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IRC 2013 THE KEYNOTE SPEAKERS The customer as ‘master of the universe’

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The customer is no longer king – but master of the universe – and retailers must innovate and change in order to adapt to that fact.

So said Sir Stuart Rose, opening keynote speaker at Internet Retailing Conference 2013 (IRC 2013), today, addressing the conference theme of the new normal in retail.

“They always used to say the customer is king,” said Sir Stuart, who is chairman of Ocado and Dressipi but is perhaps best known for his reign at Marks & Spencer where he was chairman until 2011. “The customer is not king any more, the customer is the master of the universe. You have to give them what they want when they want it.”

And not only that, said Rose, but it’s also important to give it to them at a price they are prepared to pay. “Not what they can afford or what you can give it to them profitably for, but what they are prepared to pay,” he said.

Too many retailers, he said, had responded to the recession and the time of change by sorting out their balance sheets and then carrying on as normal. But this was not to respond to the technological changes that are going on.

“This recession,” he said, “ has mostly been a good thing. It has not allowed businesses who didn’t deserve to, to survive, and that has allowed others the space to grow. Retail is still alive.”

But, he said, retailers must adapt to the new realities of how customers want to buy. “If you continue to innovate and do a couple of things you can survive and prosper.” Those couple of things are to move with speed, and not to work in isolation.

Laura Wade-Gery, ecommerce and multichannel director at Marks & Spencer, continued the idea of change, tracing the history of M&S from its everything for a penny roots, to the present day when the normal was the widespread prevalence of the internet.

That was the message from Sir Stuart Rose, keynote speaker at Internet Retailing Conference 2013 today.

Some 1,100 visitors, including 550 conference delegates, gathered for today’s conference, with 79 of the top 100 e-retailers represented to consider the conference theme of the new normal in retail. When the internet started, she said, to post a product description pushed at the limitations of the technology. Today it’s all about photos, videos and, she said, “3D printing will force us to think yet again about how things can be done.”

“Digital puts the customer in the driving seat – as master of the universe,” said Wade-Gery, before going on to explain how M&S had changed to meet that new normal around a customer demographic that might be a mature one but was still a technologically capable one. She pointed to ways the internet amplifies the store experience, from the use of 1,500 iPads in M&S stores to the reinvention of the shopper experience in its virtual-rail-equipped Amsterdam store and the use of wi-fi in stores. “We are just at the beginning of understanding and exploiting that potential,” she said.

But behind all the customer-facing development, she said, it was important to reshape infrastructure and staff capabilities, from board-level down, to reflect the new normal.

The final keynote speaker, Ilan Benhaim co-founder of, argued that the new normal was fast becoming a multichannel world that included shops. Of the top 20 US e-tailers, just one, Amazon, was online-only.

However, he then went on to explain how had grown to 19m members and €1.3bn through word of mouth – and could not itself have shops because the model would not work. “The pureplay model can’t work where they are spending on visitors,” he said.

Customer service, he said, was at the root, while constant innovation in this area as well as technology, digital production and logistics were also key. “You need to work on the customer experience to improve sales,” he said.

He also went on to suggest that as multichannel retailers grew the proportion of their business done online from 5% to 20%, they should move first to selling internationally before then moving to become a crosschannel business. “Crosschannel isn’t about IT but about organisation,” he said. “It’s about training people in the stores to understand that.”

Find out more about Internet Retailing Conference 2013 here.

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