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A Mattress Tale: The Need For Innovation In Retail

Posted on September 27, 2015 at 1:10 PM

Non-executive directors can play a useful role in the delivery of insight from 'site visits' to the business. In my interviews with a variety of them in the past, it is a subject that has recurred again and again. It's also a reason why diversity is so important.


A minor example: a woman appointed to her first non-exec director position for a listed company building homes was being shown a site. As soon as she saw the kitchen layout of a new planned home, she knew the sink was wrong - in size and position. It wouldn't do. It wasn't rocket science on her part -it was perspective. But it probably saved the business a fair amount of money going forward, as it was a design fault caught early.


In an interview for the FT in 2013, Michael Jackson, a veteran chairman at FTSE 100 level and someone who has led in the technology space, said something that stayed with me. "I don't know how much time companies' boards really spend on thinking about how innovative the organisation is, or could be" he said.


Earlier this month the UK was ranked as the second most innovative country in the world. The Global Innovation Index (GII) placed the UK above the USA, Singapore and Germany for the third year running. The GII highlights the key role innovation plays as a driver of economic growth and prosperity, and the UK has risen from tenth on the GII in 2011 to second in both 2014 and 2015.


So what is happening in the retail sector? There has been a fair bit of disruption – as I covered recently for Forbes.


The John Lewis Partnership (owners of Waitrose), well-established and identified with as a ‘must have’ among Britain’s middle classes, has not been having a good time. It has warned that both the current price war in the grocery market and higher pension costs mean that full-year profits will fall this year. Its first half pre-tax profit fell 26% and it has also been muttering about the impact of the costs of the national living wage.


But has it looked at innovation on the retail shop floor?


This is about a mattress, because it has dominated domestic life. Of course I went to John Lewis, swearing mildly as I couldn’t opt for my usual attention to the need for domestic goods and just order it quickly online. It clearly warranted a bit more time and attention.


I read the advice on the website, I called – and after quite a bit of difficulty insisting I did need to discuss the options with a human being before setting out, I spoke to someone helpful who had been in that department since the last mattress: a very long time.


But in the store it quickly began to feel like an exercise in luck, as much as choice. Despite the intricate details and advice on the website, lying down for a few minutes on a variety of mattresses was not going to be very revealing. The sales team simply repeated what was on the website on the construction of mattresses.


Mattresses, by the way, are where we spend a third of our lives sleeping so investing in them should require at least as much attention and expenditure as on the latest technology. Also, speaking for myself, I have my best ideas when I sleep, which I do very well.


I made my choice, and was grateful for the quick and cheery John Lewis delivery service. But it became apparent very quickly that it was the wrong choice. I was suddenly in a nightmare.


As it was John Lewis, I didn’t panic. I just insisted I was not willing to give ‘six to eight weeks’ to get used to the mattress, because by then I might be a completely different person from lack of sleep and an onslaught of nightmares. Thankfully, they agreed, as long as I acted fast.


After using technology to do more research, wandering into the Oxford Street shop in the hope of more choice only to find a complete lack of engagement and a store that (though teeming) looked as if it hadn’t changed in looks or attitude for over a decade, I returned to the spacious Bluewater mall in Kent.


I had the paperwork: full marks to JL on efficiently starting the process again. I was startled at the difference in the communication I encountered.


V, the salesman who helped me, listened to the reasons why I knew the last choice was the wrong one. He pointed out the fun fact above on sleep. I explained lifestyle, he took note – and offered choices. And just as I thought I had found the right one he said: ‘What I can see there is your back is well-aligned….’


Bingo. “I’d like to see that – could you take a photograph for me on my iPhone?’ So – after I showed him how to use my phone - he did. It raised a few eyebrows from those around us but for me it was decision made. I looked as I felt – relaxed and aligned.


Note: I am not suggesting you buy a mattress on the basis of a photograph. But I found it incredibly useful to see how my body looked, as opposed to how I felt when testing the options.


Almost everyone out shopping in the UK today has a smart phone in a pocket. From self-employed plumbers to vets and farriers, working professionals are clever about asking for a photograph so they can diagnose the issue. On another level, art museums all over the world have tried to capture ‘selfie madness’ to engage with museum-goers and spread the word about themselves on social media.


Rather than spending vast amounts of money on advertising and marketing, why don’t retailers offer to bring insight to a purchase by using the customer’s own technology to ‘show’ them – if they wish? There is nothing to stop them from still warning that it can take time to get used to a new mattress.


Going back to non-executive directors, John Lewis is of course, a partnership. This is its management team and here are all three of its non-executive directors.

V, the salesman by the way is a part-timer at John Lewis. He told me that as I wanted to pass on his name to a friend who has had a multiplicity of bad experiences buying mattresses and whose life is blighted by the inability to sleep well.

More on ‘part timers’ and the benefits of an ‘agile workforce’ soon. Boardrooms everywhere – not just in retailers – should pay attention.







Categories: Communication, Innovation, Training