Put the detail back in retail

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Are the big brand retailers in the UK high street scared of becoming superannuated dinosaurs? Could this be the excuse for not injecting more excitement and flair into their merchandise and visual impact? The problem isn't the imminent threat of internet marketing or lack of consumer spending power. In too many cases, good old-fashioned retailing has become lacklustre. Shoppers no longer experience the sense of enjoyment they once did.

Why are Next's results up and Marks & Spencer's and Storehouse's down? How has Tesco overtaken Sainsbury? Has the detail gone out of retail?

There was a time when M&S never launched a new food product until the Board had sampled and approved it. At Sainsbury, before any new variety of cheese reached the stores, it had to be tried and tested by Lord John Sainsbury's dinner guests.

Retailers, especially supermarkets, are very switched on in checking each others' prices. But what's happened to comparing each others' merchandise? Food lines may be much the same in any of the big five or six chains, but haven't M&S buyers noticed the quality, value and appeal of women's and children's wear at Asda and Next?

M&S used to be renowned for training and developing staff to a level rarely achieved by rivals. That may still be the case, if only you can find any assistants when you need them. Service at the payment counters is friendly but you have to be patient to wait your turn. The food section checkout queuing is decidedly worse. Tesco recognised this problem a few years ago and took steps to address it.

Branches of every multiple are looked on by head offices as a profit centre but given varying degrees of autonomy. Executives may have spent years at head office controlling buying, marketing, finance and personnel and every other function in the supply chain, but often have little idea of the dynamics of the retail scene. It shouldn't take huge market research to discover what people want: they should spend more time at the stores chatting to customers and staff, encouraging the setting-up of panels for informal coffee or tea discussions to learn what's proving right and what's going wrong in the store.

Price discounting, in-store promotion and advertising haven't come a moment too soon for M&S but what's needed now is a touch of selective glamour, shopping excitement, more staff, stockrooms to avoid waiting days for your size, and a flow of exciting new product launches, especially products which again extol British manufacturing and craftsmanship.

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