The rise of retail agility

by | Sep 17, 2015 | Blog

Move swiftly to stay ahead, says Andrew Shapiro from Cirrus
Earlier this year, supermarket chain Morrisons announced its worst results for eight years. Now the smallest of the UK’s Big Four supermarkets has revealed which stores it plans to close as part of a programme of transformation. Chief Executive David Potts announced the closures with regret, and the retailer admitted that, “Customers and colleagues are beginning to notice improvements, but the turnaround will take time.”

Retail analysts have cited Morrisons’ delay in setting up online operations and loss of customer focus as issues in a rapidly changing and highly competitive marketplace. This highlights the need for agility – the ability to respond quickly to customer needs and an ever-changing environment.

Morrisons’ challenges are not unique, of course. Retail agility has become essential in an age of rapidly changing shopping habits. Until the turn of the century, shopping was a relatively straightforward activity compared to today’s multi-channel world where social media can make or break a retailer’s reputation. Customers are increasingly discerning.

“Everybody wants everything now,” commented Tanith Dodge, Director of HR at Marks & Spencer, in Cirrus and Ipsos MORI’s Leadership Connections research paper. “The customer is much more demanding in our digital world. You’ve got to be agile, you’ve got to be fast, and you’ve got to have speed to market, to turn things around quickly. Customers expect access to everything immediately so you’ve got to have that agility.”

Providing a swift and seamless customer experience is of course partly down to operational excellence. However, the ability to react to a changing environment with agility goes beyond this. For many organisations, it requires real cultural change and a new style of leadership. As Angela Spindler, CEO of leading multichannel retailer N Brown commented (also as part of our Leadership Connections research), “Although the need for agility is fuelled by technology, actually the technology doesn’t achieve anything in itself. It is about changing the way people work, the way they think, the way they view data, the way they interact with customers.”

Retailers today need to equip their people with the capability to engage customers and meet their expectations. Alongside this, people across the organisation need support in order to adapt to changing circumstances, to share what they learn and to operate in a culture which supports experimentation without blame – to fail fast and learn, as a driver of innovation and pace. The ability to apply existing knowledge to new challenges and swiftly create new solutions has become highly prized.

This free movement of knowledge enables innovation and improvement, while people are developed to do their best at all levels, doesn’t fit with a traditional, hierarchical style of leadership. Rather it requires a more ‘connected’ style of leadership where responsibility is shared and decision-making can happen closer to the customer – where it has the greatest impact.

Andrew Shapiro is a client partner at Cirrus who has worked in partnership with many major retailers and retail banks to develop leadership capability and create cultural change.

Like to know more about developing agility? We’d love to talk to you. Please get in touch any time.

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