Traditional retail skills highlighted

Traditional retail skills such as merchandising and customer service are just as important to online businesses as they are on the high street.

The claim by two of the UK’s biggest online retailers Nick Robertson, chief executive of, and Mark Newton-Jones, chief executive of the Shop Direct Group, was made at the Skillsmart Retail Parliamentary reception, held at the House of Commons yesterday (30th November).

The event, hosted by deputy speaker Nigel Evans MP, featured a rare joint presentation and Q&A by the two men, whose businesses account for 16 per cent of all online sales – a huge £2.3bn.

Nick Robertson said: ‘I think the reason we’ve been able to grow as quickly as we have is because a lot of the skills we have at ASOS are just good, traditional retail skills. We have a very big buying and merchandising team and all those buyers and merchandisers have come from high street stores. The good news for us is that we have been able to grow because a lot of the skills already exist out there.’

Focusing on customer service, Mark Newton-Jones said: ‘This is really difficult and it’s one of the things people struggle with when they move from high street retailing to remote retailing. You never see the queue at the till; you never see somebody trying something on; you don’t wander around the shop and pick up a product to see how broad your range is. You just don’t get that so you have to work really hard at it.’

During the session, both men discussed online advertising, fraud and the predicted future rise of people shopping on their mobile phones. Nick Robertson predicted that “m-commerce” could outgrow PC-based sales by as early as 2012.

He also sympathised with the difficulties faced by traditional retailers, but argued that standing still was not an option: ‘It really is a very different world and in some ways, because we like what was, then it’s a shame that unfortunately some of the high street businesses are suffering in this climate.

‘But, retail has a knack of surviving; we all need to buy things; so really it comes down to innovation, speed, quality of the skills available in the workplace and embracing change. If we don’t embrace the change, the other issue we are going to have is international retailers who look at us as easy prey if we’re not evolving quickly enough.’

The event also marked the launch of Skillsmart Retail’s new research paper: ‘Understanding the Impact of Online Trading on UK Retailing 2010’,which  highlights retailers’ need to prioritise e-commerce in the coming year.

After the event, Skillsmart Retail chief executive Anne Seaman said: ‘By having two of the UK’s most successful online retailers speaking at our reception, it was very interesting to hear about the latest developments. The future for both traditional and online retailing will be challenging, but we can be sure that online retail will continue to grow rapidly.

‘With more and more high street retailers investing in their web presence, it seems that the UK retail sector is moving with the times, but it is important that small retailers don’t get left behind. As the Sector Skills Council for Retail, we are determined to help both small independent businesses as well as the large multi-channel and pureplay online businesses such as Shop Direct and ASOS. Investing in retail skills is vital, whatever the format.’

Download ‘Understanding the Impact of Online Trading on UK Retailing 2010’.

Watch videos from the Skillsmart Retail Parliamentary reception.

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