Big interview: Ex-Sainsbury's CEO Justin King

Justin King stepped down as CEO of the UK's third largest supermarket Sainsbury's in the summer, but appeared in public again this week criticising retailers for starting their Christmas marketing campaigns before Armistice Day and challenging some of the widely-held notions surrounding the power of technology in the industry.

In a one-on-one interview with Essential Retail on Tuesday morning, Armistice Day, the former retail exec rolled out a number of criticisms about this year's festive marketing drives, many of which were launched to some fanfare in the media last week.

John Lewis, Marks & Spencer (M&S) and Argos are among the larger UK retailers to officially launch their Christmas campaigns in the last few days, but the ex-Sainsbury's boss argued that they have been rolled out too soon.

King remarked: “I just don't think it's appropriate. The whole time I worked at Sainsbury's we had a policy that we didn't run a Christmas ad until after Armistice Day – I don't think it's necessary and particularly as it's the 100th anniversary marking the start of the first world war. I was quite surprised when I saw all the Christmas ads appearing during the break of Downton Abbey.

“I happened to be with my parents and we played a guessing game at which one was which – I couldn't tell you which one was which by the way. That is my point; everyone is trying to be in the same space.

“I take the old-fashioned view that the ads should tell you something either directly or indirectly about the organisation in question. I'm not convinced I'm getting those messages this year.”

Although acknowledging that he has in the past worked for organisations that have been accredited for their marketing campaigns, he added: “I'm not sure advertising that's made to win awards is advertising for customers.”

Some early figures from John Lewis, in particular, would suggest the advertisements do have a resonance with shoppers. According to data collated by Unruly for Marketing magazine, since the ad premiered on social media last Thursday, it has been the most shared ad of the past seven days, with more than 433,000 shares. But King is evidently not impressed with UK retail's 2014's offering so far.

The easy argument would be that King is missing the annual jostling for position on the Christmas starting grid and perennial winter race for sales, but he suggests otherwise.

“I don't miss it as I'm not someone who is given to retrospection,” he said.

“I planned for this [leaving Sainsbury's] for quite a while, so I don't wake up in the morning and check my phone for sales figures. I did wonder if I would, but I don't.”

Giving an indication of the impact Christmas trading has on retailers, particularly those operating in the ever-combative grocery sector, King added: “You'd have to be dead from the waist up not to enjoy – at least in a perverse way – the Christmas experience in grocery because it is really where the rubber hits the road.

“But I've done it for pretty much for the best part of 30 years so I don't think it's a big part of my life that I have to go over.”

With Sainsbury's today announcing a £290 million pre-tax loss for the first half of its financial year under new CEO Mike Coupe, as well as revealing that it is going to cut down on new store openings – which comes off the back off major restructuring unveiled  at Tesco and Morrisons – the grocery market climate is tough as Christmas approaches.

But perhaps the real reason for some of King's conflicting comments is because he sees himself as a disruptor.

He was in Barcelona to talk at supply chain solutions provider JDA Software's annual Focus Connect conference, where he addressed delegates by challenging some so-called grocery industry 'truths' that have emerged in recent months.

Despite recent announcements from the likes of Aldi, which said this week that it expects to add 35,000 UK jobs by 2022 and open hundreds more stores in the coming years following recent market share gains, he questioned the true impact value chains have had on the grocery sector and caused a stir among some of the tech analysts in the audience when he talked down the effect the emergence of eCommerce has had on traditional retail. He suggested that there is “a deeply depressing idea that we are all so convinced that the in-store experience is so s**t that online is going to win”.

In his interview with Essential Retail, he commented: “My key thesis is that in business in general the most important thing is to really understand what is happening before we start taking action.

“If you look at the truth behind the headlines, the story is different. If you're running your business based on the headlines you are going to come unstuck. Half of the UK still doesn't have a smartphone and most people with these devices don't use them to full capacity.”

He admitted that he is “struggling to see the tipping point” for online retail, and with more than 90% of grocery shopping still done in-store he argued that retailers should be doing more to make the physical shopping experience better.

Although King seemingly disputes the power of online retail in the grand scheme of total grocery sales, he is not naive to the fact that many shoppers are using the internet to buy grocery products. His Sainsbury's was the second major supermarket in the UK, after Tesco, to launch an online transactional site.

He used his JDA speech to remind consumer-facing organisations that “whatever technology does it needs to have the customer at it's heart”, and he urged business decision makers to continually ask themselves “is this good news for the customer?”

One of his last moves as Sainsbury's CEO was to appoint previous eCommerce boss Jon Rudoe to the operating board as digital and technology director. The decision clearly highlighted the growing importance of having tech expertise at the top level of a business.

“Clearly, if you have any significant part of your organisation not represented on either your operating board or higher then your business probably isn't structured right, but no-one has ever questioned why there's a marketing director or HR director or finance director.

"For me the challenge for PLC boards is they should be representing the customers they serve, which means gender, diversity and different age groups. What's sad is that the question only seems to be asked now; why has it taken technology to ask questions about this situation?”

Having worked at M&S for a number of years and then at Sainsbury's for a decade it is unlikely that King will return to a senior role at the heart of UK grocery retailing, but time is ticking before he does make the decision on what he is going to do next.

The last few months have given him time to reflect and relax after ten years at the helm of one of the UK's largest public businesses, and he has said that he won't take on another role until the new year. He has also continued to hold an advisory role at office products retailer Staples, via a non-executive position at the US business.

Despite King's protestations at their early appearance on TV screens, in newspapers and across social media, the Christmas adverts firmly indicate that the festive season is fast approaching – and, arguably, that also means a decision on the former CEO's future direction is imminent.

Some have speculated that he may move into motor sport, where his son Jordan competes, while others have whispered his name as a replacement for one of a number of the embattled CEOs currently overseeing UK retail. For now, he remains tight-lipped about his plans or potential opportunities.

"I made the announcement I was leaving last January and I didn't depart until July, but I was quite determined not to make it seem like I was on some kind of victory tour, and winding down into retirement – if anything I was more full on in the last few months than at any other time," he commented.

"Having spoken to people who had done similar things, I promised myself I wouldn't take another job this side of Christmas. The bigger you want it to be, the longer it's going to take to happen."

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