Can one person change fortunes?

This months column looks at why decisive leadership is crucial to retail transformation success. 

Strong leadership is crucial in all walks of life. Leading through continued success takes one type of person. Pulling people up, making them believe and giving them hope and motivation during bleak times takes quite another.

While I often like to focus on the importance of teamwork in retail, it would be almost negligent to overlook the importance of that one person at the top – with a clear vision, focus and determination – in delivering success.

One such example is departing Burberry boss Christopher Bailey. This visionary leader delivered his last London Fashion Week show recently, and deserves to be applauded for his revolutionary work with the brand. Since joining as CEO in 2014, he has turned Burberry’s fortunes around, making it Britain’s biggest luxury brand.

Using several innovations, he has arguably taken the brand to new levels – it was the first to 3D live-stream catwalks and advertise on Snapchat, plus it famously combined men’s and women’s fashion into one show.

The brand’s new chief creative officer is Riccardo Tisci. He may have been somewhat of a surprise appointment to those anticipating a British designer to be named, but Tisci, already credited with turning around the fortunes of Givenchy, could prove, once again, to be another inspiring appointment by Burberry.

Being the prominent figurehead of a brand is not without its challenges though. Once a leading light in every respect, Sir Philip Green’s reputation since the downfall of BHS – and the accompanying pensions debate – has been somewhat tarnished. Rumblings of a sale of his Arcadia empire to the Chinese abound – as his ageing brands Dorothy Perkins, Wallis and Evans are overshadowed by more contemporary players such as boohoo and Missguided. With Green denying the deal, we can only speculate upon the future of this battle-bruised leader.

Green is perhaps a good example of not allowing complacency to sneak in. It is a reality that sometimes established retailers can become too big, too lumbering, too bureaucratic. And when this happens, an injection of fresh blood is often the only way to reverse the fading fortunes.

One brand that is currently seeking a revival of fortunes under new leadership is fashion giant New Look. The retailer is one of several fast-fashion brands which has had to battle a barrage of negative media headlines in recent months. It’s at times like these that strong, confident and bullish leadership is called for – the ability to deliver quick, decisive change in the face of adversity really can be the difference.

Perhaps here I can reference another classic film, The Godfather – in which Michael Corleone tells Tom Hagen, ‘You’re not a wartime consigliere, Tom.’ Solid, dependable, loyal… yet what the family needed at that given time was someone with fire in their belly and passion in their blood. And in a similar vein, New Look recently brought back its own ‘wartime consigliere’ in the shape of Alistair McGeorge, to lead a turnaround of the retailer’s fortunes. Since his return, he has spoken with fiercely assured rhetoric about this being a brand that knows what has to be done, and intent on making it happen.

Transforming a retail giant’s fortunes in today’s tough economic climate, let alone in the face of endless doom-mongers, takes steely resolve, unswerving determination and complete, unshakeable faith in your decision making.

For these strong leaders, there is no room for sitting on the fence, prevaricating or muddled visions. Sharen Jester Turney, during her time as president and CEO at Victoria’s Secret, turned the brand into a global powerhouse, with strong, solid sales and an international reputation. Sir Stuart Rose performed similar feats, resuscitating Marks & Spencer during his time at the helm there.

During 2018, there could be any number of retailers that may have to look to their respective leaders to deliver similar decisive action, clear thinking and dynamic, dogged determination. H&M has warned of a difficult 2018 and will be looking to Karl-Johan Persson to steer it through. Debenhams is pinning its hopes on Sergio Bucher to boost its straggling sales. And after a disappointing Christmas for House of Fraser, all eyes will surely be on how Alex Williamson plans to lead the retailer out of its slump.

It’s true that success is delivered through strong retail teams. But this success can only be driven from the top. The broad shoulders of a business leader are designed to carry a business, a brand, as they strive mercilessly, endlessly, for better. This is no time for mere fighting talk. It’s time for dynamic, inspiring leadership that packs a punch from all angles.

Leave tech at the door

In the latest Monocle Magazine – April 2018 edition, I was asked by Matt Alagaih what my thoughts were on the recent and upcoming tech craze.

For many, shiny tech seems to offer salvation. So it was at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in New York this January: whether augmented-reality mirrors or QR code scanners, gadgets and gizmos promised more enticing shopping spaces. Karl McKeever, founder and managing director of retail consultancy Visual Thinking, is not so taken with the tech. “Too often the starting point is not a requirement to solve a clearly defined shopper need but the selfish want of retailers to be seen as being on-trend and staying in step with competitors.”

The main thing technology affords is convenience but e-commerce players already have that in spades. Offline players have to compete on different metrics: beautiful interiors (not blighted by AR mirrors), enjoyable live events and ever-changing product ranges and layouts.

By all means offer free home delivery once your customers have tried clothes on but don’t let it define your space. As McKeever puts it, opt for “emotional intelligence rather than the headline-hogging artificial kind”.

Men: an endangered retail species?

In this months Retail Focus column, I discuss if men are becoming an endangered retail species. Why is directly serving the needs fo men such a delicate issue? 

Masculinity in crisis. Toxic masculinity. Increasingly, the rhetoric surrounding men is shifting, and none too subtly. The all-powerful, alpha male subtext is no longer dominant. Instead, commentators everywhere – both male and female, across the whole media spectrum – are changing the focus, asking new questions and demanding different, and better answers.

This new tone is spanning politics, TV, Hollywood and journalism. In the US, Trump, Allen, Weinstein and Spacey are continuing to leave a lasting – and negative – legacy. Closer to home, equal pay rows at the BBC and the fall-out from the President’s Club headlines have turned established concepts on their head. While some men have been rightly tamed and shamed, the wider male population may be forgiven for feeling vulnerable and scared to comment or speak out for fear of being shot down.

The truth is that male shoppers are poorly served by most high street retailers.

Masculinity is truly under an uncomfortable spotlight. And the reality is, this is no different in retail. While the march to entice the female pound continues apace, the truth is that male shoppers are poorly served by most high street retailers. Many ‘traditional’ men’s stores are becoming more female focused, with brands such as Halfords, B&Q and Richer Sounds increasingly seeking to attract more female shoppers. Meanwhile, men must be content with the rather tired concession made by womenswear retailers of a comfy seat outside the changing rooms.

Are men being (poorly) served?

Today, men’s clothing is frequently an apparent afterthought, a ‘tag on’ to womenswear in brands such as River Island and H&M, with no retail experience that specifically caters for their needs. As a result, men literally have nowhere to go. That is, unless they want highly formal wear, jeans, dedicated sportswear – or to resign themselves to shopping at M&S, George, Tu and F&F.

Across the pond, it’s much the same story, although there are a few more specific retailers for men, such as Men’s Warehouse and Johnstone & Murphy.

So why are men being so fundamentally neglected? Especially given – in an ironic truth of unequal pay – that men often have higher levels of disposable income. There is money to be made. Why don’t retailers want to make it? In the current environment, retailers are struggling to increase sales and profit, so tapping into a lucrative market like this would make perfect strategic sense.

Is it a case of equality gone too far in the other direction, ‘political correctness gone mad’ and the need to avoid discrimination accusations?

Should retailers and men be ashamed of wanting or offering this type of experience? Why not offer ‘hangout’ spaces where men can hang out in tribes and do ‘men’s stuff’ to win the male pound? Exclusive, private and masculine with no women allowed. Or more realistically, should there be a balanced middle ground? One that is glaringly absent at the moment.

Men on a mission

There’s a whole industry out there devoted to the ‘metropolitan’ man, with designer stores and fancy trappings, swanky new floors in Harrods and Harvey Nichols catering for the savvy, moisturised and bronzed guys. Beard salons, barbers, whisky bars, craft breweries and private members’ clubs are all rife – but their appeal is undeniably limited.

Online retailers follow a similar path. For a fat monthly fee, the enlightened online man can enjoy styling, grooming, butler and concierge services. Here, like a remote dating app or your Graze Box, you tap in your preferences and a neatly packed ‘new you’ will be sent out for you to slip into in the comfort of your home.

But what is there for the average, middle-aged man/dad? For those looking for a new jacket or some different shoes, these offerings are nothing short of overkill. Desperate men are scouring the high streets to find something they can relate to, away from the dizzying world of the androgynous millennial branding. It’s an era of discontent for these male shoppers who retailers are seemingly happy to ignore.

When will these men stand up and say: ‘Why aren’t we being served?’ Personally, I think sooner rather than later.

Only the most foolhardy retailer will ignore the value of the stalwart and steady male pound.

A few years ago, Moss Bros introduced a men-only mainstream lifestyle chain called Code. Modelled on the ‘next for men’ concept which was often in standalone stores, it struck a more ‘men’s only’ environment for shoppers. Would this business have fared better in this more fashion conscious and fashion confident time for men? For me, there is undoubtedly money to be made for retailers and brands that can get the right mix, and surely it won’t be long before savvy retailers really wake up to this. The ever-insightful John Lewis has already introduced personal shoppers for men into eight more of its stores after an initial trial proved popular. Experience, service and product – it’s not such a difficult concept. And Next has recently announced plans to integrate a car showroom and barber’s shop inside its Manchester Arndale store – a bold and intriguing step for a brand not renowned for its audacity.

The world of the all-powerful male is well and truly over. We’re welcoming in a new era of equality, and masculinity in crisis would perhaps be better phrased as masculinity in flux. Being reimagined and rebooted.

But only the most foolhardy retailer will ignore the value of the stalwart and steady male pound. What do men want? Perhaps more tellingly, what don’t they want? It’s time for retailers to create their own rhetoric, stepping out of the shadows of fear and becoming a beacon for other industries to emulate. One of integrity and equality… for all.

The Retail Exchange

NRF Big Show Special

Every year, the retail industry descends upon Manhattan for the NRF Big Show trade fair. This January was the biggest in the fair’s 107-year history, with over 30,000 attendees. The big technology players were all there, smaller independents jostling for space alongside them, displaying their pre-eminence and innovations.

Taking place in the current tough retail climate, I was able to spare time to report on the key themes that are set to dominate the retail agenda in the year ahead.

NRF Big Show Special

Vintage VM: It’s worth its weight

In this months Retail Focus column, I discuss how the vintage sector is shaking off its ‘shabby’ label.

The start of every New Year invariably offers a time for reflection, introspection and re-evaluation. And January 2018 will be no exception. But while many resolutions are often short-lived, increasingly, as a society, we are seeking new ways to achieve a more permanent solution when it comes to reducing consumption levels, in all aspects of our lives. Recycling more, eating less, cutting down on social media, and reducing spending. Thankfully, despite some predicting we are close to some kind of retail apocalypse, it appears we are not ready to shop less – just differently.

You may immediately think I’m referring to the on-going tussle between online and physical retail: I’m not.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable growth in thrift and vintage store concepts, driven by demand from the Generation Z and Millennials. While upcycling and recycling are far from new watchwords, the trend for buying ‘seconds’ continues apace. The difference is that, increasingly, the vintage sector is shaking off the ‘shabby’ and ‘scruffy’ label, with more and more sophisticated vintage concepts to be found.

For me, German retailer Pick N Weight is one of the best examples around. It is by no means a unique concept – there are a plethora of vintage stores in every city these days. The retailer itself isn’t new either – in fact, it’s been around since 1989, with stores in Hamburg, Berlin, Cologne and Munich. But when I visited its Cologne store over the festive break, I was struck once again by its commanding presence and distinctive offering to shoppers.

Its product range can only be described as eclectic, covering everything from disco to military to drag, a heady choice for the discerning vintage shopper. Not here a vintage store that resembles a jumble sale, either. Make no mistake: this is a true store, with products grouped into categories and sub categories – easy to browse and enjoyable to shop, in spite of the volume of product. And believe me, there is volume.

But the key and most unique feature of Pick N Weight’s concept is that the price that shoppers pay for the products they buy is determined by their weight. Meaning those looking for lightweight fabric items can discover some real bargains.

This type of concept isn’t new, nor is it reserved for the vintage market. Vegan restaurant Titbits is a stylish self-service diner and takeaway which charges for its homemade food by weight. With restaurants in London, Basel and Zurich – by no means places associated with thrift – it is proof if needed that this type of concept has legs.

Is there demand for this type of concept in fashion retail? I can categorically, definitively answer this with a resounding YES. The store was bursting at the seams, not just with its product but with eager shoppers seeking to discover their ‘one of a kind’ great buy.

Nasty Gal, which recently opened in London’s Carnaby Street, is another fine example of redefining the standard approach to vintage. A brand with a colourful past, it was bought out from bankruptcy last year by BooHoo. Established in 2006, it started life fairly traditionally, buying and selling old clothes, but developed its own, original label range in 2012. Its latest London store focuses very much on these ranges, while playing heavily on the vintage aesthetic.

Compared with Pick N Weight, It’s significantly light on product volume – offering a much more pared-back selection evocative of Urban Outfitters. But overall, it’s a hugely clever concept – shoppers feel they are buying vintage, supported by the store’s deliberately mismatched theme and vintage propping. Think Spice Girls vinyl albums and VHS copies of classic chick flicks and you’ll get the idea.

These two stores have one important thing in common: the sense of discovery that is integral to a successful retail environment. It’s the feeling of excitement in finding a must-have, uniquely individual piece. And interestingly, both retailers deliver bags of that seemingly illusive experiential magic, with zero added technology. You could say it’s emotional intelligence rather than the headline-hogging artificial kind.

Both Pick N Weight and Nasty Gal reinforce the fact that there is a serious commercial opportunity for retailers to capitalise in this sector. They also offer some good examples of retail best practice within their walls. It’s no longer about jumble-sale piles of scrambled product. Visual merchandising is clearly thought out and well executed.

What’s more, they are casual and unpretentious when compared with some of their mainstream counterparts. Most importantly, however, these stores are increasingly where shoppers are flocking.

Many conventional retailers look dowdy by comparison, even with the weight of technology behind them. As we move further into the New Year, no doubt many will be hoping they can resurrect past glories and, like the products to be found in Pick N Weight, re-discover their enduring appeal to once again become an indispensable part of shoppers’ lives.

Retail Design World

Walmart CEO on combining stores and online for new retail age

Days after it emerged Walmart is closing 63 Sam’s Club stores and a matter of weeks before the company removes the “Stores” from its legal trading name, CEO Doug McMillon talks business strategy.

When Walmart announced in December that it would be changing its legal name from Wal-mart Stores Inc to Walmart Inc, the company said it was to reflect the new model of retailing across multiple channels.

A growing percentage of shoppers are purchasing from Walmart online, across its various brands and platforms such as and Bonobos, and the old name was deemed to be one representative of a different retailing age.

Last week, it emerged that the US’s largest grocer is closing 63 of its Sam’s Club stores, as it was seemingly oversaturated in certain parts of the country. The move shows that the removal of stores is not just a matter of nomenclature.

It was against this backdrop that Walmart CEO Doug McMillon spoke to delegates at the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) Big Show in New York on Sunday. He did not reference store closures, instead focusing on how the industry is changing rapidly, and the importance of looking after staff and encouraging employees to buy into the company culture and understand the need to evolve.

“What is promising for us, [in terms of how] the customer interacts with us today and will do in the future is bringing the store experience and the e-commerce experience together,” he said.

“There’s so many ways you can help people save time and get access to merchandise by using the combination of the two.”

Walmart did officially announce a modest pay rise and new bonus structure for its staff last week, with starting wages increasing from $10 to $11 an hour, and McMillon indicated this was part of the strategy to look after its people in stores and throughout the organisation.

Stores – they are a changing

The what-to-do-with stores in an increasingly multichannel retail world question is, of course, not a dilemma faced by Walmart alone.

All retailers are going through a process of evolution to work out what mix of physical and retail is required to serve today’s shopper. There is no definite answer – success seems to lie in moving with the times or staying ahead of the times wherever possible.

As retailers with overinflated store numbers consolidate their property portfolios and online retailers such as MissguidedBlaiz and Boden continue to open stores, there will be a meeting in the middle in terms of suitable physical real estate size. Different retail sectors have different needs, too.

Debenhams and New Look in the UK and Sears and Macy’s in the US are examples of retailers seriously assessing their store estates and, in the case of the latter two, reducing their shop numbers considerably to save costs.

As part of Walmart’s move to close multiple Sam’s Club locations, there is apparently a plan to change around a dozen of those properties into distribution hubs for the company’s e-commerce operation.

At NRF, McMillon said: “We’ve got brick-and-mortar stores that we can constantly be working on to make more digital, we’ve got an e-commerce business that we want to build and make big and strong.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do in e-commerce just to nail the fundamentals – we’re trying to catch up a bit.”

A rethink required?

Karl McKeever from global retail consultancy Visual Thinking says that the senior management team at Walmart need to give some serious thought to the in-store experience across the retailer’s range of stores.

“There could be scope to take a big supermarket that has served a big audience in the past and and changing its whole format,” he explains.

“Some of it could be warehouse, a proportion of it could turn into a convenience store – it’s about being smart and agile, and potentially remixing the proposition. A Walmart Express could have some value in that area alongside an online fulfilment part, which is actually doing the lion’s share in terms of the bigger shop for the community.”

McKeever called Walmart “big but not particularly beautiful”, suggesting its strength lies in range, low price and high levels of availability. Grocers such as Coles in Australia and supermarkets in Hong Kong are raising the experience in supermarket shopping, he notes.

“As a shopping experience Walmart is pretty soulless,” he adds.

“Whereas in other sectors people have realised that experiential retailing is much more important now and consumers are looking for a more elevated shopping experience, I think Walmart is yet to board that train.”

Food for thought for McMillon and his team, as he looks to put those changes into place for a new era of closely connected physical and digital shopping.

Essential Retail – NRF 2018

On a recent trip to New York for the NRF Big Show, I was asked my thoughts on the value of additional services in retail for Essential Retail.
Portuguese retail group and Continente parent company Sonae says success in retail comes through developing additional services – some tech led, and some that simply take the business into new verticals.

Sonae Group’s head of marketing Tiago Simoes gave an insight into how a commitment to developing additional services and continually seeking new business avenues has helped establish the company as a leading player in Portugal and beyond.

In a presentation at NRF 2018, Simoes detailed the diversity of Sonae’s various brands, which include the supermarket Continente, pharmacy chain Well’s, and stationery retailer Note, which have helped the group become a $5 billion+ company through operating diverse business models.

Simoes explained how over the years Continente has expanded from pure retail to also run its own telco arm, investment management services, and shopping mall management company, among other offerings.

Digital services it has launched for customers include a Whatsapp customer communication platform, digital queue management system, and in-store street view via mobile phone.

At Well’s, customers can choose from a health-plan and other medical services, alongside a range of medical products for sale. Note has grown as a business by introducing copy centres and in-store hubs run by the national post office.

As Essential Retail reported back in 2016, Sonae was one of the retailers that recognised an opportunity to leverage the popularity of augmented reality game, Pokemon Go. In another example of its services-oriented culture, it developed a mobile app in reaction to the growing trend in just three days, to keep customers entertained and encourage game players into store.

Sonae’s model is representative of a growing trend within the wider retail industry, to bolt on services to the traditional mission of selling products. The move by Sweden-based furniture retailer Ikea, last year, to acquire Task Rabbit is a prime example of this pattern.

Task Rabbit is a San Francisco-based startup that will supply people to assemble flatpack furniture for Ikea customers in their homes. It’s an online network of handymen and women based all around the world.

Karl McKeever from retail consultancy Visual Thinking says Ikea has been “cute” with its acquisition, which the retailer has indicated might be the start of other digitally-focused takeovers.

“It’s realised that a barrier to its growth is the fact people are nervous and unconfident assembling flatpacks,” he explains, adding that it also acts as an upselling tactic.

“It makes the point that there is money in services – not necessarily in product.”

Forget the future of retail: focus on the here and now

Read my article in The Monocle Winter Weekly to get a fresh perspective on the year ahead.

You know the year is drawing to a close when you hear the future-gazing chatter get louder. We’ll soon be swamped by projections of “the next and the new” in gleaming technologies that promise to change the way we shop forever. But will they – and do we want them to?

Some buy into the myth that only technology can save retail; I don’t. Remember QR codes? And what of NFC or iBeacons? They totally revolutionised shopping, right? The truth is that the story of retail is one of evolution, not revolution. Then there’s the fact that most major retailers are looking at it backwards. All too often, technology is applied for technology’s sake – retailers just can’t help themselves. But often there has been scant consideration given to how it benefits shoppers or if it solves a genuine need.

Forget virtual mirrors in changing rooms; people want to try on clothes, feel the texture of the fabric. But think about the solution first, then how to apply the technology with real relevance, and you could be on to something. How about footwear retailers using VR mirrors? Just think: you could try on a pair of boots then see how they would look with a range of outfits. That’s technology usefully and thoughtfully applied.

Another consideration: are technology-filled experiences really the future for jaded shoppers already burned out by hi-tech overload? Tomorrow’s shoppers will be digital natives who have grown up in an “always-on” world so there is every chance that they will be seeking experiences that allow them to switch off. Could we be entering an era of “no wi-fi” zones that instead invite shoppers to live and experience the moment?

There is a fundamental, overriding factor that can sometimes all too easily be forgotten: shoppers want to shop. Introducing banks of gleaming iPads to enable us to go online in-store can be helpful but they should not take too much of the focus. One thing is certain: those who will prosper won’t be the ones who make their shops more connected. Instead it will be the savvy retailers who invest in making their retail spaces more tactile, physical and sensory.

For many years the corporate behemoths have been viewed as superior to independent sellers. But major retailers could learn important lessons by observing and applying the small details employed by our most successful indie stars. But with a slavish devotion to consistency in their shops around the world, big retailers are often misaligned with the desire of shoppers to enjoy retail experiences that celebrate personalisation and individualism.

So for all the talk of which innovations are likely to define the year ahead, retailers should instead focus on their staff. Abandon the faceless and embrace the face-to-face. Book retailer Do You Read Me? carries the spirit of this concept within its Berlin shop. A warm, unpretentious space, it escapes the national stereotyping of cold, ruthless efficiency and instead sees staff happily interact with shoppers, creating a community for literary conversation. Cycling shop Rapha is another example. Staff here are real enthusiasts and true brand ambassadors. It is here that we see the distinction between recruiting individuals who live and breathe the brand and those who simply have the right look.

My parting shot: regardless of size, shops have to continually deliver transformation; the only constant in retail is change. It’s time to accept that there is no end point but, rather, a continual evolving set of demands. In spite of what we are told, technology is not always the answer because today’s innovations will be obsolete tomorrow.

In trying to define the future of the industry, retailers need to lift their heads from their technology bubble and look at meaningful ways to harness the power of their staff and their physical space. These are often low-cost or no-cost solutions, rather than expensive technology white elephants, that can and will make a visible difference to the retail experience – and the bottom line.

This article was originally published in The Monocle Winter Weekly, Edition 1, 2017.

Woolrich opens first store in Canada

With heritage high on its agenda, Woolrich Brings taste and tradition into its new Toronto Store.

The Woolrich brand is founded on the principles of tradition, exploration and a constant search for technical innovation and new materials. Its focus on heritage and philosophy of bringing a story to every product means it has created a style which lingers long beyond the realms of fashion.

These characteristics permeate through into its stores, too. Its latest, in Toronto – the brand’s first store in Canada – proves a smart, sophisticated space. It’s perfectly placed, too – the city’s Yorkdale mall is increasingly becoming the premium ‘indoor shopping destination’, housing many upscale national and international brands.

The highly distinctive storefront features a faux brick tile finish with painted signature Woolrich heritage check. This regular black and red square design is a trademark pattern for the brand. Meanwhile, window displays are kept simple and stylish, with a bold graphic design.

The large instore space is divided into a series of areas and within each, the double height space is used to good effect. High-level space is used creatively, presenting half bust forms dressed in the company’s beautifully made signature fur collar jackets in a variety of colours. Easy self-selection is built into the store design, with accessible stock hanging on rails in the lower area below.

Other fixture features include large refectory style tables with decorative items, floral arrangements and flat laid products. These are essentially display features and used to give 3D impact on the mid floor. Further ‘Stockman-style’ mannequin forms are used mid floor.

Service here is discreet and considered, as staff carefully introduce the products and explain the features and benefits.

The overall effect of the store is personable and premium. It doesn’t have the stark designer look of similar brands such as Moncler or Canada Goose, instead choosing a warmer and more welcoming path.

Canada makes merry

In this months Retail Focus article I discuss if retailers can make Christmas feel special again in store, in Canada they certainly can.

‘It’s Christmaaaasss!’… in my best Noddy Holder voice. And that means we once again get to listen to him belting out these oh-so-familiar words every time we walk into a store or switch on the radio.

There is something both reassuring and wearying about his ubiquitous strain. For many people, Noddy et al really do signal the start of Christmas. And yet Merry Xmas Everybody was released back in 1973. That’s 44 years ago.

Despite this, listening (or singing along) to Slade, The Pogues or Wizzard, provides a reminder that the art of the Christmas song seems to have disappeared. Where are all the new Christmas songs? Yes, we love familiarity and nostalgia. But we’re also desperate for something new and interesting.

Retailers could learn a lesson or two from the way we view these festive songs. For me, window displays aside, there is so much more that retailers can and should be doing to bring a sense of imagination and playfulness to the festive in-store experience through VM, while still harnessing our nostalgic love of tradition. Can retailers make Christmas feel special again in store?

In Canada, it seems they can. My visit to Toronto last month provided a spirited reminder of how a festive obsession can be turned into an all-out spectacle, with retailers pulling out all the stops to deliver a jaw-dropping, premium visual merchandising offering which creates a shopper experience full of seasonal joy.

Take the newly renovated Sherway Gardens Mall, for example, featuring gorgeous, larger-than-life size stags and reindeer, and baubles enveloped in white lights to provide a truly magical feel. No other decorations were used throughout the mall – these were enough, delivering an eye-catching yet tastefully premium look and feel.

Nordstrom was another shining example of how to get Christmas right. Its folk theme was added to every focal point, a combination of hanging wreaths and trees, with the main theme or red running throughout the scheme. It made full use of its space, was easy to navigate and a pleasure to shop.

Elsewhere, Pottery Barn delighted with some really incredible Christmas tables, using intricate attention to detail and showing off some spectacular VM skills. The whole store felt like the spirit of Christmas, with exquisite trees encrusted with beautiful decorations and an impactful red and white theme used to best effect. It was true VM heaven.

As for Williams and Sonoma – wow, just wow. Beautifully dressed tables, stunning displays; everything was delivered with absolute effortless impact.

In short, I think the Canadian retailers have delivered Christmas to another level, one that we simply aren’t used to in the UK. Here, many retailers fall into the trap of cramming every single shelf with product, reusing old garlands and trees year after year – by comparison with Canada, it looks tired and tacky.

Retailers must consider that, with seasonal promotions featuring all year round on the calendar, from Halloween to Mother’s Day, Easter and Father’s Day, shoppers are nearing saturation point. But Christmas is arguably the most important time of year for retailers to focus on the experiential side of shopping, seducing shoppers and pulling out all the stops to deliver an incomparable experience.

While the Canadian shopping environment is one that’s stress free, expertly delivered, spacious and relaxed, offering a truly magical experience, shopping at Christmas in the UK is invariably stressful as we wade through shelves full of products nobody wants or needs. The VM focus is almost always on decadent dressed window schemes, rather than the all-important instore elements that help to bring Christmas to life throughout the shopper journey.

Perhaps retailers’ attention has been diverted too much by the aptly named Black Friday? Originating in the online world, it has infiltrated the physical retail store, serving only to perpetuate the all-too familiar ‘race to the bottom’ that has seen margins and profits eroded. Suddenly retailers are fighting to offer the lowest prices, regardless of branding or shopper experience – a completely counterintuitive move.

Which brings me back to Christmas. There is so much scope for UK retailers to watch and learn, both from international markets such as Canada and successful campaigns domestically. By focusing carefully on creating an emotional connection with shoppers and not giving into the temptation of driving sales at the cost of reputation, retailers can become a beacon of best practice for others to strive to emulate.

One such example is John Lewis, which has become renowned for embracing the spirit of Christmas through its now-iconic advertising. This high-end retailer has moved away from the notion of selling a product, instead choosing to focus on the emotional side of the season. For me, the game changer was the little boy desperately waiting for Christmas… so he could give, rather than receive, his presents. What retailers need to do now is find ways to weave more of that ‘magic’ into how Christmas is brought to life for shoppers, and not just consumers.

It’s time for retailers to make a New Year’s resolution to commit to doing something different next time. Who is going to be game changer next Christmas? Start thinking now. After all, there’s less than 400 days until Christmas 2018, so you’d better get planning. I for one am hoping that the end of 2017 will not only mark the passing of one year into the next, but also the start of something new – pushing things in new directions to keep shoppers engaged and inspired. Let’s make 2018 a year to remember, for all the right reasons.

Until then, I’d like to wish all Retail Focus readers a very happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.