GDI: What makes a successful retail company today?
Richard Kelly: It seems obvious but focusing on best in class is one thing. Try to be the best through uniqueness, pricing, speed, sustainability or size. I can think of examples of companies for each of these who are pro-active in constantly thinking about being value-add to their consumer base. Also in this social digital-omni world I think about brands that honestly listen, engage and build communities around them; organisational listening and conversational skills are hard to build. I think of some of the newer brands that don’t even think of themselves as “retailers” anyway; where “retail” is not the reason but it is part of the mix; a means to many ends.
 
What would be the worst thing I could do trying to adjust my company to the digital age?
Constantly chase every new shiny technology whether it is AI, blockchain or crypto-currency and take your eye off creating customer value. Don’t expect to find the perfect silver bullet at scale with the whole organisation at the same time. Another mistake you could make is to underestimate how hard it can be and begin to accept that there is no finish line AND… do nothing. The biggest barrier to innovation is doing nothing, or waiting for a “burning platform”.
 
And how do I stay innovative?
Find your “new balance” of behaviours, talent, KPI’s, metrics, and incentives or rewards and add a significant learning/unlearning dynamic to your culture and DNA; learning how to learn is important. Key elements of this process are divergence, or creating new choices, and convergence, making new ones. Exploring and optimizing, listening as well as selling and thinking outside in as well as inside out. Potentially think of yourself as a semi-porous network rather than a command control centre and divide your talent to deliver on different time horizons. Keep an agile conversational eye on your customers; they’re crafty and they shift. This is especially important because competitive advantage is only ever temporary, so future-cast and look for context; stand in the future, be concrete about it and then you can prioritise.  
 
Why is Asia always one step ahead of Europe when it comes to rejuvenating and innovating whole industries?
It isn’t always the case but there is a less installed base (ie mobile first consumers etc). Business, consuming and life in Asia/China is much more competitive (than in “the west”) so this speeds up all the dynamics; the need to get ahead is greater. Further emulation of masters is a natural part of the learning (think about how one learns characters), so this “learning” and standing on the shoulders of giants is part of the competitive process. And yes, in general, the political climate enables focus and removes barriers to executing big.
 
You once said, “retailing is kind of dead”. What did you mean by that?
We are in a period of re-invention; the category, the behaviours and the language around retailing is industrial and stagnating. We need some new questions and the answers that emerge will form the new language to define and describe this new landscape. I looked up the definition of consumers; “people who buy stuff”… this seems super limiting in our “pro-sumer” world.

Richard Kelly will speak at the 68th International Retail Summit on 6 and 7 September 2018. Sign up now.