Beyond Brexit: Building Retail in a new epoch

The ramifications of the British vote to leave the European Union are barely understood, but the radical implications cannot be underestimated. There are some challenging lessons, and more-challenging opportunities, to be seized as we move from bemoaning or celebrating to the realities of building a new future.

THAT THE world had qualitatively changed was clear as I addressed our inauguralEuropean Summit in Berlin the week following the Brexit vote. The overwhelming messages from the gathering of the IREU Top500 retailers was that the UK’s skills and expertise were valued, and that there is a bond between multichannel professionals that bridges national boundaries. This is clearly shown too in the first ranking of Europe’s Top500 multichannel retailers, the IREU Top500 2016, which we’re pleased to release this month. Europe and trade are certainly the issue of our time.

Epochal change

We are witnessing an epochal change – of radical disruption. While the digital revolution caused disruption, there are few events in our time that have recast social relationships, rewritten the rules of politics, recast national relations, rejected the underpinning legal settlement of nationhood, trade and personal freedoms, while resetting people’s expectations of the course of their families’ lives. Short of war, this is the most wholesale disruption we may see in our lives and from this we need to create and seize opportunity. The manner in which we act post-Brexit will test and set the character of the UK and Europe for the next generation.

Our industry could be characterised by a customer-focus, a bias for innovation and change, and a global perspective. All of these are fundamentally, radically challenged by the Brexit vote. The questions to consider are broader than retail alone, but as a major employer and generator of economic value we have to engage more broadly than solely our own bailiwicks. Areas of engagement include:

  • How better to connect with our customers, many of whom have expressed an anti-urban, anti-establishment, anti-globalisation sentiment? If our customers are never wrong then we need to find a better narrative of inclusion and relevance, even as they seek out global brands at discounted prices… We need to consider how we communicate and live our values, not just our pricing and promotion policies.
  • Our staff are simultaneously an asset to our business, our own customers, and the disaffected or disenfranchised voters. Skills development is needed both for our own performance and for our employees to have a stake in society and confidence about an improving future of employment, mobility and affluence. How can we connect with our staff to align our commercial progress with their lives and hopes?
  • What needs to be done to retain competitive, open market access? Both for sales of our own goods and the purchase of goods for resale, consumables and infrastructure?
  • As we have a chance to look afresh at our regulatory frameworks, what is necessary to ensure a level playing field? What regulation do we want to retain, remove, introduce?

Over the coming months we will be seeking, listening to and synthesising the voices in our industry as we look to create positive outcomes from this disruption. Our editorial approach at IR is to reflect the board-level, cross-disciplinary, commercial conversation and so we’ll look at all areas in which we can make an impact.

What questions do you think need to be addressed? Where should our focus lie? Please let me know your thoughts. Over the coming year we will hold informal discussions across the UK and in key European cities, under the Chatham House Rule. The aim is to have an agenda, an approach and consideration points in time for the next European Summit in Berlin in June 2017. We have invites to Liverpool, Edinburgh, Manchester, London, Paris and Amsterdam, but we’ll go where the conversation leads. If you have an office or venue that could host us, please do let me know. While the focus of the discussion will be amidst multichannel retailers, key suppliers to the sector have an important voice and we invite their contribution too.

Please drop me a note at ian@internetretailing.net if you’d like to contribute.

This article was first published in InternetRetailing Magazine in July 2016 and on Linkedin as a post.

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