Business analysis: 'Flexibility and opportunism will be key attributes in the times ahead'

These are strange economic times. On the one hand, the Government and most commentators are full of gloom. On the other, well, people might not be quite so ready to part with their cash as they were in the heady carefree days of a few years ago, but supermarket and some department store groups seem to be surviving the downturn in a lot better shape than most people expected. Even John Lewis, owner of the decidedly upmarket Waitrose, posted a near-10 per cent increase in profits for the most recent period and handed out hefty bonuses to its “partners”.

Perhaps even more surprising, customers were apparently queuing up to get into the new Louis Vuitton store in London’s West End before it opened, while the UK launch of the iPad saw Apple gain its usual devoted crowds.

Perhaps all this is not so strange. These businesses are doing something that gains attention. John Lewis attributes much of the success of Waitrose, Britain’s fast-growing supermarket chain, to the launch of its “Essential” range that offers Waitrose quality at a more affordable price. Louis Vuitton is seeking to turn its premises into a “destination” rather than just a shop by exhibiting works of art and making the premises “a place to be seen”, while Apple, of course, has gained iconic status as a bastion of cool, with any new product gaining more than its fair share of attention. Considering the iPad could be the start of a new direction in high-tech devices, the excitement starts to make sense.

There is a lesson to all this. These are all sizeable, well-established businesses, but they all – by reason of attitude, culture or industry – think and act more entrepreneurially than some of their rivals. That has got to be the way to not just survive but to prosper in the current |economic environment.

This is also the approach being taken by Dominique Busso, who launched an online magazine dedicated to information technology in the face of intense scepticism. Busso has been involved in several IT publishing ventures in the past, and worked with fellow managers at the publishing house VNU to buy out the management of various online businesses in 2007. Now grouped together in NetMediaEurope, they claim to form the leading set of business-to-business niche websites aimed at IT professionals in European countries. It’s too early to tell whether it will be a lasting success, but in a little over a year the main vehicle – eWEEK, which targets specialists in Europe’s leading IT markets of the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – has grown to 50 staff, half of whom are journalists.

Busso is not expanding for the sake of it, though. While acknowledging that people and services can be acquired more easily and cheaply in a recession, he is highly pragmatic. For example, by teaming up with Ziff Davis Enterprise, product reviews can be shared with the associated US website. The familiar technical publishing brand Ziff Davis also gives his venture added credibility. Not all of the material on the US will work in Europe – hence the need for his venture. “Europe is a niche market, but it also has niches [of its own],” he explains, pointing out the site employs local editors to ensure material is relevant for particular audiences.

Such flexibility and opportunism look like being key attributes in the tough times ahead. While there is no reason larger companies cannot display such facets, experience suggests it should be nimbler, more enterprising organisations leading the way.