After almost 50 years working in some of the world’s largest organisations, there are few people as knowledgeable about the retail industry as Andrew Jennings.
He has worked at, among others, Harrods, House of Fraser, Brown Thomas Ireland and Woolworths SA as Group Managing Director. His invaluable knowledge about the evolution of retail and the birth of the largest disruptor known to mankind – technology – all served as the inspiration for his book, Almost Is Not Good Enough: How To Win Or Lose In Retail.
Now as a leading expert in the field, he shares insight into the unprecedented pace of change in retail, how to avoid pitfalls and how to stay ahead of competitors. We caught up with the author, now living and working in London, to chat about his fascinating new book, what inspired it and what lies ahead for the South African retail industry.
What was the motivation to write a book?
I’ve had nearly 50 years’ experience in the industry. When I started out, computers were only something you read about in the papers. Over all this time I’ve seen a lot of things come and go, and countless changes in the retail industry. So I decided that it would be a good time to share all the things that I have learned and seen. I wanted to share my experiences and also share stories about other people’s success and failures.
Their failures too? Why so?
Yes, I don’t see anything wrong with failures. We need them to learn what works and what doesn’t. And they help guide us not to make the same mistake twice.
When you started writing the book, what did you want to achieve?
When I started putting the book together, I knew I had three types of readers: CEOs and leaders of companies who would be interested in learning from my own lessons and ideas; the workforce who are on their way into the middle management of companies and are looking for more insight into retail; and the young workforce entering retail for the very first time, who want to be educated on the retail industry.
Why did you want to talk to this younger generation?
I wanted to inspire people with this book. Young people in the retail industry – like young people in any industry really – need to be passionate about what it is that they’re doing. Through this book and the Prince’s Trust, we’re hoping to reach young people and get them excited and motivated.
When you look back about 20 years ago, did anyone anticipate the impact technology would have on the retail industry?
Absolutely not. It was an unprecedented revolution. And it’s not slowing down at all. Someone asked me the other day, how I would describe the rate of change in the retail industry today, and I answered that it’s like racing down the Autobahn in Germany at 180km/h, and you notice a black spot in your rearview mirror. Two minutes later that black spot zooms past you at 220km/h. That is the competition. Our retail industry is changing at internet speed today.
How has the consumer changed?
We used to say that the consumer is king (sic). Today he or she is the ‘superbeing’. She is all-knowing, always present and infinitely connected. She will know your price compared to your competitor’s price, compared to the price of similar products sold on the other side of the globe. And then she also expects excellent service, all hours of the day and night.
This has created quite a transparent relationship between the buyer and seller, hasn’t it?
Absolutely. That relationship is also more important than ever. And that has been one of the greatest plus points of social media.
Turning our eye towards South Africa, do you think that South African retailers have what it takes to weather global economic volatility and stay ahead of trends, relevance and service-delivery?
About 10 years ago, South Africa didn’t have an H&M, no Zara, no Ted Baker. Instead, Foschini, Stuttafords and Edgars dominated the market. We’re seeing quite the opposite today. Stuttafords closed down altogether, and to be honest with you, I predict that it’s going to be the fate of more South African retailers in the near future if they don’t start planning for the future and protect themselves. Take Woolworths and Mr Price for example. Both do exceptionally well in South Africa, but they wouldn’t have a future if they weren’t developing online. Because customers want the option to shop 24/7.
In South Africa, over the next couple of years, do you see any other big changes in retail?
I’m not sure about the inner workings of the big companies in the country at the moment. Our customers are demanding ever-more exciting experiences when they shop and have higher expectations of product, service, value and environment.
It seems technology is at the forefront of success for the future?
Well, that, as well as differentiation. Retailers have to differentiate themselves from their competition because customers have neither the time nor the inclination to give retailers a second chance to make a first impression. Relevant retailers offer shopping experiences that make them stand out from the competition and that customers find irresistible.
You can read about Andrew’s experiences and thoughts on the subject in his book, Almost Is Not Good Enough, which is available at selected Exclusive Books countrywide. All profits will go towards the Prince’s Trust charity.