“You want to work in retail because it’s all about people” – Transforming the High Street at Sea Containers

Over 100 alumni gathered at Sea Containers for a discussion on a topic of great contemporary relevance and urgency: the fate of the high street. With businesses having to adapt business practices, jobs at risk, and consumer behaviours and expectations changing rapidly, this is a theme that has implications for everyone. The high street is an important part of the cultural and social fabric of our cities and towns, and as such it is not surprising that the event was so enthusiastically received by alumni.

If you were unable to join us, don’t worry – the event was livestreamed and you can see the whole discussion here

After a warm welcome from our host Paul O’Donnell (Politiccs, 1983), Chief Executive at Ogilvy EMEA, who had generously gifted us use of the venue, we were introduced to a superb panel of alumni speakers:
Catherine Nunn (Chemistry 1990)
Chief Executive of Lakeland
Faye Roth (Combined Languages, 1998)
Head of Delivery and Transformation at River Island
Geri MacAuley (Management, 1988)
Head of Fashion, Buying and Design at Jojo Maman Bebe

Our panelists for the evening, from left to right:
Catherine Nunn, Faye Roth and Geri MacAuley

The discussion was expertly facilitated by former University of Hull academic Dr Victoria-Sophie Osburg, who is now Senior Lecturer in Marketing at University of Sheffield Management School, and covered a broad range of topics from understanding what customers really want, to the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms, and the increasing importance and value of ethical consumption.

“Fundamentally, I want to be upbeat,” said Catherine Nunn, immediately challenging expectations that the mood on the high street is exclusively despondent. “You want to work in retail, because it’s all about people. People enjoy shopping, it’s a social activity. It’s not just about buying stuff, it’s about learning something, experiencing something, connecting with someone. And it’s actually a pretty exciting place to be.”

“We will absolutely start to see machine learning and artificial intelligence become more mainstream,” Faye Roth said, discussing how technological advances will bring change to the high street in the near future. “We’re currently implementing machine learning to improve our allocations and replenishment. Retail needs are polarising between experience and enjoyment, and immediacy so it’s really important to understand who your customers are, where they are geographically and be able to predict what they want, when they want it and in what size they want it. Machine learning can do that much better than any of our algorithms today.”

“Our customers constantly surprise us,” said Geri MacAuley, referring to a period she spent observing customer behaviours in stores to better understand them. “I sat and I watched mums walking around the store. There are a lot of things that we talk about and think that we know about, but until you actually see them in action and look at how they behave, and how they interact you don’t. Two mothers were walking around the store saying ‘I won’t buy this, it has too much plastic’, or ‘I only want wooden toys’ and I was just fascinated. Those are things you can’t learn in the office.”

That was the key theme that threaded through the discussion: listening to and understanding the customer. If the high street is to survive the challenges ahead, the key is to look to the consumers and take guidance from them.

“A lot of it is about unlearning the principles and the assumptions that we have had about how retail has worked,” said Faye Roth. “Let’s look with a fresh mind at what the customer wants today. There are new retailers who are doing very well and growing, and it’s about understanding what the customer of today and tomorrow wants from us.”

With further news coming in recently about major retailers encountering difficulty, the stakes couldn’t be higher, something that was referenced by Catherine Nunn when she discussed the responsibility on her shoulders as Chief Executive at Lakeland.

“The pressures on businesses such as retailers is absolutely immense,” she said. “I’m very conscious that the decisions that I make will determine whether 1500 families can pay the mortgage at the end of the month. You are responsible for these people and their welfare.”

Over the course of an hour, our alumni responded to a huge variety of questions from both Dr Osburg and the audience, and gave a fascinating glimpse into the challenges that high street retailers face, and the changes they are making to address those challenges. If you want to learn more about retail, then the video of the discussion between Catherine, Geri and Faye is a must watch.

Below is a selection of images from the evening.

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