops, NOW!

What? Where? Why ? ..Julia quietly questioned..

We are unprepared for any unexpected guests …and can’t make any salt cod crostinis

There were 2 pages of quick snacks for unexpected guests. The ingredients included cod,Roliolino(no I don’t know), fresh rocket, fresh spinach, 1kg of baby tomatoes, dried porcine mushrooms, fresh sage leaves and a whole lot more. We did not have one of these items . And  we ,certainly,don’t have these items sitting around doing nothing let alone at Christmas. 

Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression but we don’t want unexpected guests, and if by some unfortunate freak of nature (we are not especially hospitable animals ) they did turn up, a turkey sandwich would have to do, assuming we were feeling that generous and wanted them to stay long enough to get their coats off.

What such an ‘esteemed ‘ organ of the press is doing printing  drivel the day before Christmas is beyond comprehension. Well, actually that’s not altogether true, as most of them print derivations of drivel on a daily basis. However, will Rupert Murdoch be suggesting to Jerry that they whip on down to the grocery store in Christmas Eve . No, of course not, but then I am bloody sure they don’t have unexpected guests. Mind you, Jerry was a bit unexpected .

Suppose, now this will go onto articles about being prepared for unexpected lovers at Valentines , how to prepare for discovering it’s not your real mother on Mothers Day, and finding out you are a proper little ‘bastard’on Father’s Day.

I have come to think that not only can you not trust what is printed in the press, apart from the tv listings and sports results, they rarely print anything of any use . 2016 , the year of post truth ( not completely sure what that really means, but don’t think it is any different from any other year) , 2017 could be the year of the half truth. One half being Brexit is bad for us, the other half  Brexit is good for us ! 

But above all, a personal appeal …please do not try and make your readers  feel inadequate or stupid, it only makes your journalists look stupid , and  then even less people will read Daily Newspapers…so who would look stupid then?

Post Christmas bah humbug over, Happy 2017. 

Barmey Carney…

Mr Mark Carney, our venerable head honcho of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, has just said we may loose 15 million jobs to robots. In the same week as Amazon announce a pilot till free store in Seattle.

You may think pretty frightening stuff . Indeed , it could be, as he reinforced the importance to retraining in order for the working population to cope with this change. 

Well yes, sort of . But haven’t we been there before in the 18th century with the spinning jenny, oh and electricity in the nineteenth century, followed by a few other job killers, like telephones, cars, jet planes, bar code scanners, supermarkets and computers. Complete red herring but do you know who first used a computer in their business, apparently Lyons Corner house cafes in the early 1950’s .

Now don’t get me wrong some of these modern marvels did create lost jobs but they also  created a bucket load more.Mr Mark did not specify a timeline, much of what was  talked about was based on research that 5 million would go worldwide by 2020. Hence it is a bit of a struggle to see where the extrapolation came from.

If we are to be inundated with robots nicking our jobs, leaving us all queuing up at the job centre, it may not last too long as we would have no money to spend, so nobody would buy anything and nobody would sell anything . Consequently, GDP would plummet , society would go bankrupt, the robots would  go on the scrap heap as no organisation would have the financial resources to invest in their up keep, plus what would the robot do? Then we would go back to square one. Which is what sort of happens in a more ‘micro’ fashion anyway. For example, supermarkets where deemed evil from an employment viewpoint, in the early sixties. This was exacerbated with scanning in the early seventies. Yet the supermarket chains are one of the biggest employers in the U.K. The entire retail market accounts for nearly 16% of the UK’s workforce .

For me, the point here is what is the point of making such spurious remarks , which border on scaremongering, when it is really nothing new in terms of future adaptation. It is a bit rich when coming from the banking sectors no.1 man, where cash machines, telephone banking, internet banking, contactless payment, branch closures have all lead to job losses over the last 25 years. Has the banking sector actually created any jobs in the last 10 years?

Perhaps he is intimating that robots could be only be employed on a points system ? Strangely, where it would first seem that his and Amazon’s announcements were one of the same , the later is rather more positive. It would at least eliminate the most stressful part of everyone’s shopping experience, the stress of queuing to pay .

I suggest we have concerns for the coming years but a robot invasion is probably the least of them.

No Spain, no gain….

We are, all, experiencing turbulent times. No, nothing to do with the American elections or Brexit, but the end of the Long Black Friday, which now appears to encompass four days , as opposed to the standard  period of 24 hours, normally associated with one day.Every retailer going , clothes, food, electronics, holidays, broadband, restaurants, the list goes on,have sales beginning with the word ‘Black..’ at the end of November. As to whether it actually generates additional revenue or more importantly profit, is hugely debatable . However, retailers are now scared that if they don’t participate they will lose out.

Does it work ? The jury is  out. Initial indications suggest a 6-7% increase on 2015 , far below the forecasts of 25% plus, but still growth. Set against the trumpeted 7% growth in retail expenditure in October 2016, it does  not look that impressive. 

I digress, but not far .Clothing retailers, in particular, are finding it tough. Both Gap & H&M have experienced profit declines and we are all aware of the problems dogging M&S, Arcadia and the House of Fraser. There is one international clothing chain that appears to be head and shoulders above the rest and that is in deepest darkest Spain ,  in a giant warehouse full of little elves with tiny hammers beavering away (actually 350 designers and a very big IT department) called Zara.

What is different about Zara? 

Firstly with all their  designers there is  no head of design. The process is a team process , where a group of relevant designers make selections from a huge amount of data which comes from their huge IT section. They amass data from customers ideas, suggestions and comments from all over the world. They consider information from feedback by their country ‘directors’ and other sources . With all this product information to hand they identify what is wanted and then design the product accordingly , making relevant changes for different market places. When it goes into production they do not produce huge runs, even if the product is successful. If it is they will make small changes to the original design to ensure the product looks constantly fresh and new. Their target lead time from design to final production is 2-3 weeks. Their final aim is to ensure that their web site and stores  have new product twice a week.

In short,

  • Originating product that they know their customers want, by judicious use of data and customer contact 
  • Getting it to market quickly
  • Constantly introducing new product
  • Not flooding the market
  • Product Decisions by teams not tiers of management 

Does it work ?  Amancio Ortega, 80 year old founder and chairman of Zara, who this year briefly surpassed Bill Gates to become the world’s richest man before falling back to second place might suggest it does.

And the point being…

There are too many retailers out there relying on slashing prices, unimaginative product ranges, slow to innovate, devoid of new product, and not really understanding what their customers want . There’s a starting point. Show me another retailer that can get new product onto the market in 3 weeks . Or a retailer that has new product twice weekly in store. In a nutshell, any retailer big or small, should benefit from finding out what their customers really want, and have new and fresh offerings in their stores on a frequent basis. It has got to better than a  future  of annual ‘Bleak Fridays’.