Unless you've been hiding under a rock these past few years, regardless of where you are in the so called 'developed world' you can't escape a new breaking story everyday relaying tales of the woeful state of the traditional retail sector, lots of stories from the UK, Europe and the US.

A couple of years ago (pre-covid!) I had a few people who worked at a few renowned British retail brands write to me, a few of those people were employed at M&S and they had written in response to several blogs I had written about the non listening culture at 'Marks and Spencer'. 

The reality for me back then (and others) is that even those operating in the 'Ivory M&S Towers' had stopped 'listening' not only to its feet on the ground troops, but also to its customers many, many years ago.

The days of focus groups, and research studies aren't much use if you already have preconceived ideas about 'what the customer wants, and when your business is in free-fall its not innovation that's at the front of the queue, more often than not its the bean counters.

So in early 2020 I was intrigued to see this announcement from the M&S ivory tower which was aimed at galvanising the entire (now shrunk) teams under the call to action 'never the same again' - a CTA that really resonated with me, and it does seem to have resonated with the incumbent teams. 

At its full year results in May, M&S outlined plans to accelerate the pace and scale of the transformation plan and make three years' progress in one. As part of this, the business committed to integrate more flexible management structures into its store operations. M&S is now proposing to implement these changes and create a new retail management structure that is fit for the future—removing role duplication, providing clearer leadership accountabilities and freeing up its retail teams to focus more on the customer. source M&S Corporate

Stating the blindingly obvious the retail industry has been most impacted by enforced behavioural changes in consumer demand as a result of the pandemic and today’s consumers want immediate, easy, 24/7 shopping experiences. 

Not a lot new there then?

The global retail industry has also undergone many changes and transformations, and most of these internally 'perceived' changes were facilitated by technology yet failed to account for the real people element .e.g employees and customers. 

This allowed brands to carry out what the tech told them was a better consumer experience, gather valuable feedback from users, change processes, and assuming they are indeed listening to the customers even anticipate and customise trends well in advance.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see the disruptive signals that toppled many leading retailers.

But in reality, these signals were often faint and hard to spot. And few companies even knew to look for them. 

Strategic risks can attack the basis of your competitive advantage, undermining your ability to sustain exceptional performance. 

Clearly all businesses need to have an understanding of who their customer is today, who they should be tomorrow, and based on the results of the last decade, that's already a shrinking number of folks for M&S.

They also need to have a clear point of difference, or added value that can set them apart from an extremely agile, multi-channel set of competitors, and move away from the view "M&S is where my Mum and Granny shopped" positioning. 

These days I spend an awful lot of my time working with companies to help them better understand why consumers choose one brand over another, in particular where the proposition(s) seems similar.

To do this requires a commitment to 'listen' to what everyday shoppers are saying, engage in those discussions and place 'Social Media' firmly at the board room table. 

Most retail organisations are based on an old order of meritocracy of 'command and control' which no longer fits into the new world order of things. The bigger the company the bigger the bias towards managing risk instead of recognising that command and control are simply 20th Century outdated methods of management. 

Without historical precedent, strategic risks are immune to traditional risk management methods.

Recognising and dealing with strategic risks requires us to look past the most pressing “here and now” challenges to anticipate encroaching disruptions that are further away and harder to spot. 

All companies strive to meet shareholders’ growth and profit expectations. It’s particularly challenging, however, for those competing in an ultra-competitive retail environment where margins are razor-thin. 

Change is driven by leadership mindset, businesses that cling to a legacy thinking mindset 'we can't change because of' type of excuses, or our 'legacy systems can't just be thrown away', or 'our leaders don't do what they ask us to do' are the most common 'blockers' of any real change.

From what I can see the 'change' strategy at M&S whilst ongoing and underpinned by 'never the same again' CTA seems to be working in a few places, however on social it seems it's still driven by the ivory tower and all about them (corporate) there is very little from those front line people, and of course the 'customer'.

I genuinely get the impression we are yet to see some interesting positive twist and turns with the M&S brand. 

In particular where the team in the food silos are doing some amazing work, whilst fashion seems to be pinning it's hopes on concession relationships just like JLP, whilst 'home' continues to be a bun fight between 'Next' and several others. 

I wonder what the folks at 'Maybe' would pick up on social sentiment conversations taking place by actual M&S customers?

Disclaimer: I have no commercial relationship with *Maybe