Le marketing makes its mark

Whatever happened to British retail flair? The stars who remain seem an ever-dwindling constellation. Whenever the hunt for talent is on, the same hoary names keep cropping up.

Take M&S’ decision to flush out Philip Green’s accomplices in his would-be assault on the store chain. Who does it serve a Section 212 notice on but Allan Leighton, chief executive of Asda? Take another example. What happens to retail takeover vehicle Knutsford’s share price now that Archie Norman has decided to join the shadow front bench – hasn’t it got three other perfectly good partners? Throw in Tesco’s Terry Leahy and Tim Mason and David Jones at Next with the Asda gang and the City analysts’ beauty parade is virtually complete.

Such is the dearth of home-grown talent that an interesting irony has developed. Instead of growing our own, we are now looking abroad for retail saviours (MW last week). A Belgian poached from a leading French supermarket chain runs M&S. A Spaniard has been parachuted in to deal with the basket case that is Safeway. And a Frenchman runs the Body Shop. How different to the picture a decade and more ago when British retail enterprise was the envy of the world.

The source of the malaise is difficult to pinpoint. After all, the state of the economy is generally robust and consumers are experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity. So what’s the problem? Not the Internet, that’s for sure: it’s too early to pose a real threat to the high street.

Certainly shoppers are a little savvier than they were about prices. A glance at purchasing behaviour over the past few years shows how the momentum of activity is passing from pre-Christmas to the January sales. All the same, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that retailers are themselves to blame. They have had fat years, of Biblical proportions, which have blunted their hunger and bloated their leanness. Foreign retail expertise, accustomed to ferocious competition and much lower margins, is now reaping the dividend.

Whether the Dome can successfully capitalise on this same foreign expertise remains to be seen. The sponsors have acted with commendable speed in parachuting in EuroDisney wunderkind Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, a Parisian. Gerbeau’s forte is operations but he has spotted, surely correctly, that price strategy is a pressing early priority. In fact everything to do with marketing, he assures us, is ‘on the table’.

The task ahead is formidable, in some ways more formidable than the mess that was EuroDisney in its opening years. Gerbeau has cultural inertia to deal with, where Disney’s was a greenfield project. EuroDisney took several years to turn around, the Dome has less than a year to succeed. Disney could wield almost unlimited resources to ‘get it right’: the Dome’s are much more constrained.

Nonetheless, Gerbeau has a considerable pool of goodwill to dip into and, as our Cover story this week reveals, there is no lack of improving ideas to build on.

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