Andrew Jennings

LONDON — Andrew Jennings has taken nearly half a century’s worth of experience at the helm of stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Harrods, Holt Renfrew, Karstadt and Woolworths in South Africa, and distilled it into a handbook for retailers looking to breathe new energy into their businesses — and for consumers interested in what makes a business succeed (or fail) in today’s omnichannel world.

The overarching messages of “Almost Is Not Good Enough: How to Win or Lose in Retail” is this: Create the right environment and service, be relevant and the consumer will come. “The customer is no longer king, they are the super being, well-informed of everything on the phone, their iPad, whatever it might be. They are the ones making the decision whether or not you will be successful. That’s what it’s all about today,” says Jennings over a cup of tea in London’s Soho.

Jennings has self-published the book, and all profits from sale of it will go to The Prince’s Trust, a charity that helps disadvantaged young people get into employment, education and training. Jennings became chairman of the Trust’s Retail Leadership Group earlier this year and will launch the book on Wednesday night with some of the youths in attendance. Here, he talks to WWD about his retail recipes for difficult times:

The cover of Andrew Jennings new book "Almost is Not Good Enough"

The cover of Andrew Jennings new book “Almost Is Not Good Enough.”  Courtesy Photo

WWD: Can you talk a little about American department stores today, where it all went wrong and how they can recover?

Andrew Jennings: For many years the department store has been waning in the United States. When I was a young man, I used to visit the states and there would be hundreds of department stores. How many of them are left? They were great businesses, but many of those stores were like rack city. They didn’t have a point of view. If you don’t have a perspective and personality for your business then you don’t have anything. As for your product, sometimes it’s as important what you don’t have in your assortment as what you do have. Make sure it’s got a perspective.

What really happened in the department store business is that over a period of time the consumer has changed. They are time-starved, they want to make a quick shopping trip, they want to be very focused and be able to look online or in-store, and when they do go into a store, they want an experience. They want service. That’s what Selfridges has done, there’s service there, but there’s also excitement, discovery and innovation on an ongoing basis. Selfridges has got a great point of view. They are a trophy business, although when you’ve got one, two and six stores, it’s easier than when you’ve got a chain of 106. Trophy businesses will continue to do well providing they’re relevant. Barneys is a trophy business, as is Bergdorf’s.

WWD: Can you give another example of a store that’s delivering service and experience?

A.J.: Harrods. When I worked for Mohamed Al-Fayed, he always said to me ‘Andrew, there will only ever be one Harrods because I know what I want for my business.’ These stores are authoritative. They make a statement. If you look at some of the department stores around the world that haven’t been as successful, you have to say to yourself: Do they have a point of view? Are they modern in their approach? Or, are they using discount to get their customers?

WWD: In the book, you talk about the “thick middle” of big department store chains, those marginally profitable stores that limp along from year to year.

A.J.: You’ve got to look at the department stores and say ‘Guys, if you want to be relevant, look at your middle stores.’ There are two or three things they can do. Lord & Taylor has done a clever thing by shrinking down its Fifth Avenue flagship, with the rest being rented as office space. Debenhams has announced it’s got gyms going in, and it has an association now with Blow (the beauty services provider). A business in Australia is filling up with eateries and children’s playgrounds, and an ice skating rink. They’re creating worlds. No question, many of those stores will have surplus real estate and they’re also going to have to sell off some stores.

You’ve also got to have statements in those middle stores. If the customer wants to buy Giorgio Armani, they don’t want to see six pieces, they want a department and experience, an associate who will be happy to give them attention. The Brits have been quite clever with concessions and making statements, so the British department stores, I think, are ahead of the curve by bringing in concessions. Bloomingdale’s has done this quite successfully, and they’re smart. I think Neiman’s has done the same.

WWD: You’ve talked about the high-end London stores and the big American department stores. What are your thoughts about the big high street companies? Who’s getting it right?

A.J.: H&M is fantastic. [The brand] understands its customer. They know exactly what is required. I was in H&M in Melbourne — I have a privileged time these days because I travel the world, and I look at these stores. The old post office in Melbourne has been opened as an H&M flagship store. When it first opened they’d be lining up for, like, two weeks after the opening. I could not believe it — I eventually got into the store and I thought ‘Wow,’ this is a modern department store. They’ve got the homeware department, kids’ department, men’s, women’s accessories. It’s genius. I also love the Primark store in Madrid. There’s a photograph of it in the book. I think [Primark has] done such a great job.

I think that Philip Green has done a brilliant job with Topshop Oxford Circus. That is a store of discovery. Really clever, and you’ve got everything. Personalization is so important, and there you can have your jeans done, patches put on. You can have fun photographs, piercings, tattoos and you’ve got eateries in store. It’s one of my benchmarks.

WWD: What are some of your favorite retail formats and why?

A.J.: My favorites are Dover Street Market, Eataly, the little one here called Mercato Metropolitana in Elephant and Castle (in London). It’s just so clever. Of course in Paris you’ve got several great ones like Merci and Colette, and Corso Como in Milan. These are all special stores that have a very specific point of view.

WWD: Like a true Brit, you love your tea and have employed a kettle simile to explain the dynamics of inventory management, another key to success. Can you explain?

A.J.: There’s a reason for the kettle. To me, that equates to having the right balance of stock in the business. The kettle is the store and having the right level of water means having the right inventory. If you have too much inventory, it takes too much gas, or promotional material and resources, to heat up. You need an optimum level. The steam is the sales. The tap, or supply of merchandise, you can never turn it off. Retailers over the years have made the mistake of turning it off, but you can’t do that because the customer wants freshness, newness. They don’t want to see the same old thing. The kettle principle is key to success.

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