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Interview: retail guru Andrew Jennings on why "Almost Is Not Good Enough"

Lauretta Roberts
17 November 2017

"I've been around the block a few times and I've worked in various geographies with various different customers and I thought I had something to share," says Andrew Jennings on his reasons for writing Almost Is Not Good Enough, a new book aimed at retail CEOs and aspiring retail CEOs which is based on his ample experience and has been launched this week.

It's fair to say that Jennings has been further than around the block during his 45-year retail career. He has quite literally been around the world, heading up businesses in the UK, Ireland, North America, Germany and South Africa. His CV includes some of the industry's most famous names including Saks Fifth Avenue, Harrods, House of Fraser, Karstadt and Woolworths (the South African one, that is, not the collapsed UK retailer that was once famous for its pick 'n' mix).

At the moment he is chairman of Dutch discount chain Hema, an adviser to Australian department store Myer and a non-executive director of Ted Baker, as well as a chair of the retail leadership group for the Prince's Trust (to whom all the proceeds of his book will go) among other things. Incredibly he manages to fit all this in and still only works 10 months a year and, even more incredibly managed to produce his 240pp volume on top of it all.

Ted Baker

Ted Baker: "Ray Kelvin has done a phenomenal job"

But he seems surprised anyone would find it hard to get all this done. "I just took x amount of time a week when I would work on it and I had a great editor and researcher. If you diarise the time you can achieve anything," he says, describing the process as "fun". Good time management and enjoying what you do; that's just two of the many reasons why Jennings has been so successful.

One of the others is that he has never stopped learning throughout his career ("I always say that I'm a student of retail," he says) and he wants to help others to be the same. The book is full of personal stories from Jennings about stores he has worked with and visited and also includes the contributions of more than 35 retail bosses on what it takes to be a success, including Lord Stuart Rose chairman of Ocado and former M&S CEO, Richard Umbers CEO and chairman of Myer, Ewan Venters CEO of Fortnum & Mason, Sir Ian Cheshire chairman of Debenhams and Anne Pitcher managing director of Selfridges to name a few.

It also includes a number of case studies on retailers that fell by the wayside and why they did so; these stories are dubbed the Retail Graveyard and include some familiar stories, including the collapse of BHS and Austin Reed and the failure of Banana Republic in the UK.

One of the overriding themes to emerge from these stories was the brands' failure to identify and respond to the changing needs, desires and behaviours of customers. In other words they failed to be "relevant" and so important is this topic, this need to remain relevant in the facing of ever-changing customer demands, that it is the first one to be tackled in the book.

"Customer is king" is one of the classic retail truisms, but Jennings takes that further describing the customer not as royalty but as a "superbeing". "[This customer] is time-starved, knows what they want, has a point of view, and wants it in the most convenient way to them," he explains.

"The number one most important factor is know your customer and understand your customer. Your business has to have a point of view, if you don't stand for something you stand for nothing. Sometimes, what you don't sell is more important," he adds. (Jennings not only advises curating your offer tighly but managing your inventory tightly too "don't just spread it around like fertilizer", he says and refers to a retailer's point of view as its "North Star" insisting every business needs one).

Certain e-tailers have been particularly good at servicing this "superbeing" and Jennings cites Net-A-Porter as one of his most favourite ever retailers and its founder Dame Natalie Massenet is, he says, "extraordinary – one of the most talented people I have ever met." Which is high praise indeed given that Jennings knows everyone who is anyone in retail.

It's on the subject of success and retailers that he loves that Jennings is the most animated, ask him who his favourite retailers are and he happily reels off a list. "Ted Baker. [Founder] Ray Kelvin has done a phenomenal job, every single six months sales increase and profits increase. Boohoo, they have done a fantastic job. Harrods is a great business, focused on who their customer is, and Selfridges, under Anne Pitcher and Paul Kelly, it's a great store," he says. He loves Liberty too and expresses great sadness that Ed Burstell, its former managing director, left the business late last year.


ARKET Regent Street: "so clever, like a mini department store"

On the high street, he doesn't miss a beat when asked who does it best. "H&M is my favourite. Their new store Arket is just so clever, it's like a mini department store and & Other Stories is great too," he says.

He's optimistic about the role of the high street in this increasingly digital world, though he acknowledges it's tough and the technological change the sector has witnessed, while representing a great opportunity, has also been massively disruptive in a short space of time. "When I started in retail, you wrote receipts by hand and put the cash in a tube to send it to the office. Now customers can serve themselves and pay for something without even meeting a cashier. It's the equivalent of going from a horse and cart to the electric car," he says.

Nonetheless he thinks customers still value good shops and cites areas such as Marylebone High Street and Regent Street (and being an H&M group fan, he would like it there) as shining examples of world-class retail that attract customers new and old with stores that offer experience, service and newness. "The high street has a great future!" he asserts.

Well, maybe not everyone has a great future. He does agree with those who say that the sector as a whole is going through one of its toughest times in recent history, but retailers will have no choice but to deal with whatever the market throws at them. "Do you want a final piece of advice?" he asks. "Change or die."

Almost Is Not Good Enough is available to buy now from Amazon and leading retailers including Harrods and Selfridges.

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