Redefining Retail: 2021 Australian Retail Association (ARA) Leaders Forum

woman window shopping

On 17 March, the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) hosted their Leaders Forum, where I was fortunate to participate in conversations with a diverse and high calibre panel which included Erica Berchtold (CEO The Iconic), Richard Murray (CEO JB Hi-FI), Paul Bradby (CEO David Jones) and our very own Professor Gary Mortimer (Chair – Consumer Research Advisory Committee).

The Australian Retailers Association is a community of Australia’s top retailers, working together to create a united voice for the industry to facilitate growth and meaningful change. They are the oldest and largest Australian retail industry group, representing the $340 billion retail sector that employs approximately 1.2 million people nationwide.

The topic this year was Redefining Retail, timely given where the industry and world is at right now.

Some of my key takeaways and insights gleaned from the conversation included:

  1. At an economic level and given interest rates are so low, retail spend has increased over COVID-19, however consumer savings levels have increased also.
  2. There’s now a heightened focus on sustainability for retail (Erica Berchtold – CEO The Iconic) and consumers are now wanting evidence and proof of retailer’s genuine work in this space.
  3. Data is the ‘new oil of the 21st century’ and retailers need to be ahead of the game in predicting customer trends and delivering what customers need and think they need.
  4. Customers are now prioritising convenience over loyalty. 7-Eleven talked to their agile business model where they’re providing convenience to their customers under the one roof. E.g., you can collect a parcel at your local 7-Eleven.
  5. Recruiting and retaining quality talent is tough in retail, hence a focus on lifelong learning is needed for the next generation. Candidates and younger retail staff are now expecting to see learning and development pathways to give them a meaningful career in the industry.
  6. And finally, and possibly most importantly, the service experience is so important. Retail isn’t just about product; customers are demand quality service more now than ever.

Convenience Trumps Loyalty

If you were unable to attend the Forum and you would like to learn more, read on. Here are my top five learnings from each of the sessions I attended:

Session: Keynote Panel Conversation

  1. The good news – Australia has fared well throughout the impact of COVID-19.
  2. Retail spending has increased over COVID-19, and surprisingly, so has the level of savings. Low interest rates will continue to influence consumer behaviour and spending.
  3. Sustainability is the new focus for retail, according to Erica Berchtold, CEO of The Iconic. It’s time to double down, despite the impact of COVID-19.
  4. Initially, people were shopping locally as a result of COVID-19 jurisdiction restrictions, however now we are seeing a return to pre-COVID activity.
  5. “Data is the new oil of the 21st Century”, according to the Head of the RBA.

Session: Learnings from COVID-19 – Matthew Shay, CEO of National Retail Federation USA

  1. Pre-COVID-19, there were 52 million American jobs, however post-COVID this is now down to 32 million. Surprisingly, retail sales grew by 3.8% in 2019, contributing $3.9 trillion GDP.
  2. There were significant disruptions to supply chain distribution with container ships sitting off ports for weeks and even months without being able to enter US waters.

Looking to the Future

Session: The Re-birth of Retail. Retail Reimagined – Eli Greenblat, Australian Journalist

Guests: Andrew Smith and Gareth Jude. Founders, Think Uncommon

  1. Risk and disruption is normal for retail. They’re great at process, but the focus needs to shift to the process of innovation for outcomes. Retailers are more likely to fail in innovation due to process, not technology.
  2. The golden rule in retail innovation is you need to create something of value to customers; it needs to generate a strong return for business; and it needs to align to the purpose of the business.
  3. Innovation is at its best when it’s measured, and at pace. Move swiftly, but objectively and don’t get ahead of your customer – always apply the golden rule.
  4. To get staff on board with innovation, you need to start right at the top to create a culture of innovation and understand that it’s OK to fail. Get staff involved, including frontline teams, and build cross-functional teams to drive initiatives.

Session: Start-up/ Scale-up Retailers with Partnerships – Marcy Larson, Industry Executive, Microsoft

Guests: Brenton Gill, Rodaro; Hilary Watson, Black AI; and Joseph Peck, Observa.

  1. Try to understand the ecosystem of the organisation and work within it.
  2. Be aware that risks will be involved.
  3. Supply chain should be a marketing channel, not just part of the process or business operations.

Session: Rebirth of Retail – Gary Mortimer, ARA Chair and QUT

  1. The COVID-19 consumer doesn’t feel as safe anymore.
  2. Abuse of retail workers has heightened and is a concern for the industry.
  3. The customer service experience is so important. Retail isn’t just about product – customers demand quality service.
  4. We’ve witnessed a shift in ‘positive rule-breaking’, where retailers are bending the rules to keep the customer happy. Read more in this article by Gary Mortimer – ‘The key to positive organisational behaviours and HR strategies in the workplace’
  5. Communication about the organisation and the products they sell is key for the customer, as is extra time spent with them to personalise the conversation and experience.

To learn more or watch Gary’s presentation, click here.

Session: Consumer Behaviour – Paul Bradby, CEO + CEO David Jones

  1. Convenience trumps loyalty.
  2. Consumers care about what they’re buying and where it’s from. They’re now fact-checking to understand what companies are about.
  3. Brands need to be transparent.
  4. Be agile and make it work for the customer – test, learn and adapt.

The Sustainability Revolution

Session: Workforce of the Future – Richard Murray, CEO JB Hi-Fi

  1. Workplace culture needs to be strong to attract good talent.
  2. Digital skills are becoming increasingly important, as is the need for talent skilled in technology.
  3. Flexibility has now widened the talent pool and opened new opportunities. We’re no longer restricted by location to identify the best talent.
  4. To prepare your workforce for the future, it’s about reskilling and upskilling, and ‘lifelong learning’. The next generation of our workforce expects to see learning and development pathways. Give them a meaningful career with learning. They’re also concerned with social responsibility and sustainability, so you need to sell your story to attract your talent.
  5. Australian’s spend $60 billion overseas each year. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, they currently can’t leave the country so we need to encourage them to invest and spend locally.

LIfelong Learning

Final Trends – Microsoft

The Ecosystem Opportunity

Get in Touch.

To learn more about QUT’s expertise in helping retail organisations to develop their people capability development, or to connect with one of our research centres, please contact Kristy Hammond, QUTeX Partnership Manager –



Kristy Hammond is a Corporate Partnership Manager for QUTeX. She is passionate about authentic leadership, corporate learning and development, strategic business development and ultimately, organisational success. As a commercially astute business leader and coach, her focus is on helping organisations achieve success, through providing strategic L&D solutions to help improve their capability, productivity and organisational development. Kristy has a breadth of strategic business experience in running businesses, leading successful large teams and creating and delivering on large offshore learning projects, primarily in the education and media industries.

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