For those who don’t know, Apple recently lost a major VP from their retail arm. Former Senior VP for Retail, Ron Johnson, left to pursue aspirations of being a CEO of a major retailer in America, namely department store JC Penny. In his first big appointment since taking the reigns at Apple, Tim Cook made a bold move by hiring former DSG honcho John Browett.
DSG stands for Dixons Stores Group, and is comprised of various European electrical goods outlets, most notably PC World and Currys. There are many detailed blog posts out in the wilds of the internet about Browett, his credentials and how he steered DSG through a remarkably turbulent time economically – a particularly bad time for retailers selling white goods and non-niche computers. This blog post, I hope, is slightly different because I worked for DSG a few years ago as both a bog standard sales person up to management in the company before departing. Not only that, on one of those “big visit” days I met with John Browett (briefly) and hold the credit as the only person to crack a joke that he actually laughed at.
Browett himself has an impressive list of things he’s done and succeeded at. The aforementioned is probably the most important one, he steered a waning company through harsh economic conditions. No one wanted to go to Currys (or anywhere) to buy a fridge when there was a chance that the economy could get worse. The same goes for cheap laptops in PC World (because people who buy cheap laptops tend not to care that much, and are more willing to stick with an older model).
Some strategies he decided to embark upon were hard ones. A few weeks before I took upon the role of being a manager in a major outlet for them they removed their commission payments for sales colleagues. This was step one to save money. Of course, this meant lots of staff left the company and moved on. However, I never considered DSG a “career company”, despite still knowing staff years later that still reside within – and are generally happy. Looking upon that with the upper-echelon evil-eyes that I afford myself these days, it was a good way to save money and get rid of disgruntled staff. One of the big things we did upon taking management roles was gut stores of the bad staff to help turn it around.
The next thing he did, which happened after I left, other than cut jobs, was to merge huge stores. PC World and Currys were seen as competitors in consumers’ eyes, which meant you couldn’t co-brand or use the same expensive TV advert for both store outlets selling different types of product. Thus stores were re-done to have PC World on the ground floor and to house a Currys mezzanine with white goods. This is generally accepted now as the way the company operates in larger stores. There is Currys (“Currys Digital”) which exists as a standalone product inside shopping centers and high streets. I generally saw those as places to sell digital cameras and the like.
All of this saved money without pushing an austerity plan that killed the company. However, there was one thing that stayed constant throughout the company, and it’s something I imagine still exists today. The “management” culture is awful. God awful. It doesn’t pursue to promote staff, nor does it do anything to treat staff, even high performing ones, with anything. Managers are made to stand at the front of a store, survey their domain with a clipboard and “manage”. They, in essence, want micro-managers who can survey everything at once. This is fine, but there’s very little good happening when a manager is standing at a door like a twat watching a lunch rota. On top of this, general managers do very little training, and thus pass on very little training to their junior/assistant managers or supervisors.
In later life when building up my own team in a different company, I took/take pride in the fact that everyone knew/knows everything. It means colleagues are able to make decisions on their own while I’m left to do what I feel I need to do. Micro-management doesn’t work on any level.
More than that, managers are forced to jot down sales figures throughout the day to “remind themselves” of how the store is performing and to put pressure on sales staff. Sales staff that, remember, no matter how much they sell won’t get any rewards greater than their wage. Everyday there’s a brief to run through key points to staff. I found these quite useful and good myself, because it meant I was able to tell my staff what was going down generally in the company. Sure, there were sales figures, but generally the message was what the company was up to, things to push out and so on. Incidentally, I always had my guys push Apple.
Then came an interesting sales training event. The company rolled out a huge, expensive and bold program to train staff to be better sales people. It was called 5ives, and basically detailed the 5 steps to a sale by bringing the customer through 5 imaginary “rooms” or “scenarios”. A lot of it didn’t work, but did make sense. It didn’t work because, while it was taught well and with a fun environment, no one seriously takes in what the HR girl is teaching you in a closed room and brings it to a sales floor. Couple that with the fact that a lot of staff didn’t have English as their native tongue, so they took the program to be a script – which ended in disaster a lot of times. To solve the problem the company did extra training, rewarded wristbands to staff who showed they were good at it, and hammered home the mantra that it’s not a script, but use it – because there’d be spot checks and mystery shoppers.
And this all happened. Mystery shoppers came along. Any big visit from company chiefs would invariably involve quizzing a sales colleague and people stopped getting into the idea because it was now a scary sales program. Introduce staff turn-over rates and suddenly you’ve only got 50% of staff trained in the program and you’re getting in trouble (as a manager) because your staff aren’t following protocol – regardless of how good their sales were.
One story I’m aware of was when the Irish m.d. went to a store and asked the top sales guy in the country to run through a “5ives sale”. He sales assistant said he didn’t really know it, or use it. He was fired.
The whole point was to generate profit through attaching high margin product to low margin product. e.g. a cheap laptop alone will make a bit of money, but add anti-virus, MS Office and a bag to it and you’ve got yourself buckets of margin. The best margin though, was in the “insurance” plan… which was often wildly expensive.
The crux of this is that, sure, Browett introduced a lot of interesting ideas that helped steer the company through tough times, but in the stores the culture of shit managers breeding shit staff grew. As far as I can tell that hasn’t gone away. The culture is to sell more, not sell better. It’s certainly not about customer service. All of the wanky talk from head office never translated to happiness on the store floors because the staff were broke, miserable and forced to do things they didn’t think worked for them. The managers didn’t know what to do and when a manager stepped outside the box, they were put right back in it a.s.a.p..
I had the pleasure of doing some work with their head office in Ireland and enjoyed every bit of it. But I knew that the work I was doing there in operations over Christmas didn’t make a huge difference as that teams’ enthusiasm was helped along by a fun atmosphere. Working in a shop wearing a purple shirt while a manager gives out to you over every single sale isn’t fun.
I’m sure Browett has some excellent ideas for Apple, but if he brings in measures like he did with DSG he needs to tread softly. The current mood in an Apple store is nothing short of jubilant. Sales staff aren’t being forced to push product out the door – and if they are they’re being trained/managed properly so the customer isn’t feeling pushed. Of course, with Apple Retail, the business is successful and stores operate on a profit. This might leave him free to do more interesting things rather than push wild profits that hinder the customer experience.
Of course, having met him on Irish soil, and knowing he had a keen eye on our progress as our economy slumped, it might mean “Dublin” crops up on his list for an Apple store sooner than we expected.