Plastic fantastic

In this months Retail Focus article I discuss how retailers need to put a plastic-free policy at the heart of their operations to prove they are serious about going green… for good.

Look around any swimming pool while on holiday this summer and you’re sure to be greeted by the sight of kids splashing around on giant inflatables in the shape of animals, birds, doughnuts… you name it. Despite pressuring their parents to pack them to take home, the vast majority of these are left discarded thanks to luggage allowances and lack of storage space (and use) back home. After all, how often will a giant inflatable turtle be used in a grey UK summer? Although if you have paid £82 for a Sunnylife Tropical Island Inflatable from John Lewis, then… just maybe.

Summer is boom time for plastic use, with cutlery and cups used for picnics and BBQs. And to me, this sums up perfectly the subject of the latest media focus – single-use plastics. Items like straws and cutlery that we use once then discard, and which are causing growing environmental problems that we are only just sitting up and noticing. It’s why it’s heartening to hear that some UK summer festivals such as Boardmasters have signed up to reduce single-use plastics via a cup deposit scheme.

This spotlight has also led to a number of high-profile organisations scrambling to announce their latest measures in order to prove their own green credentials. McDonalds is banning plastic straws in the UK and plans that, by 2025, 100% of its guest packaging will come from recycled, renewable or certified sources. JD Wetherspoon pubs have replaced plastic straws with paper, with Pizza Express planning to soon follow suit.

So where does retail fit into the great plastic debate? I find it intriguing that shoppers have a bag tax but retailers regularly use single-use plastics and discard them. If plastic use was entrenched in government policy retailers could and would be leading the way. Not only would this save us, and them, money, it would save our poor planet from being burdened with all this useless plastic.

By now most of us have seen that rather haunting picture of the seahorse wrapped around a cotton bud. A powerful image which perhaps sums up the magnitude of work to be done. A proposed EU initiative will ban the use of cotton buds, plastic cutlery and straws… but with the ubiquitous Brexit imminent, the UK will need to start making some strong decisions of our own.

And taking steps, I’m pleased to see, we are. The UK Plastics Pact is an industry initiative designed to encourage supermarkets and food companies to reduce, recycle or compost their plastic packaging. Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose, Lidl, Aldi and Sainsbury’s, among others, have already signed up. Supported by the government, it is a worthy – though currently only voluntary – scheme. Interestingly, Parliament itself is joining in the attack on plastic, introducing compostable cups, replacing plastic water bottles with water dispensers and using refillable condiment containers instead of sachets. If the powers-that-be in government can take these steps then surely our more ‘user-friendly’ retailers can join in?

It’s heartening to see enlightened retailers taking their pledges above and beyond paying a little lip service to the issue. IKEA is planning to phase out all single-use plastics and reduce its overall dependence on plastics – and if you’ve ever been lost in a Market St you’ll know this will affect many many (many) products! Good work from a company best known for flat-pack solutions.

Retailers need to follow this example and reach further back than simply shuffling what’s on their shelves or upping their recycling. The most savvy will take a forensic look at their supply chain, looking at how they can switch to sustainable-use solutions instead.

For example, Waitrose is committed to making all its own-label packaging, such as food trays, widely recyclable, reusable or home compostable by 2025. Over the last nine years it has reduced its overall packaging by almost 50% and became the first retailer to stop selling products containing the now-banned microbeads. Good work Waitrose. Oh and they aren’t selling plastic straws beyond September 2018. It seems the death of the plastic straw is fairly imminent.

Another retailer taking a hardline stance on the issue is Iceland. It’s become the first UK retailer to eliminate plastic in all of its own-brand products and boldly pledged to be completely plastic free by 2023. Perhaps a surprising trailblazer, but I applaud them for having the guts to rise to the Goliath-like challenge and show true commitment and integrity.

 

Today, growing numbers of us are invested in using brands that support causes that are close to their hearts. And it’s hard to avoid the topic of plastic – pleading lack of awareness of the issue is not going to cut any ice.

It’s time for retailers to wise up. No more excuses, no more glossing over the issue, no more passing the onus back to their shoppers. By putting a plastic-free policy at the heart of their operations they’ll prove they’re not just playing a one-trick PR game, but are serious about going green… for good.

Explorer – New York City

Bucking the trend

It’s a trend in retail that has been taking shape for a while, but now it seems that the ‘death of minimalism’ is becoming a seriously big thing. And nowhere is this more evident than, appropriately, in the Big Apple.

As is so often the case, trends are seen here before anywhere else, and this one is no exception. Right now in New York City (rarely noted for doing anything that’s pared down), retail design and visual merchandising is adopting a much more theatrical approach.

In the run up to the 2000s, high end retailers moved in favour of a very stark instore aesthetic – deliberately very bare, plain and simplistic in an almost monastic sense. Mainstream high street retailers eventually adopted the trend too, stripping back their interiors but, as a result, removing many important brand personality traits too.

More recently, the likes of Gucci, YSL, Dior, Calvin Klein, have recruited a flurry of young designers, each seeking to establish their own narrative by trail blazing a different kind of aesthetic – one that rejects minimalism in favour of more much more pronounced and decorative look and feel. Bold and in your face, they are highly individualised to the brand, embracing rich patterns and defiantly carrying a love it or hate it aesthetic. Even if you’re not a fan of the result, its ability to clearly differentiate one brand from another cannot be argued.

Breaking convention and breaking the rules

Perhaps the clearest example of this trend is the Gucci flagship store in SoHo. Previously known for following narrow and minimalist aesthetic, the brand now boasts an edgier feel and much more disruptive design influence, breaking convention and breaking the rules. And it appears to be working. Gucci has completely transformed and revolutionised its fortunes in the last few years.

Its SoHo store is all about making a bold impact and edgy statement and not just about selling products. It’s about creating a brand space and saying, with great confidence, “We have arrived. We are here. And we are dramatic”. Though still very exclusive in look, their SoHo store is all about mixing pattern, print, textures, designs, detailing, cut and even gender. The result? Success.

Unlike many designer brands that end up excluding the general public, Gucci has always been accessible. This has only been strengthened, with a store that is fun and highly playful. Leading in with an old school theatrical cinema display that doubles as the window display, shoppers are encouraged to sit on cinema seats alongside mannequins dressed head to toe in Gucci to become part of a ‘living’ display. It’s clear they have invested a lot in VM theatre instore.

So when will we start to see this trend filtering down to mainstream retailers? We will see more becoming disruptive and more levels of decoration and differentiation in how they present their concepts, Ted Baker being a great example.

For most big chain retailers like Next, Oasis and Gap, wanting to buy into this latest trend will be one thing. Applying it will be quite another. Gucci has a limited number of stores internationally, and they can spend a lot of money to bring in a big team to pull off these kinds of store executions and ensure consistency across the brand. Implementing such schemes becomes a much bigger and more difficult job to achieve in the world of mass retail. From the physical cost, to the huge internal change that is often required to deliver, and deliver it well.

Make no mistake: I’m one of its biggest fans of this latest trend. As well as delivering clear brand differentiation, it creates the kind of captivating retail experience that makes you want to spend time instore. Countless retailers are crying out for ways to make shoppers do that right now. Sadly, without the right level of external support and guidance to take the essence of the trend and apply it well, at scale, most mainstream retailers – with stores in cities and countries all over the world – have a lot of work to do before they will be burying minimalism, and celebrating the arrival of this more inspiring trend in their stores.

Pride 2018

Hot on the heels of celebrations in America at the end of June, it’s London Pride this weekend.

This year’s event marks the 30th anniversary of Pride, and retailers have come out in full support like never before.

In just a few short years Pride has been transformed. Originally an event to commemorate the Stonewall Riots of 1969, it has grown to become a truly global celebration of the LGBTQ+community and diversity, in all its forms. But Pride, it seems, is increasingly no longer under the sole ownership of its own community.

This year in New York and London, stores have gone all out. Yes, it’s a special anniversary in London but I personally have never seen Pride referenced by retailers in such a comprehensive way before. It by far outweighs World Cup displays and is, arguably, even more prevalent than mid-season Sale windows.

Whether you love it, or disapprove of Pride being ‘hijacked’ by major corporates, there is no doubt that many retailers have taken to embracing celebrations imaginatively and wholeheartedly instore. Like the event itself, it seems that Pride has made its ‘loud and proud’ mark on the annual retail calendar.

 

View our Pride 2018 store image gallery here

Explorer – Washington DC

Power trip

Latest figures from retail intelligence specialist Springboard and the British Retail Consortium showed that footfall was down 2.9% in UK shopping centres during May.

During my recent visit to the US capital, there were no such signs, with business still brisk within its most popular mall destination, Tyson’s Mall. It first opened to the public in 1968, becoming one of the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping malls in the Washington metropolitan area – although it is actually located in the state of Virginia.

Today, it is still a major draw for those who still want the mall experience in DC, due in large part to a committed programme of investment and refurbishment over the years. This has ensured it has evolved and remained relevant. A great example of this is the addition of an outdoor terrace, complete with artificial lawn and games.

It may no longer be the power brand it once was, but the Abercrombie & Fitch store is perhaps one of the most interesting within Tyson’s mall. This retail concept was the first of six prototype stores that opened last year. The following stores have yet to open – read into that what you will. But, at least, it is very different.

This store is emblematic of the retailer’s desire to embark on radical transformation as a way to change shopper perception of the brand. Certain aspects of the store are interesting due solely to the fact that they display a sense of bold experimentation or genuine raw creativity, and makes a welcome change to the conventional and formulaic A&F concept.

Once through the open entranceway, you find yourself part of an interior catwalk that guides you deeper into the store. Complete with pavement, bicycle and street signs, it has an engaging ‘street scene’ vibe. Elsewhere throughout the store, greater emphasis has been put on co-ordination. The overall result delivers a more boutique and aspirational feel to the store. Displays are entirely low-level. It may signal a different approach for A&F, but it’s very much ‘of the moment’ – similar to the new Zara stores, and others, who are deploying the technique as a way of making the brand look upmarket, simply by leaving less stuff out.

About two miles, and a very hot walk across four freeways, is Tyson’s Galleria. Here, Bonobos is one of the undoubted highlights. The brand was founded in 2007, and started out as a pureplay online brand. Bonobos moved into physical retail spaces five years later and was acquired by Walmart in 2017.

From a VM perspective, it’s hard to actually make a point of difference for what is, in effect, just another menswear store. Essentially, there are only so many things you can do. But this is a brand that has really have thought ‘out of the box’. If you’re looking to find a menswear store that is truly innovative and really doing things differently, this is the one to look at. Polo shirts, shirts and shorts they may be, but they’re still handled in a way that is very different. Product volume gives way to just displaying one of each, working together in a very imaginative solution. The result really makes their products feel exclusive.

Moving into the neighbourhood streets of 14th Street in downtown DC, J Crew Neighbourhood store is quick to catch the eye. When it launched, J Crew said the location was chosen because the energy and vibe on 14th Street fits well with the brand. And fit right into the neighbourhood it does – just. The store operates within a very small space. Nonetheless, it’s everything you would expect from J Crew: very select, and a great example of retail done well.

While some retailers in Washington DC may be struggling – having to discount to keep the sales going despite the economy and retail sector in the US doing better – there is a wealth of inspiration that awaits visitors to the city, with clear pockets of innovation and forward-thinking that continue to breathe new life into established and new retail spaces alike.

View more images from Explorer: Washington DC

Explorer: Hong Kong

Lap of luxury

Despite challengers to the regional retail crown, Hong Kong is still the place where new retail concepts are found first. Brands trial their latest ideas here as they are often readily accepted and quickly proven or not.

One such concept is the new Ralph’s Coffee, an upmarket cafe from the Ralph Lauren brand stable. The brand has already made headway in New York, Chicago, London and Paris, and in April opened its first Asia outlet in the hugely popular Ocean Terminal Mall. Richly decorated in the brands hero green livery, it has a Brooklyn style ‘look and feel’ with smart, signature packaging for take home coffee and associated coffee brew wares.

Also in The Ocean Terminal is a new branch of the BEYORG Organic spa – also with stores in the upscale Landmark and Pacific Place. Beauty retailers abound in Hong Kong, and it’s a huge and booming business. But to make money brands must have a superior concept and elevated brand delivery for success: A clearly differentiated brand concept, high innovation, superior service and simply the most beautiful and effective products. This brand ticks all the boxes.

Other points of newness include the latest Cos flagship store (bigger but different?), in Central and the eye-catching but bizarre Prada Pop Up Store in the Pacific Mall. This homage to retro train travel sees Prada with its own massive replica train carriage of the Silver Line. This doubles as a place to its luxury bags, luggage and leather goods.

Visiting a ‘quality’ mall near you, the Prada Silver Line Pop Up Shop is currently working its way around upscale shopping malls around the world – last stop before Hong Kong was Istanbul. Europe and the USA are scheduled.

Retail and retailers are always evolving, and the pace in Hong Kong is only getting faster. Without continual investment instore – especially in bold cutting edge retail environments (no half measures work here)… brands can quickly date and look tired.

In my opinion, this point should not be lost on Hong Kong mainstay, Lane Crawford. This eponymous chain of luxury department stores is starting to look weary. It’s main stores in Times Square, The Ocean Terminal, Pacific Place and IFC mall are rapidly slipping behind. Lane Crawford has long been a byword in brand innovation and luxury through the products it stocks. Brands and consumers want to be seen here. But it has been some time since any major refurbishment work was carried out in its stores, and whilst VM and standards are still pretty much on point, shoppers have not experienced anything new for some years.

With competition so fierce, there can be no room for complacency. And while its stores may still look ‘new’ to tourist and one time shoppers, Hong Kongers with large disposable income and lavish lifestyles will no doubt be eager to see new, more and better from their ‘go to’ department store brand.

Like the Prada Silver Line train, Retail doesn’t stop in one place for long. While it is evident that the Chinese tourists are back in Hong Kong – doubtlessly a relief to luxury International brands that, for many years, were boosted by the emerging Chinese middle-class economy – and eager to ‘jump aboard’, with them comes heightened expectations for new ideas, better concepts, leading standards of store presentation and exceptional customer service. Retailers in the region may once again be set to see their fortunes grow; but success is likely to be reserved only for those that have to continued to invest in ‘better’.

News The trouble with M&S…

Marks & Spencer has suffered a big fall in annual profits and is to close 100 stores. Like many in the industry, the news came as no surprise to me. Put simply, M&S has been off the mark and lacked its spark for several years – spending too long dealing with legacy problems, instead of looking to the future.

So where does a retailer of this size and scale go from here, in its bid to deliver effective retail transformation?

Weight of opinion.

It seems everyone has an opinion, yet some topics are over-discussed. M&S is one of them. Indeed, there was an entire TV episode (aired last night on Channel 5, Thursday 24 May 9pm) entitled ‘The Trouble With M&S’, dedicated to exploring the retailer’s woes.

M&S CEO Steve Rowe admitted this week that the business has been too “inward looking”. But listening to the hordes of external voices will, ultimately, add little value either. Like a football stadium filled with thousands of ‘managers’ on a matchday who could all do a better job. What M&S needs now are trusted, experienced hands and (finally) real action to transform retail performance – and quickly.

Back in 2016, I urged M&S to refocus its proposition, build on its strengths and offer much a better shopping experience for its customers. For the greater good of British retail, I felt compelled to speak out. That was when Rowe first announced plans to conduct a review into its store estate. Since then, change has been slow arriving – too slow. Maybe not to those working internally, but certainly in the eyes of those who matter most: M&S customers. Two years in modern retail is an eternity.

Change needed, fast.

When so much seemingly needs to change, the challenge ahead can appear both complex and convoluted. Typically, it’s not:

1. Define a clear and effective Recovery Plan
2. Focus on what you want to be known for
3. Provide unified, aligned and expert instore delivery
4. Be clear on how you want customers to shop your stores
5. Support transformation with stability, conviction and clear communication.

Getting the basics right really can and does make a difference. And best of all, many of the foundational pillars of effective transformation available to M&S (and others like it) are, in fact, relatively low cost or no cost ‘quick wins’.

These can deliver visible change in the eyes of customers, employees and shareholders which belie the lack of agility that larger retailers often struggle with – reinvigorating stores in the here and now, and buying crucial time while larger-scale soul searching and restructuring takes place, to secure the longer-term future of the business.

M&S has struggled to excite and entice customers within its stores for some time now. Thankfully, for what it was worth (in terms of goodwill, rather than money in the till), people continually willed it to revive its fortunes. But customers are fast losing faith and patience: just how many people really do believe in M&S anymore?

Time is short. This moment calls for decisive action, and the senior team within M&S will be all too aware of what is at stake.

Wise admission?

In this months Retail Focus column, I discuss how more retailers are embracing the new ‘experience economy’. Should we be charging shoppers to enter stores?

With the nation gripped with Royal Wedding fever, it’s hard to avoid the headlines and the big debate – who should foot the bill? While taxpayers aren’t funding the wedding itself, it’s likely they will be paying for security, road closures and policing, all of which can come at a high cost. Perhaps Harry and Meghan could take a leaf out of one resourceful couple’s book, who – when realising they couldn’t afford a big wedding – decided to charge their guests a £150 admission fee; putting them up in an all-inclusive resort to sweeten the deal. Controversial… perhaps. Or just smart thinking?

After all, paying for experiences is hardly new. We visit sporting events, music festivals, the theatre, historical landmarks, and know that there will be an entrance fee. And as more and more retailers are moving towards embracing the new ‘experience economy’, could paying to visit a retailer soon become the new norm?

It’s certainly become something of an emerging trend. Take mobile network Three who is launching its ‘All you can pug’ brunch event this month, where guests pay £5 to gather with their furry friends to enjoy a tasty meal together and 75-minute experience. Or the ‘Gucci Garden’, a grand example of experiential retail where shoppers were charged €8 to enter its multi-level galleria. Then there is small UK coffee chain Zieferblat who asks guests to pay per minute to enjoy their facilities – but don’t charge them for the coffee itself. And let’s not forget one of the original ‘paid-for’ outlets – Costco customers have long been paying an admission fee, although they hardly receive a retail experience in return.

In some cases, retailers take the opportunity to sell space to third-party brands, a sensible way to recoup some of their commercial costs (as long as they choose wisely). But increasingly, retailers are seeing their premises not just as selling spaces but as ‘doing’ spaces, where giving a high-cost experience for free makes little commercial sense.

Is there an opportunity for retailers to charge for experiential retail, and will shoppers be willing to fork out? Absolutely. But not for things which should already be integral to the brand experience instore.

There is, however, a fine line between added-value experiences and minimum expected standards. I have certain expectations when I visit a store or an outlet. They’re not what I’d consider to be big or demanding, simply what smart and savvy brands should be delivering without a second thought.

Shoppers are perhaps a little more discerning than retailers given them credit for. Most are not time poor, but are time precious – so they are selective about how they spend time as well as money. There are certain areas of the store they want to hurry through – and conversely, certain areas they’re more inclined to linger. In the same way, there are certain experiences they expect as a given, and others which they see as ‘high value’ and are more inclined to pay for.

It should go without saying, but a shopping experience that’s logical, easy and enjoyable should come as standard. In the pursuit of delivering ever-more imaginative and engaging retail experiences, the fundamental basics of good retailing should never be allowed to slip. They need to be well maintained, all day, every day, offering a consistent experience to shoppers at every visit. These are the not-unreasonable expectations of what any good retailer should unequivocally be offering.

Perhaps if more retailers and store teams approached maintaining daily retail standards as if their customers had paid to enter their store, we would immediately see a visible difference. Why is so much attention given to the small details of daily maintaining standards within the hotel industry? Because customers are paying to be there, and expectations are therefore higher, on both sides.

Retailers could ask themselves the question: ‘If we were charging customers, would they buy it?’ Essentially they should be creating an experience that is worth an admission fee, even if one is never charged. My bugbear is that more retailers should be raising standards as if they had a monetary value attached. Which in fact, they do – getting these essentials right helps to foster brand loyalty, makes for an enjoyable shopping experience and creates a warm, welcoming retail environment. And what price all of that?

Really, there are no excuses here to not be getting it right – with numerous examples of best practice and support out there from specialists to help retailers deliver ‘root and branch’ transformation of their retail experience.

Retailers need to get realistic. Before they start heading down the admission fee route, they need to look at what they’re currently offering and asking themselves if this is simply a decent shopping experience. Until more retailers get this right, charging more for elevated experiences will be a very long way off for many.

Explorer: Venice

High water mark

In many ways, Venice could easily be used as a metaphor for the current state of retail. Like the tide that laps against its palazzos, the city is ever-changing, over the years it has been forced to use its initiative, it works hard to maintain a distinct identity, and it continues to rely on innovative ideas in order to survive. This is a place where water and ingenuity is plentiful.

Venice has long been a favourite destination for tourists. The maritime city is idyllic, with its own romantic charm. Views here have changed little since the original Canaletto architectural paintings of the 1700’s. Now, only time and the ravages of weathering have altered the scenic splendour – the once pristine rendered and stucco painted facades, revealing more of their red brick inner core closer to the waterline. The rich wooden and stonework features now with a patina of dirt, grime and centuries-old rot.

But what is the city like as a destination for retail?

With no cars, taxis, trucks or motorised vehicles of any kind, the city arguably offers the perfect environment for shoppers to enjoy their retail travels around the stores that Venice has to offer: calm, peaceful, tranquil and sedate – in fact, almost completely noise free.

Here, the corporate world of architecture is not celebrated. Those who adore glass towers and views from 50 floors up will be disappointed. You’ll find no retail street signs, neon, LED or digital screens shouting for your attention either. It’s transformative, restorative and harks back to a quieter life and times. And it’s not needed. The scenery speaks for itself.

The biggest space for retail is reserved for the department store Fondaco Dei Tedeschi, one of the most famous buildings in Venice located at the foot of the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal. Like most Venetian building with a grand waterfront, signage is not allowed. Shoppers chance upon and discover this place via one of the narrow cobbled streets that make up the streetscape.

Inside, the building pulls plenty of surprises. Most Venice buildings are small, low ceilinged affairs with beautiful historic interiors. This store opens up into a vast central atrium, like a roman amphitheatre. Stone built with massive blocks, its is cut through on every floor with half moon windows, like stone made festoon blinds opening views to every floor. It’s a story of complete luxury. The finest clothing, accessories and beauty brands are arranged in beautifully crafted mini boutiques around the central atrium. In fact the store is notable for the space it does not use for merchandise. If ever the term less is more applied, it is here.

Perhaps the most refreshing reason for visiting the city is to escape the homogenised streets and malls that greet your every turn in most European cities. Make no mistake: chain store retail is here, but it is very limited in the number of outlets and brands. It really does make a change not to see the usual suspects of brands, names or things we see everywhere, and all the time.

Luxury retail, as you would expect, dominates. But few of these retailers offer little in the way of newness or inspiration for those hoping to spark their imaginations. For that, you have to venture into one of the many high quality independent family retailers that can be found across the city, producing beautiful artisan Italian goods. From handcrafted leather and shoes to deliciously tempting confectionery.

Whether you have a sweet tooth or not, Venice itself is a real treat – in the most subtle of ways. It’s humble, unassuming and grand (by default) at the same time. But above all, it feels like slow and personal. A place that’s clearly content to go as its own (gondola-like) pace and maintain its traditional values and conservative lifestyle, while the rest of the world speeds on by. A place to relax, contemplate and take in the sights while recharging your soul, and possibly buy something unique and memorable too.

(Spring) Clean Conscience?

I discuss how retailers are simply struggling to survive under enormous pressures to find ways of delivering growth in a difficult climate in this months Retail Focus column.

The government has pushed ahead with its new sugar tax in its bid to tackle obesity and help reduce the nation’s waistlines – though after consuming copious amounts of chocolate over Easter, the sugar content of soft drinks may hardly register.

While the new levy will hit those with a sweet tooth, it is consumers with a conscience that have, traditionally, paid the price. Want to support brands that are socially responsible? You’ll pay more. Buy organic – pay more. Make ‘green’ choices in the products you purchase – pay more. ‘We can’t afford to shop at any store that has a “philosophy”!’ Although these words may come from the iconic, albeit fictional, cartoon matriarch Marge Simpson, when discussing where to go shopping, they capture the sentiment perfectly.

But the focus is shifting, away from the cost to consumers of being ethical and towards the price that retailers are likely to pay for a failure to demonstrate a strong moral stance. At the same time, the question of what it truly means to be ‘ethical’, and how retailers should respond to this increasing scrutiny, is an interesting one. Recent full-page ads depicting a (seemingly) contrite Mark Zuckerberg pleading for forgiveness over data harvesting claims show how even the mightiest can fall when faced with the wrath of a duped public.

Of course, the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility has been around for a while. But where before the focus was primarily on environmental credentials and ethical supply chains, it has now taken on a more holistic mantle. Consumers are no longer simply demanding to know exactly how and where products are manufactured. Like retailing itself, it has become more about taking a 360 degree approach – encompassing diversity, morality, environment, provenance, workers rights, and declaring specific ambitions to make a change for the good.

Many large corporations could take inspiration from smaller retailers, who have led the ‘quiet revolution’ of transparency and conscience, pushing it not as part of their brand but as intrinsically in their DNA. Organisations like Hiut Denim, a fashionista-favourite high-end jeans manufacturer that harnesses local skills and craftsmanship in its hometown of Cardigan in Wales. Previously home to a factory that produced jeans for Marks & Spencer, the town boasted workers with artisan skills and Hiut Denim’s founder David Hieatt focuses on this heritage as a key part of his brand.

One example that is particular pertinent, as I prepare to head to Montreal later this month, is Canadian fast-food chain Tim Hortons. This brand has moved away from the ‘quick and dirty’ side of fast food, instead focusing on boosting its community credentials, acting as a friendly neighbour rather than a faceless corporation. But sadly, even such bighearted brands can have a dark side, and recent news one of its franchises is scrapping its paid breaks for workers has put a question mark over its true ethical commitments. Can a company that (somewhat ironically) relies heavily on coffee-break sales scrap this perk for its own employees? After all, if other employers followed suit, Tim Hortons may find its coffee machines grinding slowly to a halt.

In a similar fashion, consumers are now quick to hit retailers the ‘hypocrisy’ tag. Launching an instore recycling initiative to let shoppers drop off unwanted items at their nearest store is laudable. But miss the mark on issues like diversity and consumers will soon forget such admirable gestures. The extent to which H&M was vilified for its ‘monkey’ hoodie gaff at the start of the year is proof enough of that fact. Topman has also endured its own Twitter storm for its red ’96’ hoodie, designed to celebrate a Bob Marley song but seen as distasteful in its unwitting reference to the Hillsborough disaster.

In today’s world, calculated tactics, however good their intentions, and honest mistakes are seen as equal affronts by eagle-eyed consumers – Millennials in particular – raised on a diet of social media outrage. Whatever you stand for; if you don’t do it, mean it and live it, the message from consumers is clear – we are simply not prepared to buy into that.

One final word on ethical behaviour: Taxation. As many, including myself, have been discussing in the media and online discussions recently, the practice from some etailers of making large revenues but declaring widening losses due to ‘building the brand’ is becoming increasingly prevalent. At what point do online retailers have to show a profit… if ever? Surely it’s only a matter of time before this is put under the same kind of spotlight as Corporation Tax avoidance?

There are unspoken rules of conduct in many aspects of everyday life: keeping to the right of the escalator on the Tube or tipping for good service in a restaurant. For me, any brand that innovates and serves their shoppers well should enjoy the commercial rewards. But they should also declare their profits to the exchequer like all good citizens are expected to do.

It’s little wonder then that many of world’s biggest brands today invest huge sums on elaborate PR efforts to promote greater transparency to consumers. Although clearly, some have more work to do than others.

We all know retailers are under enormous pressures to find ways of delivering growth in a difficult climate. In some cases, they are simply struggling to survive. But this can categorically not be done at the expense of ethical behaviour.

Yes, everyone accepts the fact that balancing divergent and competing demands is increasingly difficult. But for all the effort and energy retailers may putting into delivering transformation and turning around fortunes at the minute, the harsh truth is this: one wrong step and all your good work can be undone, in an instant.