One set of February figures just published showing the worst retail footfall on record – as revealed by one GC in the room – this panel discussion at Enterprise GC proved a timely reminder of the challenges faced by the retail sector and all those who sail with her.
And with these challenges comes a lot of learning for GCs and senior in-house lawyers in other sectors too. Almost inevitably Amazon – and, by extension digital transformation and disruption generally – dominated some of the discussion. And, it seems, that issue is more acute in the UK than almost anywhere else in the world, given (among other factors) Amazon’s extraordinarily high rate of market penetration. ‘The UK is the perfect size for Amazon’s model,’ said one GC in the know. One more gloomy forecast from the table was that if you’re trying to compete with an Amazon or similar market leaders head on now, it’s too late.
You either have to partner with them or find other ways to differentiate your offering in the market, whether that’s through personal service, particular expertise, specialisation or whatever it might be.
And when it comes to online, it’s not simply a question of digital replicating the high street – or, indeed, the other way around; you have to recognise that they are two different beasts, and have to be treated accordingly but commonly in tandem.
Of course, all of this presents real opportunity if you’re clear on your strategy, and quick to implement it. If…
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Government took some stick during the hour-long session, with many GCs rounding on its seeming failure to confront the very real issue of the level of business rates promptly enough, and some of the challenges around use of CVAs. Whether it’s because of distractions from perceived bigger issues (erm, Brexit?) or not, the consensus was that the Government is not seen to be acting quickly enough and it needs to change its approach if it really is committed to saving as much of the high street as possible. And it needs to change fast.
Interestingly, many cited the value in organisations looking beyond their core current roles – either as retailers, or in any other sector – to ensure that what they are delivering amounts to a proper end-to-end service tailored to their market. And, in the world of saturated markets we live in, if you take a blinkered view that you’re ‘just’ an electronics retailer, ‘just’ a consumer bank, and so on you may lose out to others who service their customers beyond the strict confines of their original core specialisms.
And, in that, lies a reminder that what is fundamentally relevant to the retail sector – just like any other, including us in private practice – is the customer. You have to deliver what they want, where they want it, and at a price they are willing to pay.
The best advice is often the simplest.
Jeremy Drew is head of commercial at RPC and led the above debate with retail legal heads at this year’s Enterprise GC, our flagship event for in-house counsel