Stuart O'Brien, Author at Retail Shopfitting Summit
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Stuart O'Brien

Half of business leaders ‘fear they will be left behind in 2020’

It seems British business leaders do not believe their companies are fully up to speed with developing technologies – with only around half (53%) saying they are fully utilising their technology advantage to win business, run efficient systems and attract the best talent.

With businesses concerned about how Brexit could have an impact on data protection, changing regulation and supply chain disruption, ThoughtWorks asked a nationally representative sample of 1,026 business owners how fully they used technology to achieve growth and competitive advantage. The findings suggested that many businesses were increasingly concerned that they were falling behind in terms of technological development.

Tech agility linked to post-Brexit growth outlook

For the 47% of businesses that admitted their use of technology was not that sophisticated, 41% said they were trying to improve their business’s technological capabilities but were still in some way behind the competition. Furthermore, 6% of respondents said that their lack of technological development was holding their business back from growing.

Significantly, the level of tech agility of UK businesses correlated directly with how they thought Brexit would impact their business in 2020. Those agile, tech-driven businesses were far more likely to see Brexit as an opportunity to grow – 47% predicting growth opportunities to move into new markets and 19% believing they would be able to grow market share in existing markets. In contrast, those businesses that said their tech maturity was holding them back were far more likely to say Brexit would force them to put growth plans on hold (16%) or to downsize – and to pull out of some key markets (10%). The research suggests Brexit could be a catalyst that widens the tech gap in Britain, between those agile enterprises that will grow in 2020 and those struggling with technology that will fall further behind.

12-month business outlook following Brexit – by state of business tech agility

Fully use tech advantage Tech capabilities hold us back
There will be growth opportunities to move into new markets 47% 13%
There will be growth opportunities in existing markets 19% 11%
Little change – we’ll stick to our plans, we won’t be affected by Brexit 19% 42%
Little change – putting growth plans on hold until the dust settles 7% 16%
There will be downsizing – we are preparing for a loss of business 6% 8%
There will be downsizing – we will pull out of some key markets 1% 10%

Bleak mid-Winter ahead for retail

With the demise of Mothercare, and Marks & Spencer reporting a fresh slump in clothing sales[2], ThoughtWorks’ research shows retail emerging as the sector where fewest business leaders believe they are fully using technology to win business, run efficient systems and attract the best people (35%). Linking tech agility to Brexit outlook again, retail was also the sector where most business leaders said that, in the 12-months following Brexit, they were preparing to downsize and for the prospect of losing business.

Percentage of businesses that said they are fully using their technology advantage by sector

Media & Tech 77%
Financial Services 59%
Health 54%
Manufacturing 47%
Construction 43%
Education 40%
Retail 35%

 While it is perhaps unsurprising that businesses in the media and tech sector were the most likely to say they fully utilised their technological advantage, even here more than a fifth (23%) of businesses admitted that they were behind the leaders in their market and could take steps to improve their agility.

Tech on the Tyne

The ThoughtWorks study also explored business opinion across the UK’s major cities. Whilst London and the South East have traditionally dominated the regions for tech investment – with London companies securing $4.8bn (£3.8bn) in 2018[3] – the new research shows that Newcastle is the city where the highest proportion of business leaders say their business makes full use of their technology assets in terms of winning business, improving systems and attracting the best people (77%). Indeed, London only just beats Birmingham into second place (66% Vs. 65%).

Tech gap in Scotland

While most cities in England and Wales (apart from Liverpool) saw at least half their businesses taking full advantage of their technology assets, businesses north of the border seemed to be lagging behind. Only 47% of businesses in Glasgow – and 42% in Edinburgh – said they were fully utilising their technology advantage. Whilst political considerations around Brexit have been a cause of acute concern in Scotland, the new research suggests tech agility is also playing a big role in shaping business outlook for the period after Brexit – with businesses in Glasgow and Edinburgh least likely of the 11 cities surveyed to predict opportunities to grow into new markets in 2020 (Glasgow 18%, Edinburgh 17%).

Percentage of businesses taking full advantage of their technology and percentage predicting growth opportunities in new markets for 2020 – by city

City % Fully using their technology advantage % Predicting growth opportunities in new markets during 2020
Newcastle 77% 34%
London 66% 40%
Birmingham 65% 40%
Manchester 59% 35%
Nottingham 59% 41%
Cardiff 58% 40%
Bristol 56% 36%
Leeds 51% 26%
Glasgow 47% 18%
Edinburgh 42% 17%
Liverpool 37% 30%

Luke Vinogradov, Digital Transformation Principal, ThoughtWorks, said: Surrounded by change and uncertainty, organisations are realising they may not be taking full advantage of technology. Some have yet to start, others have focussed narrowly on digital customer experience, because it’s very visible and actually it’s a great first step. However, modern digital businesses already at the top of their game know that the kind of capabilities that have driven their success don’t stop there.

Across the organisation, making tech work for you means making choices. New ways of working can align your whole business around customer value; data can help you to build engagement and advantage; platform thinking and a test-and-learn approach will maximise the impact of your investments; and a delivery mindset will help you cut through the complexity and get things done. All of these digital capabilities can help you keep up – the right balance will ensure you get ahead.

As a trusted partner for many leading organisations on their digital transformation journey, ThoughtWorks can help you make the right choices, not only addressing today’s challenges but giving you the capabilities you need for a confident future.”

Do you provide Digital Signage for retail? We want to hear from you!

Each month on Retail Briefing we’re shining the spotlight on different parts of the retail market – in February we’ll be focussing on Digital Signage solutions.

It’s all part of our new ‘Recommended’ editorial feature, designed to help retail buyers find the best products and services available today.

So, if you’re a supplier of Digital Signage solutions and would like to be included as part of this exciting new shop window, we’d love to hear from you – for more info, contact Courtney Saggers on

Here are the areas we’ll be covering, month by month:

Feb – Digital Signage
Mar – Display Props & Materials
Apr – Graphics
May – Interactive Displays
June – Lighting
July – Marketing
Aug – POS
Sept – Retail Design
Oct – Shop Equipment
Nov – Window Displays
Dec – Shop Fronts/Entrances

For more information on any of the above, contact Courtney Saggers on

INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Sign making from Signwaves

With over 30 years’ experience in sign making, Signwaves are proud to manufacture and print thoroughly researched, designed and tested sign and display products for blue-chip brands and retailers, agencies and trade resellers.

We operate from a three acre factory, office and warehouse site in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, supported by a joint venture manufacturing facility in Dongguan, China and are proud to supply customers both in the UK and internationally.

With the environment and recyclability a hot topic and on everyone’s minds, Signwaves are committed to protecting our environment and offering customers sustainable, eco-friendly signage. By 31st March 2020, Signwaves are devoted to achieving ISO14001 accreditation, focusing on implementing environmental systems within the business to achieve this.

Signwaves Ecoflex sign is the UK’s current biggest selling pavement sign and is completely recyclable at end of life.  It comprises an aluminium display panel and a recycled plastic base, a patented fastener anchors the components together for the working life of the sign. At the end of life, the display panel can be separated from the base in a matter of seconds allowing the aluminium to be reclaimed. The plastic base material is also 100% reusable towards future mouldings.

Some 4,200 tonnes of recycled PVC have since been used across our products – that’s the weight equivalent of 550 African elephants! So a significant amount of material is being diverted away from a land-fill destination by Signwaves clever, eco-based design.

Alongside committing to reducing electricity consumption at Signwaves, Solar panels have recently been installed on the factory and office building as well as the warehouse building, ensuring energy is obtained from renewable sources where possible.

Paper consumption is also being reduced through staff awareness and the introduction of paperless operations where suitable as Signwaves aim to increase the volume of waste we recycle and reduce the volume of our waste going to landfill.

How can retail trade suppliers prepare for Brexit?

With the UK’s upcoming exit from the European Union finally confirmed following the Christmas general election, John Leyden FCA, CEO and Founder of Carbon Accountancy, discusses how trade suppliers can prepare for the UK’s exit from the single market…

2019 was undoubtedly a difficult year for UK retailers. Whilst more generous economic analysts may describe the year as ‘challenging’, let’s be under no illusions – we ended a decade of high street fragility with a particularly tough year. According to The Centre for Retail Research, 300 stores closed their doors every week with 2,700 jobs lost with them. We lost no less than 37 high street staples, affecting almost 43,000 employees – Jack Wills, Mothercare, Clintons and Bathstore to name but a few. And within days of ringing in the new decade, Debenhams announced its resolution to their ailing fortunes by revealing the 19 locations that will permanently shut up shop in the coming weeks. 2020 could have started on a cheerier note for retailers.

The crisis on our high street shows no sign of subsiding, as online shopping continues to evolve and provide better experiences for consumers and preferred business rates and overheads for retailers. Other problems, however, have been caused by the ever-looming uncertainty of Brexit. Unfavourable foreign exchange rates have pushed up prices for retailers and consumers alike, whilst the latter’s confidence has sunk to new lows.

The Conservative re-election over the Christmas period has, at the very least, removed one level of uncertainty. Like it or not, the UK will be leaving the European Union. But with it will come further bumps in the road for UK retailers, particularly following the end of the transition period and our exit from the single market. It all relates to the cash impact of VAT imports – and it could be the final nail in the coffin for many more retailers if they aren’t prepared for the changes afoot.

What changes are coming?

As a single market, retailers do not have to pay tax on imports from the EU. This will all change following the end of the transition period on 31st December 2020. At this point, goods will come through a custom border with import duties and VAT payable at the point of entry. This will apply to the majority of goods coming into the UK from EU suppliers. Foodstuffs are one of few exceptions to this rule so major food retailers will be largely spared from these changes.

What could this mean for consumers and retailers?

Consumers will feel the brunt of the cost of import duties, as retail prices will increase to cover these additional costs. And whilst retailers can reclaim the VAT of goods imported from the EU from HMRC in the quarterly VAT return, it is the payment at the point of entry that presents the real problem.

Within the single market, not only are goods imported from the EU exempt from VAT but retailers purchase goods with a significant credit period, which can be up to 150 days for larger retailers. Such a credit period allows retailers to begin selling goods to the end consumer before payment to their suppliers, maximising their cash flow – all-important in the current retail climate. If retailers are required to pay VAT on entry, it could have a significant impact on their business.

For example, a retailer purchasing £100 million in imported goods each year will now need to pay a total of £20 million in tax on these purchases. And with the tax on imported goods payable on day one and, in many cases, unable to be reclaimed for four months – the retailer would lose £6.6 million in ready cash within the first four months of Brexit.

Could this spell the end for more high street retailers? Possibly not. Retailers may already have a solution – and their salvation may come at the expense of their suppliers.

What could be the impact on EU-based trade suppliers?

Word on the street is that large retailers plan on passing the VAT payments on to the trade suppliers themselves, sparing themselves the initial cash hit. It’s an unsurprising outcome considering retailers like – or rather need – to hold on to their cash.

But is it realistic to expect EU-based trade suppliers to be able to take the hit? They too will need to reclaim VAT within the UK, which will require a UK-based branch for them to import their own goods to before selling on to retailers. Whilst such a global infrastructure is likely to already be in place for large companies, it could spell trouble for smaller or medium-sized suppliers. It is these suppliers who may need to prepare for the future.

How could smaller and medium-sized EU-based trade suppliers get around this?

If UK retailers plan on passing the VAT cost onto their EU suppliers, those without a UK presence face a difficult decision. Their first option is to work with a distributor – a separate UK based company who will facilitate the purchase and sale of their goods. Whilst this may be a good temporary solution, it adds a layer of complexity to trade and suppliers lose a significant profit margin. It’s unviable in the long-term.

As the all-too-familiar phrase goes, ‘Brexit means Brexit’. There is no going back. Biting the bullet and building a UK presence is by far the most sustainable and simplest option. Luckily, the UK is an easy place to do business.

One saving grace which could soften the blow of Brexit for both retailers and suppliers is the prospect of a trade deal. With no clear visibility currently on what this could look like, we can be certain that it will be a world away from the ease of trade we experience with our European neighbours at the moment. And, of course, that’s assuming a deal can be reached. ‘No deal’ remains a very real prospect, and one our government doesn’t seem too shy of.

What’s clear is that either retailers or suppliers will bear the brunt of the pain once we leave the single market. Just who that will be – we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, it wouldn’t do any harm to either to formulate a contingency plan.

About the Author

John Leyden FCA was shortlisted for the Finance Director of the Year Awards 2012 by the ICAEW. He spent 7 years at KPMG before starting Carbon Accountancy, which prides itself on outstanding client service and meeting client needs through trust and dedication. John specialises in business advice, audits, tax planning, corporate finance, due diligence and share option schemes.

The firm was shortlisted in Accountancy Age’s British Accountancy Awards 2012 as Independent Firm of The Year, Greater London and was named as one of the “runners and riders” – one to watch – in Accountancy Age Top 50 + 50 firms in the UK. 


Have you secured your guest pass to the Total Security Summit?

We’d love you to be our guest at the Total Security Summit, which takes place on 30 & 31 March at the Radisson Blu Hotel, London Stansted.

This unique event is entirely free for you to attend. Benefits include:

• Meetings with new innovative and budget-saving suppliers
• Access to inspirational seminar sessions from industry thought-leaders
• Networking with like-minded peers who share your challenges
• Complimentary overnight accommodation, plus all meals and refreshments
• An invitation to our networking dinner

As our guest, you will be joining fellow senior security professionals from the likes of:

AB Foods
AEG Europe
Brighton BCRP
Birmingham 2022
Bournemouth City Council
Chelsea Football Club
Como Metropolitan London
Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue
Ebenezer Cobbold
Essex County Council
Ei Group
Freedom Group of Companies
Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust
Hogarh Worldwide
Kering International
Iron Mountain
London Borough of Redbridge
London Stansted Airport
Mandarin Oriental Group
Marks & Spencer
Michael Kros
NatWest Markets
Newell Brands
Peel Media
Procter & Gamble
Portsmouth Guildhall
Theo Phaphitis Retail Group
Transport for London
Wych Cross Place Estate

Guest passes are limited so register your place today to avoid disappointment.

Learn from the best at the Retail Shopfitting & Display Summit

The Retail Shopfitting & Display Summit is a unique event, which allows retail, shopfitting and visual merchandising professionals to meet with innovative and competitive suppliers to the industry. This two-day event takes place on March 9th & 10th at the Radisson Blu Hotel, London Stansted.

As our VIP guest, you will be able meet with shopfitting and display suppliers based on your requirements and upcoming projects, as well as network with like-minded peers who share your challenges. It’s FREE for you to attend and we’ll also provide all hospitality throughout, including lunches, refreshments, overnight accommodation and an invitation to our networking dinner.

In addition, you can hear from inspirational thought-leaders in retail design and shopfitting, with seminar programmes including:-

The Psychology Of The Consumer – What You Really Need To Know

Andrew & Zana Busby of Retail Reflections explore the current scenario and how we arrived here, the nature of today’s consumer and why we behave as we do, including the role our emotions play and the nature of motivation.
• The High Street’s not dying but it is in need of some support
• The consumer of today is very different to that of our parents
• Are we as consumers rational?
• The basic human need for emotional attachments
• Women shop, men buy

Visual Merchandising & Retail 2020

Davy Pitoors, VM Co-Ordinator at Louis Vuitton asks: What can independent retailers learn from big brands?
• Successful VM campaigns
• Tips for developing VM projects
• Current VM trends
• Q&A

You will be joining just 60 other senior VM and shopfitting professionals, including representatives from the likes of Booths, Co-Op, EE, Hotel Chocolat, Hush Homeware, Liz Earle, L’Oreal, Lotus Cars, Michael Kors, Nike, Oak Furniture, Office Shoes, Primark, Regatta, Superdrug, Topshop/Topman, The Body Shop, The Range, Topps Tiles, Unilever, Vodafone, WH Sniths and more.

To register your place, simply click here.

Will digitalisation save the High Street?

By Chris Long, Managing Consultant at Capgemini

High Street retail sales have been at an all-time low for the past few years. Accountancy firm BDO recently confirmed that September recorded the worst consumer spending in eight years, and yet business rates continue to rise, and the slide of the Sterling is pushing up costs. All of this makes bleak reading for retailers…

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t write off brick-and-mortar just yet! Recent innovations like Amazon’s Go concept stores, Virgin Holidays opening a new chain of stores allowing customers to try out holiday experiences, and Action for Children opening a pop-up store to drive more participation for their Secret Santa campaign, shows that mortar isn’t heading the way of the dodo anytime soon. In fact, far from shying away from the high street, digital-native brands such as Warby Parker and Casper are actually moving from online-only to having a physical presence.

So, what is causing this renewed focus on brick-and-mortar and how can retailers create an in-store experience that can compete against the ever-growing popularity of online retail?

Thinking omni-channel

Customer expectations are constantly growing, with demand focused on convenience, speed, and the ability to choose where and which channel to shop through. In order to fulfil these criteria, retailers need to ensure they have both a physical and digital presence.

The main issue is that most retailers have been far too slow to adapt to this new shopping experience, resulting in sub-par service as customers move between the two. To solve this, retailers are attempting to leverage their stores to balance out the discrepancies between the in and-out-of-store experience; transforming their business to an ‘omni-channel’ experience.

However, many retailers tend to mistake ‘omni-channel’ with ‘multi-channel’.  Whereas multi-channel relates to providing customers with the ability to shop and complete a purchase with a brand through more than one channel, omni-channel provides more of a comprehensive and integrated approach to retailing. Customers can start and stop their customer journey in one channel then pick up and complete it in another.

While customers still have a single view of a brand through an omni-channel experience, behind the scenes the picture is far more complex, with master data management required to piece together the jigsaw of  orders, payments, products and inventory into a single view of the customer to offer a seamless cross-channel experience.

It is an ongoing battle and challenge that retailers are facing – but one that will allow retailers to derive real value. True omni-channel transformation will enable stores to act as fulfilment centres, creating hassle-free shopping for customers, whilst also increasing footfall and reducing the cost to serve.

Immersing yourself in the in-store experience

Omni-channel transformation provides retailers with the foundations and capabilities to transform their customer experience. But what does great customer experience mean and look like in the digital age?

Firstly, it should be centred on breaking down the barriers between a retailer’s online and offline offering through delivering an inspirational, immersive and interconnected experience for customers. At the moment, for example, consumers are increasingly shifting from wanting to buy individual products, to buying into the types of experiences and lifestyles that they view on online platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. Retailers must take advantage of this and reimagine both the in-store and online experience to showcase products that inspire and surprise, rather than stacking them in aisles or on traditional displays. Stores should also be trialling more immersive initiatives, such as 360-degree displays or product-testing areas in-store, to create a hybrid physical-digital experience that draws customers into the store and makes them want to connect with a brand.

The omni-channel also enables retailers to connect customers through technology, augmenting the store experience and empowering customers with all the information they need at their fingertips. Asking a chatbot which aisle the milk can be found in a sprawling supermarket, where the nearest store is that stocks your size of shoe, where to find your favourite store in a busy shopping centre; all these possibilities enable the customer to engage in a 1:1 conversation with a brand and help maintain and drive customer engagement.

So far so good, but the key to great customer experience isn’t just to offer each of these elements in isolation – it is to tie them together into an interconnected digital and physical experience that has been genuinely personalised for each customer.

The retail industry is in the midst of one of the biggest disruptions it has ever faced, and many businesses are at risk of reacting too late. Retailers must seek change now and address the barriers between their in and out-of-store experience by using omni-channel and customer experience transformation to rethink the store’s role.

The benefits of a balanced and optimised channel strategy will be the increased recruitment of customers across channels. This ‘omni-channel recruitment’ will be central for bricks and clicks retailers in the digital age. Store conversion rates can be up to 14x higher in-store than online, highlighting that if retailers are able to develop a compelling channel strategy that drives customers into key stores and retail locations, they can boost sales and growth.

Westfield enjoys Boxing Day footfall cheer

Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City attracted a combined 363,000 punters on Boxing Day through a combination of retail deals and experiences, up 3.4% on the same period in 2018.

It was Westfield London’s busiest day since it opened in 2008, with more 189,000 consumers descending on the west London site, with the company attributing a great portion of the success to experience activations.

Among those launched for 2019 were the Winter Village Christmas market, a Nordic-themed Christmas grotto, Naomi Campbell’s Fashion For Relief pop-up store and Merry Mutts Motel at Westfield London.

The firm also said the in-centre services it offers added to its festive attractiveness, including hands-free shopping, gift-wrapping,  concierge  and valet parking.

Myf Ryan, CMO Europe and Group Director of Brand and Strategic Marketing for Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, said: “Boxing Day has once again proved to be one of the busiest days of the year and we’ve welcomed more than 363,000 visitors across both Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City which is up 3.4%. Local and international visitors have flocked to our centres to make the most of the festive season by combining the best in retail with leisure and entertainment.”

One Stop trumpets influencer success

Convenience store chain One Stop says it smashed its engagement targets on Instagram by working with a team of lifestyle influencers.

The chain, which has more than 950 stores across the country, wanted to highlight the accessibility and quality of its Own Label ranges – specifically their frozen food – and worked with a small group of influencers, challenging them to create meals and post them on their Instagram feeds in order to inspire others.

Working with marketing technology specialist Relatable, the chain says the campaign surpassed its targets of a three per cent engagement rate.

Head of Marketing at One Stop, Nigel Prendergast, said: “We recently launched our Instagram account as a platform to showcase a range of mouth-watering recipes featuring tasty ingredients from our Own Label range.

“Through Instagram we’ve been able to successfully create high street ‘heroes’ from our 450 ‘Own Label’ products, with shoppers invited to join the One Stop team for ways to enjoy quick and healthy meals, kitchen ‘hacks’ and shopper shortcuts.

“In order to explore new ways to harness the influence of Instagram even more, we decided to engage further with communities where our stores are based and trial working with 10 hand picked influencers. Their brief? To create high-quality content that was authentic to their feeds and would resonate well with their followers.

“These influencers were able to perfectly highlight, through their own hands-on approach, the convenience of being able to create delicious meals using One Stop’s Own Label ingredients and the results have been outstanding.”

The select brand ambassadors – chosen for their high engagement rates – set to work posting one to two high quality images of their meals to their feeds, achieving an engagement rate of 3.15 per cent through their genuine and quality content.

Five of the influencers also created ‘Instagram Stories’, highlighting the ‘behind the scenes’ footage of using and creating a meal with One Stop products, focusing primarily on the Own Label frozen food range. The stories were watched by almost 90 per cent of the channel’s audience, which is 40 per cent more than the average story on Instagram.

In total, the campaign outperformed reach by 18% and was seen by 1.25m users on Instagram, increasing awareness of the brand significantly across the channel.

Do you provide Complete Shopfitting solutions to retail? We want to hear from you!

Each month on Retail Briefing we’re shining the spotlight on different parts of the retail market – in January we’ll be focussing on Complete Shopfitting solutions.

It’s all part of our new ‘Recommended’ editorial feature, designed to help retail and eCommerce buyers find the best products and services available today.

So, if you’re a supplier of Complete Shopfitting solutions and would like to be included as part of this exciting new shop window, we’d love to hear from you – for more info, contact Courtney Saggers on

Here are the areas we’ll be covering, month by month:

Jan – Complete Shopfitting
Feb – Digital Signage
Mar – Display Props & Materials
Apr – Graphics
May – Interactive Displays
June – Lighting
July – Marketing
Aug – POS
Sept – Retail Design
Oct – Shop Equipment
Nov – Window Displays
Dec – Shop Fronts/Entrances

For more information on any of the above, contact Courtney Saggers on