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IRC 2015 The keynote speakers on directions in retail

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Strategy. Curation. Transformation. Stores. Testing. These were central concepts for keynote speakers at Internet Retailing Conference 2015 this morning as they considered the directions that retail has travelled in and will travelled over coming years.

Peter Williams, chairman of and Mister Spex and a former Selfridges chief executive, opened the session by considering how retail had developed up to this point, while Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, member of the board and executive director marketing and international, M&S and Dan Rubel, strategy director at Shop Direct told of current transformations and expectations for the future.

Ian Jindal, editor-in-chief of Internet Retailing, welcomed delegates to the 10th annual Internet Retailing Conference 2015. “When we started on this journey 10 years ago, even talking about ecommerce seemed to grow a goatee and we had to start wearing our sandals and changing the world. It was all about the internet,” he said, paying tribute to Mark Pigou, whose idea IRC first was. “Over the decade we’ve seen a move from ecommerce being an interesting add on to being a fundamental part of the business.”

Peter Williams, chairman of , reminded the audience how retail had evolved from market stalls to department stores to the internet. Now, he said: “There’s been a generational shift in behaviour: members of the younger generation always research online before buying. We don’t know where this is going to end: younger generations all use the web for everything – but it’s not the end of the physical stores.”

He said the web would continue to evolve, enabling retailers to make it ever easier for shoppers to buy, and for them to expand into new international markets. “For you facing this new world, this is all a fantastic opportunity.” He added: “The world is having to change. For many years retail boards didn’t really change very much. You need a digital person on the board, someone who really gets digital. I think there has to be a generational step down to make it younger.”

Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, member of the board and executive director marketing and international, M&S , explained how the retailer, an Elite trader in InternetRetailing’s IRUK research, was changing in line with customer behaviour. “Over the last 4-5 years M&S as probably been on one of the most transformative journeys it has ever been on,” he said.” Consumers are shifting, quickly and they are smarter, faster, empowered and we have to respond to it. As a retailer, you have to move at scale, at speed every day.”

He said being a brand with “meaning in life” and the effective use of content was now essential in commerce as retailers look to differentiate themselves in a saturated market. “Curation is essential,” he said, adding: “If something is trending on social and online, we’ll be ready to have the right content for the consumer. Brands need to have that capability.”

Asked about M&S’s approach to innovation in a large business, he said: “We bring in new ideas, and we see the customer response. It is about being very flexible, try them now, fail fast, try at a small scale and move on.”

Dan Rubel, group strategy director at Shop Direct , told how the retailer had gone about transforming itself from an unprofitable catalogue company with hundreds of stores to a profitable digital-only business. The decision to sell the stores to Primark in 2005, he said, had been a “liberating” one, creating a company that is able to obsess about he digital experience. But, he said, the work was not yet finished. “We don’t view ourselves as successful in terms of the finished article,” he said. “We very much think that we’re a work in progress and that there’s a huge amount to do. Nice list of what we’re good at – much longer list of future opportunities, things we’d like to improve.”

He singled out learnings from that ‘work in progress’, explaining how it was important to define a clear strategy, something that is “about choosing where to focus and where not to focus: if there aren’t some smart things that you’re choosing not to do, then it’s not a proper strategy in my mind.”

Investing in people, testing, personalisation and discipline had all been important, he said. Transformation could be tough, especially when investment is taken away from some areas and channelled to others in the light of changing customer behaviour. But above all, he said, “People are the rocket fuel behind our success and of all our learnings, they’re the underlying reason why our transformation has been a success.”

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