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Retailers go back to the classroom

With the 85th Oxford Summer School held last week, businesses explain why investing in skills is crucial when times are tough.

What do Philip Mountford, Kim Winser and Belinda Earl have in common? The trio of retailers, who lead Moss Bros, Aquascutum and Jaeger respectively, have all walked the halls of the Oxford Summer School (OSS) as retail’s young rising stars.

Hilary Riva, the chief executive of the British Fashion Council, and Escada UK managing director Denise Shepherd are also among the illustrious OSS alumni.

Last week, the OSS opened its doors to the class of 2008 and 225 delegates sailed through the doors of Oxford University’s Keble College to tackle a week-long residential course.The delegates, from a cross section of UK fashion businesses, arrived prepared to learn valuable skills in a range of retail disciplines, including finance, merchandising, marketing and human resources, as part of an intensive programme designed to educate delegates in the risks and realities of retail.

Demand for the course is high, with staff battling it out for a coveted place – House of Fraser holds a company wide nomination process to identify the chosen few it will send – and the Summer School is usually full up by January, as retailers pay £1,600 per head to educate their most promising employees.

However, with sales dropping across the high street, is now really the time to be shelling out valuable resources and taking your best sales person or manager away from the shop floor or out of head office by packing them off to Oxford for seven days?

A long and impressive list of retailers and brands including John Lewis, Harrods, Nike, Jaeger, Polo Ralph Lauren and Liberty all seem to think so.
Organised by the British Shops and Stores Association, the OSS was founded in 1923 and is now in its 85th year, with the years during the Second World War causing the only interruption. However, despite the traditional Oxford setting and historic roots, the course has lost none of its appeal
as a leading retail finishing school for modern businesses. John Lewis has sent delegates to the school since 1923 and both Allders and Fenwick participated for the first time in 1925.

Although the total number of delegates attending the school has fallen this year as retailers rein in their spending, managers, buyers and shop floor staff are being sent by a broader scope of retailers than ever, who all believe that heightening commercial awareness in the choppy economic climate is essential.

Mosaic Fashions chief executive Derek Lovelock has been sending his staff to OSS for a number of years and believes that in tough times having motivated staff inside your operation can help a business weather the storm. “I think it is a wonderful concept and a rare experience,” he says. “It
is one-of-a-kind and that is why I love it. When times are difficult you gain a competitive edge by having the best people and it is one of the last things we would want to cut back on.”

Although the price may put some smaller retailers off, for the past four years industry charity Retail Trust and sector skills council Skillsmart Retail have offered full OSS scholarships as part of a drive to encourage smaller-sized businesses and independents to send delegates to the school.
The learning process The OSS format is based around a lecture and tutorial programme with seminars on subjects ranging from how to read a balance sheet to how best to market a business. As part of the course, carrier bags are designed by delegates, tricky HR situations are played out and the definition of earnings per share is discussed.

Each day provides a different topic for the delegates, with the finance day, which this time included a lively, funny and informative lecture from finance guru David Meckin, in a midweek slot. Yet every day is designed to challenge the delegates to make themselves better retailers.
Groups of 10 are assigned a mentor who stays with them throughout the seven days to coach them through the process. Almost every mentor is a former OSS student.

Collin Miles, a former section manager at John Lewis, is one of the mentors. He says: “Someone has identified these delegates and has belief in their abilities in retail. It is great to support that, and unlock potential. A lot [of the delegates] don’t understand where numbers on a balance sheet come from. We want them to discuss that and help them understand how it works.”

BSSA chief executive John Dean adds: “If there is a time to understand the mechanics of retail it is now. Investing in people is key
to the future of any business. Making your people feel valued is impossible to put a price on, and it is vital, particularly in this economic climate.”

Maths lesson
Percentage of OSS delegates from independent retailers
Percentage of delegates from department stores
Percentage of delegates from multiple retailers
The majority of delegates fall into
this age group
Percentage of female delegates

School report: delegates give their views on OSS

Chris Watney, store manager at House of Fraser in Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey
“We have got eight delegates here this year to develop skills and take them on to future roles. They get an understanding of why,
as a retailer, we are so focused on certain aspects of business. From day one until they leave they experience everything from finance to real life business case studies.”

Rebecca Lundberg, store manager at Karen Millen in Stockholm, Sweden
“The course is interesting and I am learning so much from my peers here. We exchange experiences from different fields. The course itself is very structured and you are able to put everything you learn into practice. What you learn comes to life and it makes you think about, and gain an understanding of, the areas of your company you are not usually involved in.”

Kim Morgan, assistant buyer at department store group Bentalls
“It has been really inspirational and shows you what you can do with your business.
The course gives you an insight into parts
of your business that you may not see at work. You learn a lot about yourself and it is relevant to today’s situation. We are shown how to work in the current climate and how best to push sales.”

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