The Tide Is Turning

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters produced an album in the late 1980’s called Radio KAOS. The closing track was titled ‘The Tide Is Turning’. Now, I am not getting all Floyd-esque, but it has made me think. The last few years have been chaotic in the world of retail, but I get a sense that the tide is turning. Not as far as those who have the largest vested interest, no. But from those who ‘get’ the importance of how the customer’s demands and expectations have changed.

M&S e-commerce boss, Laura Wade-Grey, told the latest Retail Week that most retail boards don’t understand why investment in digital is vital. The problem extends far beyond retail boards. From experience over the last two years, very few that hold any decision-making positions in retail or retail property development have a grasp of the importance of digital communication. They are a country mile behind their customers … and behind those who a stealing a march online.

Chaos has ensued. Directors of leading firms have admitted (behind closed doors) that they not only have little or no understanding of social media, but that they are also against it in terms of their business planning. Seriously.

The area where I have worked most has been with shopping centres. There are more than 550 developments across the UK – providing some of the most concentrated retail offers. And yet many of those in control – some of the largest owners and most respected managing agents – are stuck in the past. They are overseeing online provision that is 2-3 years out of date. They are at best reluctant and, at worst, anti any serious social media delivery. They don’t ‘get’ integrated communication and are still working with agencies delivering sub-standard services. But because a large number of those in control don’t want to understand the issues, they are paying folk down the food chain to tick boxes. No more.

Retailers and customers miss out. Massively.

But I did say the tide is turning. Those down the food chain are getting miffed. They are fed up trying to juggle ever-decreasing budgets and ever-increasing demands on time and resource. They are at the coal face and understand the demands of the job. They understand that retailers – on the ground – are demanding more. They are aware that their customers – increasingly engaged on digital and social media channels to price check, buy and recommend online – want more in terms of day-to-day engagement. They also realise that the old school multiple contracts of ad agency, pr agency and digital agency fighting over ever-shrinking budgets is well and truly beyond its sell by date.

Over recent weeks, I have met and spoken with many in the industry. One manager at one of the country’s largest centres owned by one of the biggest investors in the industry told me: “We live in a world where social media can destroy a business reputation in the space of 24 hours and to the degree that the reputation may never fully recover if not dealt with in the correct way. That is a real challenge to any retail business and one that could fall on any one of us.” And yet their centre – with more than 200 retailers – features 1 promotional offer and is promoting latest events that are three months out of date. The digital investment has been top down with grand plans – ignoring how things really work for the benefit of either the retailer or the customer.

And then you have a changing tide in towns and cities. Twenty years ago, shopping centres were the new kids on the block – big, shiny developments with big, glossy advertising budgets. Those days a long gone. Many of the malls are tired, in need of refurbishment and are run or managed by short-termism. Who can turn a quick profit and flog the centre. Within that environment there is little regard for the customer. On the high street, communities are – at last – waking up. They have the opportunity to make their destinations more attractive than a less-than-bustling shopping mall. And some are.

Over the coming weeks, news will break on those at the leading edge. Those who are turning the tide. I am hopeful that when that news filters out, those in the ivory towers will realise just how they a missing out. Once the shopping centre wagged the high street. I suspect that is about to change. The powers that be may just finally realise who needs information … when, where, why and how.


This Blog was first published on Huffington Post 2013

26/09/2013 09:03 BST | Updated 25/11/2013 05:12 GMT