Sales through Service: What Mothercare can learn from John Lewis

Two recent items of news prompted me to write this blog and talk about sales through service. Firstly, it was announced that Nick Henwood had been appointed as the new Director of Retail Operations at Mothercare and last week John Lewis announced another fantastic set of results with in store LFL sales growth of +9.2%.

My earliest childhood memories of retail and shopping were in Mothercare. I can still remember, in clear detail, the store in my home town High Wycombe.  It had a large window at the front of the shopping centre and I can still feel the sense of excitement walking past the window looking at some of the toys before we went in (the equivalent now is Apple, some things never change!).

When my twins arrived in May 2011, my wife and I firmly entered Mothercare’s core market. It felt natural to shop at Mothercare and while we often shop on the internet I do value good old fashioned one to one service and advice. Having twins is expensive, a new pram at £900, a subsequent pushchair at £400, in addition to two cots and well, two of everything.

Unfortunately for Mothercare it was not a positive experience. I was never approached and offered help. When shopping for a pram, we found there was limited stock and the service was non-existent (in store stock is irrelevant when you have the internet website on a computer terminal at the counter). If I walked in to most other retail businesses with £900 to spend on one item the sales assistants would fall over themselves to help me. I struggled to find sales assistants and when I did it was clear that their station at the till was far more important. This wasn’t a store specific experience and on the few times I have returned over the last year it has always been the same.

Interestingly I have had similar experiences at the Early Learning Centre, Mothercare’s sister company. The Kingston store has nice wide aisles, a good range and a fantastic play area at the rear of the store. The play area has been a godsend as it has afforded me the opportunity to allow my twins to safely let off some steam while out shopping, thus ensuring a dwell time other retailers can only dream of. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say I have probably been there most weekends over the last 16 months. I make regular purchases, however, I would happily spend a lot more but for the same problem described above. Recently I visited the store and there were 4 sales staff stood around the till chatting, oblivious to a shop full of customers. I walked out without having spent any money.

When I contrast this with my experience at John Lewis it couldn’t be starker. I didn’t shop in JLP previously, seeing it firmly as the preserve of my parent’s generation. I couldn’t have been more wrong and my shopping experiences in the baby section have been nothing short of fabulous. Staff are always available and cannot do enough to help. They are confident, knowledgeable and offer useful advice. This isn’t ground breaking, innovative retailing as some analysts would attribute their success to.

In the modern arena there is a huge pressure on retailers to innovate, identify and target their customers through multiple channels, to offer great value and to do everything the internet does, but better. However, it is clear that the retailers whom have instigated significant cultural change in customer service have benefitted enormously. DSGi is a great example; they have not only invested heavily in their store formats but also their people. Their store format changes were accompanied by a cultural shift in service. Great sales results have followed.

I have met quite a few people whom have worked for Mothercare over the years and they always talk about the pride that Mothercare employees have in the business and I do not doubt this for a moment. However, it is clear that the service offer is lacking and needs to change. I imagine that they are somewhat concerned about actively selling as traditionally we Brits don’t like being sold to. Try telling that to the customers in the Apple stores. Their staff do sell, not through a hard sell, but through unmitigated enthusiasm. As a nation we are beginning to crave, and expect, a different level of service. In short, we are beginning to like being sold to.

Nick Henwood has a big job on his hands at Mothercare, not in my opinion because of the much publicised reasons regarding store portfolio or margin pressures, but because he will need to engage a workforce to change it’s views on what good customer service is. This will be a massive cultural shift for a loyal and long serving workforce. Nick comes with a great track record with a career spanning M&S, Sainsburys and more recently Autoglass where he transformed the customer experience. Coupled with other significant appointments, Mothercare look well positioned to make the changes required to secure the brand’s future.

Interestingly the mobile phone retailers have come from the different end of the spectrum in recent years. Known for their unscrupulous activites, they have had to regain consumer trust and engage, rather than sell, to thier customer base. In this middle ground there are some very talented retailers that would do a great job at Mothercare...

Jez Styles @JezAdMore


Are you ready for the September Transfer Window?

I have just returned from holiday this week and following a fair number of update calls it has become apparent that the recruitment market has been particularly slow this summer. Without going off on a tangent the usual summer holidays, economic woes and this year’s Olympics seem to have heavily impacted the mid-senior level Retail jobs market. This got me thinking about when are the busiest recruitment times.

Traditionally there are several peak trading points during the year in Retail recruitment, with the two busiest periods in September to October and then February to April (give or take Easter!). If you are hoping to secure a new position, now is the time to increase your activity levels.

The competition is likely to be tough too with even more candidates coming on to the market. We have seen several big restructures this year which has led to an increase in candidate activity. Conversely we are seeing candidates with multiple offers on a regular basis. This is the first time we have seen this since the heady days of 2007!

If you don’t secure a position in the next two months it would be wise to prepare yourself for a frustrating Christmas and New Year. Mentally it can be very difficult if you have geared yourself up for a move, written a new CV, applied for a few jobs, spoken to some Agencies, increased your exposure on Linkedin….and then just as you are building up your own pipeline of activity…there are no jobs available.

It is crucial that you are absolutely clear about what you want and how you are going to achieve it now. Widening your search criteria or dropping your salary expectations in the next transfer window (February) due to a lack of activity can often work against you. It is worth a reassessment of your priorities today!

Jez Styles


How to avoid a Middle Management career rut

Earlier in the year I wrote about the lost generation of middle managers in retail whom face limited progression opportunities as a result of the recession, in essence a career rut. Since that article the redundancies have continued to flow thick and fast with all sorts of rumours about which retailer is going to collapse next. One might think that with all the doom and gloom in the market that the opportunities to develop your career are few and far between. However…

If you are ambitious and do want to avoid this scenario you have two very simple options, either ensure you are promoted in your current business or move to another organisation where there is genuine opportunity for advancement.

How to progress your career within your current business:

  • Does your Line manager, Head of Talent, HRBP know you have ambitions to progress? Sounds simple but don’t assume so. Be explicit about your career targets. Clearly you will need to judge when and how to position this conversation but it really is the starting point.
  • Are you getting the results? You know in your heart of hearts if you really are delivering, if you are not you need to address this.
  • So, you are doing well…does everyone else know that? It is all well and good if you run the most profitable part of the business but if the board / functional heads don’t know this you will have few sponsors when the next round of restructuring starts. I have met a lot of candidates with relatively modest results but who were fantastic self-publicists and as a result they were promoted!
  • Seek feedback. The old 360 appraisal can be painful but it will do two things; firstly it will highlight what you need to do to improve and secondly it says a lot about your focus on self-development. This is a competency that is being increasingly measured in assessment of stretch potential.
  • Work harder, it sounds old fashioned but to be blunt it makes an enormous difference to your senior stakeholders. Admittedly there has been a societal push towards work/life balance (and rightly so) but once again those who do more…achieve more.
  • Get involved in project work. If you are Head office based get in to stores, if you are operations based get in to Head Office. A key determinant of progression is breadth of experience. Your Operations Directors, Managing Directors and other board members will have done this at some point in their career. This will also expose you to other stakeholders and will give you a chance to self-publicise!
  • Socialise. Get to know the senior team on a more informal basis. Once again, the people whom are liked by the board tend to get the better jobs.
  • Identify sponsors, people whom have a vested interest in you doing well and will fight your corner / put a good word in when necessary. It’s an ego boost for the other party and you will also get good career advice.

You need to look elsewhere…what do you do?

  • Put together a ‘campaign’ plan with short, medium and long term objectives.
  • Identify what you want to do next. It is worth sense checking with your contacts that this is realistic. A major salary increase and a promotion are highly unlikely.
  • Call your contacts in the recruitment firms. While we recruitment consultants are often grouped together with estate agents, double glazing salesmen and those chaps whom knock on your door to kindly inform you they have just tarmacked your drive and you owe them 200 quid… However, we do on occasion add real value. There is an art to working your relationship with consultants - in short, what you put in you will get back. Behave transactionally or with contempt and expect a mirrored response. Similarly, if you want to get the best out of a consultant, treat him like a human being and they will do the same.
  • Speak to your sponsors. If you have built a few up throughout your career they should be able to put you in touch with their contacts, hopefully with a recommendation.
  • Call old bosses. If you did a good job for them before they will be inclined to give you another go.
  • Fire up your Linkedin profile. It is beginning to position itself as a job board these days and most internal and external recruiters use it as a secondary database. While you are there delete any old profiles on the job boards – they are very much aimed at the junior end of the market. Bear in mind that this is your shop window and as every Operations Director will tell you, customers won’t go in and buy if it isn’t well cared for.
  • Don’t be afraid to invest in some external support and advice this may be as simple as a CV rewrite or career/life coaching. A good quality CV rewrite will cost between £300-£500…roughly the same amount as a new set of wheels for your car…
  • Finally, do your research before accepting an offer. A large number of candidates have found their CVs becoming very patchy over the course of the recession as they have hopped from one business to another. The one factor that generally underpins any mistake in a career move is a lack of due diligence. Would you buy a house without having it surveyed?

Good luck...

Jez Styles


Is the recession creating a lost generation of Middle Management in Retail?

There has been a lot of publicity recently about a lost generation of graduates and school leavers who cannot find work.  Equally the steady rise in redundancies that has continued unabated throughout and beyond the recession has affected large numbers of people. Those of you who are in work will naturally feel relieved that you are in employment and ‘safe.’ At the start of the recession the vast majority of recruiters and businesses used the ‘sell’ of job security as a means to both retain and attract talent. The vast majority of candidates placed this at the top of their wish list for their next job. Of course this was going all the way back to 2008 and for some as early as 2007 when Retailers starting cutting costs with dark clouds gathering in the US over the sub-prime crash. Large numbers of retailers have taken the opportunity to soak up this surplus of talent. Between 2009 and continuing through 2011 it became common place for Retail Directors to take Regional Manager positions, Regional Managers to take Area Manager positions and Area Managers to take Store Manager positions. This downwards pressure on the job market has continued and there are plenty of businesses out there whom are still capitalising on the opportunity. Another product of the recession has been Operational restructuring. Store closures aside this tends to predominantly affect Area Managers through to Retail Director level. Large numbers of retailers have quite simply removed a layer of management, typically at Regional level. As a result a large number of chains now have a model where an area manager will lead a group of up to 40+ stores and report directly to the Retail Director. It’s a big jump for a Store Manager to make and an even more unlikely move for an Area Manager to move to the one and only operational role above them. So to recap, there are less layers of management, less positions and increasing numbers of senior operators whom are settling for a role that is a step below where they have operated previously. That safety that candidates have been flocking to in recent years is beginning to look like stasis or to be more dramatic a career trap.  How long are you willing to sit it out? The reality is, depending on whether you are a glass half empty/full type of person, we are likely to see recession / negligible growth for at least another 3-6 years. Given that lots of people have been in lockdown mode for the best part of 3 years, the risk averse among you will potentially not be looking for a promotion or external career advancement for up to 9 (YES NINE) years. Guess what, when you start looking for a job at that point, your drive and ambition will be challenged and to be realistic you will probably struggle to make another move upwards. Are you feeling quite so comfortable with being safe now? Interestingly there have been more of those elusive ‘passive’ candidates coming on to the market at the start of 2012. The Executive’s candidate board that is Linkedin is testament to the change in mind-set. Lots of candidates see no issue with loading their profile on to Linkedin with the hope that they will be ‘found’. I suspect that a large number of these people will take a more aggressive approach to their career advancement in 2012. Will those that do not be left behind?