Retail: my tale of faith, love and survival

Sophie Mackenzie – Senior Partner, AdMore Recruitment

I previously worked as a Recruitment Manager in the IT industry. When I resigned in July 2011 to join a specialist Retail consultancy there was many a raised eyebrow. There were gloomy headlines about the Retail industry and that has been pretty much the case ever since. There is no question that I have taken a leap of faith: faith in the potential of the business I have joined and the abilities of my new colleagues but also faith in the future of the UK Retail Industry. So why make this perilous move in the middle of a recession where, as usual, Retail gets the biggest hammering?

The thing is, I really love the industry. I love the variety, the heritage, the way it changes constantly and most of all, the people who work in the industry. There is a common thread that runs through most retailers – they are down to earth, pragmatic and real grafters. In most cases, retail businesses are meritocracies – rewarding the best performers and offering genuine opportunities for progression. Few industries can say the same. As the third generation of my family to work in retail, you could say it’s in my blood.

My Grandfather left school at 15 because his wages were needed at home and he started work in a fancy goods shop on the Golden Mile in Blackpool (a veritable Aladdin’s cave of toys, souvenirs, and ‘saucy’ seaside postcards!), working his way up to Manager. Before long, he decided to open his own shop, a local newsagents. Meanwhile, my own father left school at 17 and, after a couple of years as a bank clerk, joined Marks and Spencer as a management trainee. He remembers fondly the days when Blackpool was such a cutting edge place to be, that M&S used the store to trial all the latest ranges – how times have changed, sadly. 20 years later when my Grandad retired, my Dad left the corporate world to take over the family business.

Our shop was the hub of the village. Dad applied ‘big’ retail techniques to his small business and so, unlike so many of the newsagents and convenience stores you see – poorly stocked, windows obscured by posters and small ads – it was well lit and presented with a decent range of product and standards were meticulously maintained, not least by yours truly who worked as a Saturday girl while still at school. Although under increasing pressure from the tighter margins imposed by the newspaper publishers and the rise of the supermarkets, Dad didn’t take this lying down and tried to ensure there were other reasons for customers to come to the shop – a photocopier, fax machine (!), an extensive greeting card section and eventually a National Lottery machine. By anticipating changes in the market and through the sheer hard graft of he and my Mum they built a successful business. They had the largest delivery round in the area, employing around 40 local children to deliver papers, most who now have children of their own. They had a zero tolerance approach to lateness and poor performance but made a point of writing detailed references for them when they left for university or for their first ‘proper’ jobs. (Retail remains a great grounding even for those pursuing other careers, something Gen Y should surely be made aware of?)

After 25 years of 5am starts, 364 days a year, my parents retired and sold the business as a going concern. 8 years on, the shop has declined significantly – it is poorly stocked and shabby. Yes, market conditions are extremely tough and there are setbacks – the pub across the road has introduced Pay and Display parking which has affected the passing trade which the local shops benefitted from. However, the owner seems to have given up and the future looks decidedly grim. As my Dad said the other day “it’s not rocket science, you just need to think about what your customers need and adapt” however I think this simplifies it too much. If you really know retail and have energy and passion, then yes, it is relatively simple but that still doesn’t mean it is easy. You need to have the commercial nous to identify opportunities and get more from less, whether you are in a large multiple or a local newsagent. Running any small business is tough and in retail even more so. Being self-employed isn’t an easy option and, as in the retail industry as a whole, you have to have the right skills to succeed: commercial acumen, resilience and passion as well as an unwavering work ethic. As a recruiter, I know only too well how rare these qualities can be.

Clearly, the changes in the retail market are affecting everyone including the most cherished of brands and this is the new reality we must all accept. However, when I think about all the talented retailers who have been made redundant in recent months, I can’t help but wonder what they could achieve with ‘our’ little shop. What impact would it have for our economy if our ‘nation of shopkeepers’ had decent retail experience and we could find a way to harness the skills of the many individuals that have been displaced?

My parents are powerless to prevent the decline of their life’s work (and my Grandfather’s before them) and it is heart-breaking to see. However it is the brutal truth that, big or small, if you aren’t able to adapt, innovate, and do it quickly, the market will find a way to seal your fate. The challenge for all of us who love our industry is to understand this new landscape and do whatever we can to adapt, create new opportunities and ensure that these ruthless market conditions do not find us wanting. Above all, we must keep the faith!


12 thoughts on “Retail: my tale of faith, love and survival”

  1. Interesting take on retail. I am a dept manager in retail and have worked in this sector for many years. I think things are a bit different here in Canada. We are influenced by the American retail trade. The company I work for is 100% Canadian but I still notice the way retail is influenced by the cousins across the border. I have a good education and here in Canada, retail workers can be treated like lepers in the work world–you must be working in retail because you don’t have enough education. Here, in Nova Scotia where I live, retail is one of the biggest work sectors. I have mostly enjoyed the kind of work I do but customers are different now. I think they are influenced by the silly influx of design shows and think that is the way their properties should look. It has created what I call, “property snobs”, people who want it now, want it big and if they can’t get their way, can make your life miserable. The only ones who don’t get affected by this are the presidents and ceo’s and owners of retail chains, etc.

    1. Thanks Chris – interesting to get your insight into retail in Canada. I agree, retail isn’t as highly valued as it should be, in my view. With low barriers to entry, it offers the opportunity to progress to Board level, irrespective of their educational background and in my experience, retail is a real leveller with people of all backgrounds and education working together – few other industries can say the same.

  2. Hi Sophie

    I loved your story and the retail journey you and your family experienced. I agree with your Dad and as a retailer with 25 years experience I still believe that you need to get the fundamentals right first time for your customer, listen to them and give them what they want in the new multi channel arena which retail now firmly lives in.
    I believe there is always more that can be done to improve the retail landscape and it starts with those of us who work with retail in whatever shape or form. What we do today will surely make or break us tomorrow.

    1. Absolutely Alan. I think all of us who rely on the Retail industry to make a living have a collective responsibility to do what we can. A dose of optimism and positivity is needed at present!

  3. Thank you for sharing. I have worked part-time in the retail industry, for over 20 years, and have enjoyed it immensly. I agree that keeping a positive attitude is key for success.

  4. Hi Sophie , i commend you on your enthusiasm for helping out retailers, I worked for almost 2 decades in retail (custom built leather furniture , sold in our own retail stores, manufactured and sold in the states) I am glad i am no longer in that field, the thing that wore me down was the consumer (certainly not all but enough) Their expectations were sometimes completely unreasonable and the consumer has changed over the years , I’ve noticed a generally meanness and irritability that they feel they can take out on retail employees. I see it all the time today in grocery stores , restaurants, department stores, etc… Maybe its just Americans , but it seems like Chris from Canada has seen some of this as well. There is no doubt retail is a hard nut to crack , the competition is fierce and w/ the introduction of the internet and all its ability to crush brick and mortar stores. Good luck on your future endeavors and keep fighting the good fight! Cheers~Robert C

  5. Hi Sophie,

    An interesting insight of customer expectations and deliver ability with desire to offer more. One of the worlds biggest industry needs to get to the basics to deliver ‘wow’ experience. It’s easy to complicate but difficult to simplify for organised retailers and it is easy for mom and pop store to adapt quickly. This needs to go into the culture of bigger players too.

  6. Sophie, What a great article. You expressed very eloquently what many of us feel. I am a retired retailer of 45 years. While challenging, and sometimes thankless, I loved the industry for many of the same reasons you list. I would love to see government begin to apply those learnings that retail has taught so many of us. Thanks for a great article.

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