Wednesday morning was a moment for me to reflect on my career and to share in the celebration of my long-standing client and friend Andrew Jennings, who has just published a book, Almost Is Not Good Enough.
And so to the beautiful drawing room at Fortnum & Mason where CEO Ewan Venters very kindly opened the store for us at 7.30am (the excitement of being in a department store before it opens is like nothing else). His team made forty of the most senior executives in retail – plus one MP and a publisher – feel especially welcome and looked after.
I first met Andrew in 1990 when he joined Harrods as managing director and it was great to see that some of his original team, including the CEO at the time Peter Bolliger, had joined us for the morning.
Realising that a man described as “the David Beckham of retail, the Simon Cowell of trends, the King Kong of footfall and the Mick Jagger of margins” needed an interviewer with the credentials to match him, I was delighted that Selfridges managing director Anne Pitcher had agreed to take on the on-stage duties. Anne is a long-time friend of MBS and was also formerly part of that original Harrods team.
Andrew has undoubtedly had a stellar career which has taken him from London to Ireland, Canada, the US, South Africa and Germany, and to the helms of retail icons including Harrods, House of Fraser, Brown Thomas, Holt Renfrew, Saks Fifth Avenue, Woolworths South Africa and Karstadt and KaDeWe.
With such a background, Andrew’s insights on the future of retail are invaluable. Indeed as the conversation began, we instantly knew that we were experiencing a discussion between two retailers with a vast amount of knowledge and experience.
Andrew has an enviable way of making his revolutionary retail strategies seem incredibly simple and obvious. On identifying talent (a subject very close to my heart), he had an ingenious way of identifying buyers worth hiring. He would ask a single question: “Would you rather have twelve dress styles and six of each, or six dress styles and twelve of each?”
He explained: “If they said twelve styles, I wouldn’t employ them. It’s your job as a buyer to make that choice. You’re there to edit and guide the customer. When you go to the races, you don’t put £5 on every horse. You back winners.”
Using that logic, Andrew has found a rich vein of talent from the publishing world (“A good editor is a good buyer”) and even in restaurants. I hate spoilers, so you’ll have to buy the book, but look out for the story about Jenny the $1m waitress.
In a world where, at the very top levels, graphs and tables drive decisions, it’s yet another testament to Andrew that the one thing he has always insisted upon is passionate staff. He defines passion as “the human soul on fire” and believes that the best way to create it in customers is to first generate it in colleagues, from the shop floor to the C-suite.
“It’s your job as a buyer to make that choice. You’re there to edit and guide the customer. When you go to the races, you don’t put £5 on every horse. You back winners” – Andrew Jennings
The conversation turned to how brands can motivate consumers to come into a store – particularly as they are presented with an ever-growing list of online options.
“First and foremost, by waking up to the fact that everything we have known about retail up until this point has fundamentally changed,” said Andrew. “Of course, digital advancement is at the core of this change, but that’s not to say that bricks-and-mortar doesn’t have a future or a significant part to play in future success.”
Andrew argues that the old adage ‘the customer is king’ is now outdated. It actually underplays the new reality. “I now call the customer the ‘Super Being’. Through their digital devices, they know more about us and our products than ever before: where the product is available, the best price and even what it’s made of.”
The new customer demands instant access to the product they want and the ability to buy it at 2am if that’s their preference. He’s in no doubt as to what awaits the companies unable or unwilling to meet customer demand.
“The retail graveyard is full of once-great businesses who failed to remain relevant,” noted Andrew. “The key focus of the entire book is relevance and how to stay focused on the customer’s wants, needs, desires and aspirations.
“Innovation is key. Show me a business innovating with excellence and I’ll show you a successful business.”
Being the professional he is, Andrew declined to name the brands he felt were headed to the retail graveyard, but speaking diplomatically he suggested the “temples of retail” like Selfridges, Harrods and Fortnum & Mason will survive as they “take a stand” by always staying true to their unique values.
“Everything we have known about retail up until this point has fundamentally changed. Of course, digital advancement is at the core of this change, but that’s not to say that bricks-and-mortar doesn’t have a future or a significant part to play in future success” – Andrew Jennings
These businesses deliver something totally unique through a strong point of view and by always striving to excite their customers with “experience, entertainment and delight”, Andrew added.
He truly fears for the “rack city, fat middle hump of stores” caught between the robust legacy names and the new darlings of omnichannel, including H&M and Primark.
Throughout the course of our wonderful discussion and Q&A, we also established that Andrew despises Black Friday, believes concessions can save department stores and accepts that customers today are fickle. Truth be told, we could have sat and enjoyed the content, environment and exquisite pastries of Fortnum’s for hours longer, had some of the biggest brands in Europe not needed their leaders back at their desks.
It would be both reductive and glib to even attempt to distil Andrew’s book and message on retail down to a single anecdote… but if I was to for the sake of word count, perhaps it’s the following story he shared from a recent visit to the Far East and the office of the chairman of Fast Retail.
“Walking through the offices, I saw a gigantic sign on the wall. It simply said: ‘Change or die’, and that sums it all up really.”
Andrew Jennings: Quick facts
Retail hero: Ira Neimark, former CEO of Neiman Marcus. Ira focused me on inventory management.
Non-retail hero: Isadore Sharp, founder of Four Seasons Hotels. He gave me some great advice – “In every transaction you have with your customer, you will either polish or tarnish your brand.”
Favourite store: Eataly on 5th Avenue, New York.
Best stores in the world: Selfridges for being modern and focused and Harrods for its history, heritage and always opening up new and exciting departments.
Best food hall: Harrods – I can’t wait to see it once they have renovated it.
Best windows for Christmas 2017: Harrods for the Dolce & Gabbana (favourite designers) windows.
Favourite chain: H&M
Discount or full price: Full price
Favourite saying: “Be consistently consistent.”