Retail leadership and culture: the death of the ‘it‘s just a shop‘ mentality


Ten years ago, unless you were offered a high profile graduate scheme, retail wasn‘t considered a career of choice when compared to other professions and the wider business community. I‘ve heard this time, rather harshly, described as the ‘robot years‘ – fuelled by the perception that operational leadership in retail too often boiled down to simply delivering process and actioning head office directions. Here was the image of a typical store manager, concerned only with generating repeat footfall and maximising spend in-store.

This perception, however, has fundamentally changed following the ‘digital‘ transition and Omni-channel retailing. Leaders in retail are no longer store managers; they‘ve been transformed into brand champions, responsible for delivering a seamless customer experience across all relevant channels.

External factors are at the heart of this shift. Specifically, consumer expectations of how they purchase things have changed rapidly over the years. People read about the Apple Watch and they want it, immediately, with no fuss. Retailers, more than their peers in other industries, have had to adapt to this instant demand and deliver very effective, customer-centric strategies to remain competitive.

As a result, retail managers have become the standard of leadership to match. Someone purchasing insurance, for example, no longer benchmarks their experience against other insurers; they do so against the likes of Amazon. The type of person that‘s successful in retail operations is now someone other industries want – they are entrepreneurial, quick thinking, innovative, have a thorough understanding of customer behaviour and are commercially minded. We are, by way of contrast, witnessing other industries struggle to align their operations with the customer-centric model of successful retailers. 

Crucially, however, retailers cannot rest on their laurels. They‘re at the top of their game now but transformative forces, such as globalisation, will continue to drive the need to adapt and change.

In terms of best practice, attention must be paid to maintaining a healthy tension between head office and local stores. We‘ve seen numerous high-profile retailers suffer over the years because of too much or too little centralisation.

Furthermore, while we know that ‘digital‘ has changed consumer expectations, many still want to touch a physical product and enjoy the experience of in-store shopping. This is where the majority of impulse buying happens, and good retailers understand this. Pace and agility, meanwhile, should continue to be built into operational structures – to react and respond to local customer needs and enable store managers to play a pivotal role in this.

From a people perspective, management must focus on the twin combo of succession planning and the employer brand. This includes understanding the critical positions of today and also what these look like in five, 10, 15 years‘ time. It‘s not just about getting top talent through the door but retaining and developing talent so that it also meets future business requirements. Alongside this, it‘s worth acknowledging that long-serving employees from the ‘robot years‘ could now sit at the top of their organisations. The challenge here is getting these employees thinking and behaving in a more entrepreneurial way, to better connect them with today‘s multi-generational workforce and modern consumer needs.  

Finally, remember that customers are at the centre of the business. This has set retail apart from other industries over the past decade and will continue to be the deciding factor in the years to come. 

Karen Hughes, Lead UK&I Retail and Consumer Sector, Hay Group