One of the greatest retail success stories in the world, that has prospered for over a century, is now facing down new retail giants. Very soon, online shopping portals Amazon, Alibaba and eBay will command 40 per cent of global e-commerce.
Like every retail operation, the John Lewis Partnership is assessing how much emphasis to put behind traditional channels (stores) and online. Marketing director Becky Brock believes that it is human interactions, not just a focus on digital, that will help her brand to stand out. She told last week’s UK Festival of Marketing that John Lewis faced “irrelevancy” if it failed to live up to customer expectations.
While John Lewis is upping its e-commerce game and offering customers more digital personalisation, this will “count for nothing” if the retailer doesn’t still offer great human experiences. That of course has always been the foundation of the John Lewis brand - one of the first businesses to turn all its employees into shareholders. Since then, their staff, or ‘partners’, have always delivered careful service and impartial advice to customers.
Here in East Africa, any retail growth we have seen has been driven by attempts to scale-up physical presence. E-commerce is relatively new; but may have high potential among our young early-adopting consumers. But the hard truth, witnessed both by highly public retail failures and by behind-boardroom-doors disappointment, is that we have not yet mastered retail on a large scale.
When South African chains first probed north 20 years ago, they believed replicating the Checkers store in Magaliesburg would wipe the floor with the Dar es Salaam retail market. It didn’t. Their stores looked impressive - apart from the bearded Afrikaner manager standing hopefully in the doorway. Their shelves were full of hitherto unseen products. But the whole concept was so alien (literally lacking in local human relevance) that Tanzanians just walked on by.
Then our entrepreneurial Asian community took up the challenge. Investing huge amounts of other people’s money, seizing anchor sites in the new malls, and pressuring manufacturers on credit terms. They didn’t really understand marketing, and they didn’t get the human dimension right. But if your natural inclination is to treat every employee like a dishonest domestic servant, you are unlikely to escape early 20th century stereotype.
Stores have got bigger. There have been some desultory attempts at loyalty schemes. Staff training may have happened. But without the right brand direction and organisational culture to support it, retail staff-customer interaction remains frustrating.
Two decades on, we all still shop at the dukas we know. As far as the Retail Revolution goes, in East Africa we’re still waiting.
Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside