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Why it’s so hard to stay relevant in retail

Take a good look at yourself right now. How relevant are you and your current skills? If you lost your job, how easy would it be to get another job? If you lost or sold your business, how easy would it be to get back on your feet? If you’re an independent consultant, how easy would it be to find fresh work?

Take a look around – at your work colleagues, your industry, the company you work for. See how much is changing. Are you becoming irrelevant? If this question makes you uncomfortable, it may be an ‘aha’ moment to consider what you need to do to maintain relevance. In some instances, this may even mean changing careers.

Retail is struggling, both online and offline. There are exceptions, but in general things look pretty gloomy. Access to international goods online has been blamed for a lot of retail’s woes, but I think much of retailers’ failings are of their own doing.

Australian retailers have lacked innovation and run copy-cat businesses for years. Now they’re competing amongst an increasing pool of brands that offer similar products, which in turn dilutes the disposable income of consumers.

There has always been a simple rule in business. What is your unique selling proposition? But maybe that is no longer enough. To open another fashion retail outlet, for example, you better have something that really stands out, otherwise you are just another grain of sand on the proverbial beach.

Fortnum and Mason, a 320-year-old retailer in the UK has bucked the trend of many traditional businesses and is thriving. Their key to success? “Striking the balance between heritage and modernity since our inception. The element of surprise, genuine customer service, scintillating stories, intelligent innovation (provisioning the first UK expedition to Mt Everest) and sticking with the basics,” according to the company’s customer experience director, Zia Zareem.

We are living in an age of continual disruption. For marketers within retail, the challenge to remain relevant is daunting. The pace at which social media is moving and the complexity of marketing through Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Google are mind-boggling and create huge pressure to stay on top of changes.

I see the pace of change causing businesses with great offerings to become dinosaurs overnight, as they have not kept their offerings up-to-date with current technology and what the market demands.

A good friend of mine was seeking an IT solution for a client and was horrified to find that a robust solution used by many of Australia’s national retail chains had an interface consisting of a black screen with white characters, similar to the original IBM XT type terminal screens.

“How am I supposed to show this to my client, who is a digital native?” he said. There you go. Irrelevant to the client and a lost business opportunity to the vendor.

So how do you make yourself more relevant in today’s competitive, media-overloaded world? As a baseline requirement, you have to keep up-to-date with trends and technologies in your field of expertise. This still won’t guarantee your safety though.

I believe the key to remaining relevant is to become a thought leader in whatever it is you do. Write articles, express opinions, offer to speak publicly. Build your profile and be seen as a relevant person. Of course, you can only wing this for so long. If you don’t have the necessary skills – be able to walk the talk – then your victory will be short lived.

Your profile as a constant source of current knowledge makes you a marketable commodity. We see this with our own Top 50 People in E-Commerce. We expect them to be good at more than simply doing their job within their company. We demand thought leadership, contribution to the industry, publication of articles, etc.

Our Top 50 are voted based on their relevance, so much so that the publication has become an annual recruitment almanac, with many people on the list being headhunted from their current positions.

Between now and 2055 the ratio of working taxpayers to pensioners is set to decline from 4:5 to 2:7, placing overwhelming demands on taxpayers and the welfare system. At the same time, new technologies and more transient workforces are going to put greater pressure on people and companies to remain relevant.

This means that people will need to become more entrepreneurial in the way they manage their career paths, and businesses will need to keep an eye on their competitors and their industry in order to stay ahead of the curve. Yet one thing remains the same: opportunites will always exist for the bold!

Mark Freidin is the co-founder of Internet Retailing and writes a weekly opinion column about the e-commerce industry. 

Have a burning question or idea you want to share? Email Mark at

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