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Putting the customer first is the never-changing rule in retail

Despite the positive mood the Drapers team has noted on its visits to a clutch of trade fairs since the start of the year, there is no hiding the fact that fashion retail is a tough old business.

Our News pages this week, sadly, record the closure of several independent businesses from different parts of the country.

Notwithstanding the boasts of politicians about an upturn, the fact is there is not as much money around as there used to be and a shortage of paying customers will always threaten a retail business.

It’s worth noting that Marc Granditer, owner of Base Menswear, highlights the onerous impact of business rates as a reason for his company’s administration. Despite the entreaties of industry bodies, the Government shows no intention of lightening this burden and I fear it will contribute to the demise of yet more reasonably solid businesses. I wonder if we will see any vote-attracting tweaks to the ratings system as the election campaign begins. The entire business ratings system needs a root-and-branch overhaul, not fiddling round the edges.

On a more positive note, our story this week about New Look’s ambitions to create what might be called a proper menswear business underlines that the fashion sector continues to offer opportunities for the creative and the ambitious, of any size. Given the already crowded menswear market, New Look will have to work hard to create a point of difference, especially at its price points. If it goes ahead with the plan it will be interesting to see which stores are converted to men’s units.

On Tuesday I learned from Andy Clarke, president and chief executive of Asda, that running a store was probably the single most important aspect of his 30-plus-year career that had qualified him for his current position. Speaking to young talent from the industry at the Future Retail Leaders Lecture organised by the British Retail Consortium, Clarke outlined how he went from winning only one O-Level to running a £23bn business. With few apparent prospects, he started working in a Fine Fare supermarket and by the age of 22 was put in charge of a store with 500 full-time and part-time staff. Clarke’s message was that to succeed in retailing, ultimately, you have to know and understand your customer. Everything else a retailer does flows from that.

The best way to learn about them is to deal with them face-to-face day after day.

On his regular visits to Asda stores, Clarke hinted that he spends as much time talking to customers as to his Asda colleagues, asking the shoppers how well the store is serving them. “The store team loves that,” he added as a mischievous aside.

Clarke’s comments about dealing with customers personally set me thinking about how that translates to etailing. I know good etailers boast of tracking and analysing every last nuance of a customer’s buying habits, but it is odd to think they almost certainly don’t know what even their best punters look like, their demeanour or personality. They may, of course, know what they sound like as customer helplines often are the only person-to-person interactions in the online shopping experience. I’d be fascinated to hear from etailers how they really “know” the customers as bricks-and-mortar retailers should do.

Finally, a quick reminder that the Drapers Independents Awards 2014 is launched this week. It will conclude with a celebratory lunch on September 17 in London. Full details of the categories and criteria can be found atwww.drapersindependents.co.uk. Following the highly successful debut last November of this as a separate event to the awards for multiples and department stores, I am looking forward to the best indie fashion businesses in the UK and Ireland stepping forward to tell us just how good they are.

Readers' comments (3)

  • While it is sad to see businesses fail - though some more intentional than others - we nearly always here the reason of business rates. This is a red herring.

    Governments don't put retailers out of business - Businesses do.

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  • Well said Eric. The winners will be those who give great service, not those who simply understand their customers...

    Also, although business rates do impact, it is more policy on parking and opening hours that effect footfall (and influence where customers choose to go).

    I believe free parking on quiet days during the week would be a help for a start.

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  • It's correct to state that the customer should be put first, so why do some brands continue to force a retailer to buy product which their customers do not want.

    Is that putting the customer first?

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