Susanne Given – Retail Leaders Interview

Susanne Given has had a hugely successful executive career at the likes of SuperDry, where she was COO, TK Maxx where she was Managing Director for UK and Ireland and John Lewis where she was Buying Director – Fashion.

She is now enjoying a burgeoning portfolio career that includes Chairing the boards at designer furniture and homeware retailer made.com and Menswear Personal Shopping Service outfittery.com along with a series of Non – Executive Directorships that include Deloittes and Eurostar. 

In the latest in our series of interviews with Business Leaders from the Retail and Consumer Sector, Susanne shares her thoughts on a range of topics from the challenges facing High Street Retail to Gender Pay Disparity and Boardroom diversity, 

 

Much has been made of the challenges faced by traditional bricks and mortar retailers, but as the Chair or NED of a portfolio of Tech business, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing e-commerce? 

E-commerce today is a broad banner, covering a multitude of businesses at very different stages.  I tend to look at the evolution of e-commerce in four stages.  From offline (first generation), we moved in to the multi-channel world – if you like the second generation (of e-commerce).  That evolved to Omni Channel and with that Pureplay, that was your ‘gen three’.  I think we are now moving towards the fourth generation, a world in which consumers will continue to spend less time on purchasing ‘stuff’ and who will be looking for easier ways to get to the products and brands they love, brands or retailers who identify with their personal culture or tribe.

What does that mean?  That means as the consumer I have a host of online brands and retailers who really understand who I am.  They understand the kind of products that are of interest to me, what my needs might be, the frequency of that need and therefore my purchasing habits and behaviours.  They will, as a result, engage with me in a targeted, wholly efficient and highly personalised way that means I don’t have to spend an awful lot of time shopping.

It’s very difficult for those Retailers who were established and successful in generation one, two or three to try and understand how that evolution impacts their existing operating model as they try desperately to catch up with a fourth generation digital retailer or brand who is running away from them.  The challenge for online retailers, depending on at which point they went online, as generation one two or three, is to stay on the curve let alone get ahead of the curve in terms of securing consumers of the future, if you like the digital native, who are distinctly different to the consumer of the last fifteen years of years of e-commerce.  The digital native consumer of the future is expecting a higher degree of sophistication and personalisation than ever before.

 

What sort of initiatives, technology or plays do you see that will help to overcome those challenges

I think the best example I can give you is at Outfittery,com which is a business I chair in Berlin.  That business is now mid – size, generating e50m + revenue with a 50 strong tech and data scientist team behind that business serving some 600,000 male clients across mainland Europe.  Those clients either don’t have the time to go shopping, are they are perhaps not confident shopping or simply just don’t enjoy shopping!

Instead they rely on our Data Scientists interpreting their messages, whatever those messages are, from shopping choices and buying patterns to commentary and feedback they give us.  They expect our data scientists to get to know and understand them in a very meaningful way and through that understanding provide them with a shopping box with a selection of clothes they have either partly pre – selected perhaps not at all.  Rather than spending time browsing online or in-store, they rely on us, they trust us both in terms of the service and our understanding of them, too fulfil their menswear needs and manage their wardrobe effectively.

That to me is what 4th generation online retail looks like, where you get back to that really highly personalised customer experience that you would have probably enjoyed sixty years ago when you walked in to a high end department store.  People recognised you, knew exactly what you loved in terms of the new season, the new colours and would make product recommendations accordingly.  We are able to offer the same experience to the customer but in a wholly digital way based on a great deal of information that is derived from that which we all imprint on the web and messages in our daily engagement with personal stylists in the case of Outfittery .

 

Therefore, the data scientist whatever way shape or form that might materialise from a Talent and experience and capability point of view, becomes the business critical talent pool within that fourth-generation entity? 

It is definitely a business critical component, yes, amongst many other things of course, but yes it does.

What we are seeing or will see is an evolution of that data analyst / scientist capability becoming ever more closely aligned to the customer service element of the business, which is clearly a fundamental shift.  Retail has always generated data on which it could rely but great customer service tended to stem from people who perhaps possessed a high degree of emotional intelligence, who would typically get to understand the customer intuitively.  Now that customer knowledge is driven by data to ensure a highly personalised customer experience.  So where does the use of Artificial Intelligence fit in to this?

What data scientists are doing today is combining raw data with human interaction in the sense of deciphering human interaction, turning that in to data and out of that creating principals around future engagement with customers.  We (technology) are at the foothills in terms of the use of Artificial Intelligence, which will develop fast over the coming years as we invest more in it.  The ability to recognise consumer language and voice and then overlay that with data points from other web imprints will enable us to get to sensible and smart conclusions, which over time will become fully automated and powered by AI, that is where we are headed I’m certain but we (technology) still have some way to go before we will be powering our businesses by AI exclusively.

 

What are your thoughts on the traditional retail landscape?  In particular, if you look at UK High Street retail it would seem barely a day goes by where we’re not reading about a CVA or store closures on a major scale.  What initiatives would like to see introduced that could revitalise UK High Street Retail?  Or do you think the drive to online retail means the demise is beyond reversal. 

I think it’s a combination of things.  I’ve been part of that scene (High Street Retail) for a long time.  For years now we have, as retail professionals, created our own algorithms in a non – digital way, narrowing down our product assortments through merchandising, have squeezed more and more out of our assortments and made the offer more and more one dimensional to the extent that effectively our High Streets have become homogenous.  That’s one part of the equation.  We have lost the artisanal interest factor which means that a trip to any High Street now probably means you see a great deal of the same products and offerings everywhere. We also have great department stores but too often what you looked at in the first month of the season was what you also looked at in the third month of the season.  We’ve ended up in a rut as retailers in the way we have thought about our business and the consumer and I think that, combined with the transformation that has happened through the millennial and younger cohorts, is much of the reason as to why we are where we are today.

I’ve lived with a millennial for the last 30 years.  She will do her shopping before 8am in the morning on her phone because everything that she had browsed the day before would have been smartly converted by digital ad agencies in to an exact product portfolio from relevant online retailers.  The first thing she’ll do when she wakes up is to pick up her phone to find very well matched items in her feed from a variety of retailers and because of that, when she describes her retail landscape, it doesn’t look like the High Street.  She rarely goes there.

We have had these two things happening at the same time and if you are a 35-year-old or younger, you have not grown up going to the High Street to satisfy your commercial needs.  You have first and foremost sought them through your handset.

The result is that when they list their top 10 or top 20 retail brands, they are those that are online because that is where they live and spend their time.  We’ve become less and less interesting in the High Street for commercial reasons whilst at the same time a whole new cohort has grown up who have spent proportionately less time in the High Street than previous generations.  That is what is really driving the crisis that we are seeing right now.

The only way in my view that will reverse is digital brands deciding they now need a physical footprint.  Some are already going on that journey and that will drive the millennial, a younger cohort, who will be excited to go and see their preferred digital brands as a physical manifestation that will drive them back in to the High Street.  However, they won’t go to the High Street to visit the traditional brands we grew up with because they are meaningless to them.  It is simply not their retail landscape.

In the past, many a High Street shopping trip was driven by a functional need and maybe you’d go and do the nice things, perhaps browse, afterwards.  The reality is that a lot of that functional purchasing now is done through the likes of Amazon and those High street trips that were driven by need have been undermined.  I don’t think you can reverse those things. It doesn’t mean there isn’t still a place for the high street, but it will be different and it will be less essential and so as a consequence I think we will see more CVA’s and there will be an ongoing reshaping.  My hope for the High Street is that through lowering rates and becoming a bit more sensible with leases the Digital Brands can be encouraged to take out either pop up or permanent space and get some of these brands in to the physical arena.  That will change the High Street but I think it’s the only thing that will.

 

Whilst much by way of column inches and air time has been given to the issue of gender pay gaps, in reality in many sectors the gap still remains and in some cases the gap is even widening.  What steps would you like to see taken to ensure gender pay parity? 

It is a complex subject.  The way we report it currently does not necessarily reflect what goes on in businesses.  Improvements to the current reporting regime would certainly be useful.  I can’t set out exactly how you do that, but we are having discussions around that in various of my businesses.   However, the fact that we are reporting is great because it means that this is now on the agenda and forcing the issue to be looked at.  I think that is really positive.  This will only change if boards make it their purpose and mission to change it. Reporting is creating that impetus and therefore the current blunt reporting is a good thing.  To evolve that reporting in to something more meaningful, I think will be very useful and the fact that the press is publicising this issue is also equally useful in raising awareness.  There is no silver bullet on this.  I think as some of the Fund Managers and Investment Committees are now setting out that they take exception to gender pay gaps, businesses are beginning to take real note of the issue, particularly as investors are challenging chairmen/women and boards as a result.  Chairmen/women are not being reselected if they are not evolving their boards into the right gender split and I believe there will be other investor movements in this direction all of which will effectively help to close the gap and move the debate on.  It is an evolution, however, as it should be, and that is going to take time.

 

The positive impact of greater boardroom diversity is indisputable.  And yet the Hampton Alexander review aim for women to make up at least 33% of FTSE 350 Boards and leadership teams by 2020 is a long way from being met. 66 publicly listed business have only one single female director and three still have all male boards.  Do you think we are at a point at which consideration has to be given to legislation or even quotas on boards to ensure that boardroom diversity is taken seriously? 

The boards I sit on talk about and debate this issue constantly and I see a real desire to address it.  As a female portfolio Careerist I certainly would not entertain a seat on a board where to encourage, promote and action greater boardroom diversity is not an integral part of how the board and leadership thinks.  I have met, talked with and know of boards who whilst the language and message is one of promoting greater diversity, that rhetoric is not backed up by action.

What I would say in the defence of some boards, is that in some industries finding the quality and calibre of female Non – Executives in the numbers required to ensure a robust recruitment and selection process is not easy.  One has to be mindful and thoughtful around how we make this happen. However, what this is, is a call out so that everyone is aware, right across the organisation, of the responsibility to identify potential and promote female talent across the business so that over time we increase the pool of talent that is coming to the top of the career ladder.

Overarchingly, I do think, however, there has been tremendous progress made in the number of women in board seats on FTSE350 boards.  When I became COO of SuperGroup Plc in 2012 I was one of only 22 Female Directors in the FTSE 250 at that time.  Compare that today to the progress made in 7 years (*the Hampton – Alexander report from November 2018 evidenced ‘the number of women on FTSE100 Boards has exceed 30% for the first time, there are more women on the boards of FTSE250 companies and women on FTSE100 Executive Committees has passed 21% for the first time’) I do think we are moving forward and the direction of travel is a positive one.

 

Do you think we are at a point where we need to consider legislation to ensure greater female representation in the boardroom? 

Historically I would have said no to quotas but I have changed my mind on this.  I think the fact that we are setting quotas makes people try harder.  It also makes people give candidates who may be talented but perhaps don’t have the track record the chance to show just how they can contribute.  However, what is not a good thing is picking a female candidate who is not talented and appointing this person to the board for the wrong reason, simply to satisfy a quota.  This type of behavior will in fact set back the diversity agenda and opportunity, and will obstruct the progress we are all desperately looking for. Without discussions around quotas and legislation the changes we are starting to see would not in my view have happened.