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A Christmas Carol? Well nearly.


Retailing can be a brutal business, just think of the big name failures that have taken place over recent years and the even bigger names that are currently battling falling sales, with customers deserting them for their smaller and more nimble competitors.

So how nice to hear of a very different approach to retailing than the data driven, head office led, control approach which is the mainstay of most large retail organisations.

Radio 4’s ‘The Bottom Line’ the business programme chaired by Evan Davis is always worth a listen and last week’s programme titled ‘Upside down Management’ was exceptional. It appeared to pit Gerry Robinson boss of motorway service group Moto against John Timpson of Timpson’s the shoe repair and key cutting business, or so it would appear. And in this programme we were presented with two very different takes on retailing. Whilst Robinson took the accepted big data, head office command and control approach, Timpson favoured leaving it to individual store managers. You could almost hear the gasp of incredulity from Gerry Robinson as Timpson explained that they had done away with the systems linking store sales and other information to head office along with the ranks of retail analysts and head office managers deemed essential in most modern retail businesses. Instead individual store managers were given a strong degree of autonomy in how they ran their stores, the opening hours and the way they interacted with customers. Area manager’s roles were to support and help the retail staff rather than control them. Customer service was paramount and surprisingly store managers had the discretion to spend up to £500 settling any individual customer complaint there and then without any need for further authorisation.

Even more interesting was Timpson’s policy of offering employment opportunities to ex-offenders, even in the face of headlines in ‘The Sun’ newspaper stating ‘Prisoners taught key cutting skills’. Whilst most Chief executives would have hastily changed policy for fear of upsetting customers, Timpson’s approach was to state ‘The Sun’s not going to stop us doing what we do’. He went on to say that staff turnover was no greater amongst ex-offenders than staff generally and many of his most loyal and dependable employees had joined the company through the ex-offenders programme, helping many to build a better life and becoming one of the biggest employers providing employment opportunities to the tens of thousands released from prison each year to an uncertain future.

I was left impressed with Timpson’s individual and visionary approach in what can be very much a ‘follow me’ culture within retailing. Whilst being different for the sake of it can often be a road to failure, making a difference to customers and staff was clearly working for Timpson’s and I for one hope they continue to flourish. And now I’m off to Timpson’s to get some keys cut.

Radio 4’s The Bottom Line is available on i-player at

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