At Marks & Spencer’s recent presentation to press and investors about its online strategy I fell into a wide-ranging conversation with one of the company’s senior directors.
When I asked for a definition of the most serious challenge the board faces, the director replied that it was getting the balance right between the obvious need for change and managing the risk involved. The director also quietly admitted that a cultural shift within parts of the organisation would be helpful.
While seemingly everyone in the fashion business has a view on how to improve M&S’s performance, I found the conciseness of the summation of the core problem very telling. It’s a cliché that fashion is all about change, but the current pace and complexity of change is certainly presenting every retailer, brand and supplier with challenges - or opportunities, depending on your business’s current condition.
In a seminar on the jeanswear market during the Amsterdam Denim Days last week (see our May 24 issue for our report on this indigo-focused initiative), Adriano Goldschmied, the jeans guru who has been an influential force in the sector since the late 1970s, remarked that it had experienced more change in the past decade than it had in the previous 150 years.
Topshop brand director Mary Homer acknowledges much the same pressure - or reality - in our feature on her business: “I speak for everyone in retail when I say that things are 50 times more complicated now than they were 10 years ago, and that is not going to change. It’s challenging, but it’s what keeps us on our toes.” If a fast-moving fashion operator like Topshop is feeling the new difference in pace, I wonder how some other, more traditional retailers (and the brands that supply them) are coping with modern times.
While analysing the issues may be easy, finding a solution that is timely, appropriate and within budget is less so. The other comment I keep hearing is: “I know we need to change, but there is just so much to do now.” This was confirmed at a roundtable discussion for fashion retailers I attended this week hosted by Microsoft and systems supplier K3, when one guest said the biggest headache was what to prioritise. The brand in question is well run, operating an omnichannel approach and is busy in many markets around the world - so, in short, it’s well ahead of many, but still it needs to consider what’s next. What’s most important? What will bring the most valuable result?
A point to keep in mind is that change ought to bring tangible, measurable benefits to any business activity. Advocates of, say, a frantic social media policy often are unable to quantify exactly what the benefits to sales actually are. During the K3 discussion, representatives confirmed that it was now rare for a company to commit to buying a huge expensive piece of software or a system that might not give any return on investment for four or five years. Rather like consumers, companies cannot hang around and are more concerned with smaller outlay and swifter returns.
Simple or complicated, every system, every strategy has to be managed by people and the possible difficulties of cultural change have been experienced by many companies far less complex than, say, M&S.
One would think that anyone choosing a career in fashion was ready, willing and able to embrace and enjoy change, but this is clearly not true. Even the definitions do not stand still - in what seems a short space of time we have had etailing become ecommerce, become multichannel and then omnichannel. A bright suggestion made at the K3 talk was that we just keep it simple. Call it all ‘retailing’. Good idea.