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International Retail Conference 2015: Retailers need digital whizzkids on boards, say M&S and Boohoo

Retailers must ensure they have digital expertise on boards to lead the changing needs across ecommerce, senior executives at Marks & Spencer and Boohoo have warned.

Speaking at the Internet Retailing Conference in London today, Peter Williams, chairman of Manchester-based etailer Boohoo, said it was important that retail boards now include digital people: “There needs to be a generational step down to make it younger. More board positions need to be digitally savvy and I’m afraid to be like that you need to be a younger person.”

He emphasised the importance of having good data scientists within retail businesses to enable them to drill down into the huge amounts of data being gathered online to find the key two or three actionable areas.

Williams added that etail offered huge opportunities, as retailers can explain their businesses and products better online than in store, and with more detail that shoppers can take or leave in their own time.

Conversely shoppers make their decision on a store and its concept within 30 seconds of walking through the door, and, if they do not understand it, they leave.

Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, member of the board and executive director of marketing and international at Marks & Spencer, agreed with Williams’ views on digital expertise on boards.

“We have a digitally savvy board,” he said. “It starts with the board and they set the business for transformation. A lot of transformations fail because the top leadership is not aligned to that strategy.
“They need to know the pace of it and stick with it and work with managers on that journey.”

He went on to stress the importance of curating content to help retailers stand out online: “I don’t believe brands today can differentiate themselves without content-rich information on a daily and hourly basis.

“Customised messaging and having content publishing capabilities are really important at a very early stage of your business.

“There’s saturation in the market, so how do you differentiate and curate your offer? Curation of your content is essential. Brands need to define themselves through that capability.

“There are a generation of talented writers and people with visual capabilities that can help create the experience in stores online.”

Meanwhile, Dan Rubel, group strategy and communications director at Shop Direct, talked delegates through the mindset that had helped the business transform from a catalogue and store-based retailer to the etail giant it is today.

He said the people in the business were “the rocket fuel” for change, adding that retailers must ensure a balance between play and discipline, so innovators are given the space to come up with new ideas, but these must be thoroughly tested, financially beneficial, correctly prioritised and meet required KPIs (key performance indicators).

“It’s a scary but brilliant ride,” he said.

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