Big interview: Bob Willett

Some retailers are still operating too hierarchically and too many retail CEOs still don't involve themselves enough in understanding how technology can boost their businesses, according to experienced industry executive Bob Willett.

To be successful in retail, companies need to create uniqueness, develop their people and focus on customer experience, the former Best Buy International CEO explained to Essential Retail.

The above themes will be among the subjects covered when Willett, current chairman of MetaPack, Occa Home and Eagle Eye Solutions, takes to the stage this week, as part of the RBTE conference programme at London's Earls Court. Having worked in senior roles at the likes of Marks & Spencer and Kingfisher during a long career spanning various countries, Willett is now keen to highlight how focusing on technology and innovation can drive sales and customer loyalty in today's retail environment.

"Too many CEOs treat technology as a black box and leave it to the CIO or now the multichannel director," he explained.

"The reality is that the more a CEO and his team really understand the value technology can bring, the stronger a company will be. Technology needs to become a servant of retailers and the consumer, not the master of them. All too often, people leave it alone because it's too complicated or it appears to be that way."

Willett argues that business leads do not have to be technologists; they need to be clear what outputs their business must achieve and then understand that the technology will drive the inputs to help them reach those targets.

"This is why companies like The Hut Group and Asos are doing so well. Asos has some great technology but what it is really focused on is the customer experience through its walkways," the retail executive suggested.

"Topshop focuses on the best possible fashion at just great value – it has a unique point of difference."

The idea of creating something different is also an important consideration in today's retail world, said Willett. At last month's MetaPack Delivery Conference in London, former Wiggle CEO Humphrey Cobbold warned that it is getting increasingly difficult to find a unique idea, especially in eCommerce, but businesses that take risks and focus on consumer engagement will triumph over their rivals.

Willett said: "If you think about successful businesses, they're risk takers – you need to have balanced risk.

"By doing the same thing as everyone else, you're definitely not going to win. I think it's about creating something that is unique and different, backing your hunches and really going for it. If you do that you'll be very successful – that's my sentiment."

He namedropped Primark and Topshop as examples of successful companies that have both "stuck to their knitting" and are very focused. "They haven't compromised their brand positioning," noted Willett.

"Product is still king – you cannot move away from the fact that, no matter how good you are online, if you haven't got a key point of difference with your product, it isn't going to work, you're not going to last long and you'll never make any money," he asserted.

Willett has recently joined a number of other experienced retail figures and fund managers in investing in fashion e-tailer Atterley Road. The consortium of investors, which also included The William Currie Group, former Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy and Artemis, has helped raise £2 million, which will be used to develop the brand in the UK and abroad.

"I believe in it and I believe in the team," stated Willett.

"It could be very, very big – that's my sense. It's early days and you have to walk before you can run, but it's doing very well in terms of growth. At the end of the day, you back people and their ability to create something that's unique and I think that's what the team has."

As technology continues to flood into retail, and eCommerce grows as a percentage of overall industry sales, the ex-Best Buy boss believes that employees actually become even more important to the customer purchase journey.

"So much interaction is technology driven, so when you do have a customer contact with a human being – which will happen – you need to make sure that person is well-trained, developed and feels like they have a part to play in the movie and not just a job," he said.

"There is nothing worse than not having someone who can really go out of their way to help you – the difference is phenomenal."

His message, therefore, is that even as new systems and technological advancements wash over the retail industry, there are some fundamental retailing practices that must remain.

"Retailing, whatever you do, is very simple," Willett commented. "It's about traffic, it's about conversion, it's about attachment and it's about retention. Those are the four key things any retailer, whether they are online or a store, have to focus on."

At RBTE 2014, Willett will be presenting the session 'Become Authentically Customer Curious by Following the Customer Curiosity Cycle to Unearth & Maintain Retail Innovation'.

RBTE runs from 11-12 March at London's Earls Court.