The last few months I have been confronted with several occasions that have demonstrated why not all retailers are equal. Moments where it is very clear what separates the real merchants from the ‘professional managers’. And every one of these moments has been about the decision making required to show leadership. I know it is fashionable and politically correct to support the notion that anyone can be taught how to be creative and lead. I personally think that is rubbish.
There is something deeply embedded in being a merchant that cannot be taught in my opinion – it needs to be experienced and learned (as opposed to being taught) from a young age. It isn’t a process that can be slavishly followed. It is an attitude, the way your thinking has been shaped and conditioned by all that you have been through and is often hard to explain. There are lots of intelligent people who have taken positions in modern retail businesses, but very few of them are true merchants in the pit of their stomachs. Let me give you an example. If you need qualitative research to give you answers you are not a merchant. The best retailers I have ever worked with know what drives the behaviour of their customers better than their customers do because they observe them all the time.
They walk the stores of both their own business and their competitors; watching, listening and often interacting with customers and shop assistants. They are always thinking about what the customer is consuming, why and how they can get a greater share of their wallets by performing in a way that stimulates them to visit more, buy more and buy more often. They observe how their staff performs and – because they have worked on the shop floor themselves (and every other area of the business for that matter) – they know what human beings can and can’t do and how to show them and motivate them to do more.
Professional managers have a place. Just not in the critical leadership positions that involve the key ingredient that cannot be taught. Judgement.
In a world that is overly fixated with data – BIG DATA – this seems like a nostalgic thought. Except that it isn’t. Time and time again in every category of retail, the big competitive breakthroughs come from genuine merchants who have the ability to make the right judgement call at the right moment. I’ll take one of them every time over the best resourced data analyst or professional manager.
Most great retailers process the information that they need every minute of every day, much of it subconsciously. They know the answers and know how to find pragmatic ways of delivering quickly. They are true leaders and despite what the modern day theoreticians would have you believe, they are very hard to replace. These people don’t often fit our modern day human resources model because they aren’t career focused. They are customer focused. And for all the jargon about customer centricity, most modern retail corporations are not focused on the customer. Research doesn’t give you customer focus.
A well-led culture with a merchant who has great judgement, knows how to win the hearts, minds and wallets of customers. They’re who you need to find, promote and hang on to. They’re the ones who inspire the team to win. So who would you have backed – Steve Jobs or John Scully? Because we all know the outcome.
Peter James Ryan is head of Red Communication and can be contacted on (02) 9481 7215 or at email@example.com.
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