As Senior Buying Manager and Consultant for one of the fastest growing supermarkets, Lidl UK, Will Fletcher (BSc Business Studies 2002) talks about his journey into retail buying, the challenges facing the sector and why you should never stop innovating.
Tell us about your role
What attracted you to work in the retail industry?
Retail is really the final step in the consumer product supply chain, it doesn't sit apart from that and is only differentiated from the rest of the chain in that it competes with other retailers selling potentially the same products and holds the strongest negotiation position in the chain in most instances.
It is a massively dynamic and competitive industry, especially in the UK and especially in 2020. Thriving on challenge and change makes being at the leading edge of a retailer a very attractive proposition.
The route I took to retail was not direct, but the more I found out about how it worked and what it took to win at retail it became clear they were things I was interested in.
My Imperial Business Bsc gave a lot of exposure to product development, manufacture and route to market, coupled with in depth work on competition and marketing. This led me initially to a British company who design and manufacture tech in the consumer audio visual field (Cambridge Audio, a celebrated British tech company). I was at Cambridge Audio for four years, initially working on Projects as the CEOs assistant then managing sales to retail to a key customer (Richer Sounds) and later running the global purchasing and logistics team at the age of 25 gave me a rounded exposure to the supply chain of a product from conception to delivery and highlighted what a challenge working with innovative retail was.
I left Cambridge Audio to pursue a career in retail buying, initially for the leading premium tech retailer Sevenoaks Sound and Vision (which included Harrods Sound and Vision department) as a Consultant Business Process Planner, subsequently pursuing a number of retail business change opportunities in burgeoning retail sectors where change heralded the opportunity to drive real innovations in businesses and transform results.
These steps included putting Tech into HMV, bringing global mega player Best Buy to the UK with their purchase of The Carphone Warehouse, setting up the Goods offer of the dot-com unicorn Groupon then revitalising Toys R Us tech offering (as featured in BBC World Business Report), then washing the same change philosophy over Babies R Us unit in the UK, then for Europe for Babies R Us and subsequently Toys R Us.
What has been your biggest success to date?
Challenging perceptions of what was possible in terms of customer positioning, commercials negotiation and retail proposition. I helped set out a bold vision and delivered on promises in Tech at Toys R Us then repeated the same game-changing results in the Baby category at Babies R Us. This was registered high for me as it proved that well- thought out new and innovative strategy will trump repeat of previously successful proposition and real change is the only way to repeatedly unlock double and triple figure growth.
What skills did you learn from your time at Imperial that you use in your work?
The thing about an Imperial business degree is the 360 approach to learning the subject. Capturing Marketing Accounting and Finance, Business Law, Business Information Systems and Business in Practice gives you a solid base understanding of each function of a business, something which many could otherwise spend their careers wondering about. Heavily featuring case studies brought study to life and a year I spent at a leading drinks company in the production department allowed me up close experience before fully having to commit to a commerce sector. Further to this the Business in Practice module allowed us to create market research projects, develop conceptual products and launch plans - the favourite being where we created a tech item back in 1999, the tera-media player, which would be a tera-bit (1000Gb) portable media player and answered customers new demand to store their downloaded mp3 downloads and listen on the move (sound familiar...?)
What makes a good buyer – what are your top tips?
Dynamism and competitiveness.
How has the industry changed over the last 15 years?
Retailers who offer the customer what they want won 15 years ago and win today. As the customer needs change ever faster, those who can also change fast win and those who cannot fall away ever faster. Following a sustained boom for retail in the early 00's a number of cashing-out events left big retail names carrying debts or leverage which simply hadn't left them scope to change at the speed consumer needs have, culminating in the wave of change currently happening on the high street.
How is online shopping affecting shops?
The rapid rise of online exacerbates the problems for retailers who could not change their business model fast enough to consumers current needs. It is creating a tipping point for retailers but is really just one of the reflections of consumers changing behaviour and not the single problem for retail which it is often described to be.
What can shops do to combat this and future-proof themselves?
Keep an offer which aligns to consumers current and future needs and remain flexible.
What do you look for in a new product?
A hit product solves a current consumer need effectively and offers what the consumer will recognise as great value. As a buyer I don't treat my role as a product developer more as an ever developing feedback mechanism between what consumers want and what is currently being made.
How do you stay ahead of the competition?
Never stop innovating. Always challenge long held beliefs.