In a 2014 interview The Warehouse Group chief executive Mark Powell said he felt like slitting his throat as he watched a 2012 focus-group feedback on The Warehouse through one-way glass.
When I ask him how he feels about current customer feedback, he laughs.
“I think the rather dramatic illustration I was using there was you need to face the truth…When I sat there three years ago and listened to what customers had to say we had a lot of work to do – and we still do.
“Facing the truth can be painful but you’ve got to do it and keep on grinding to improve customer experience.”
Powell would have certainly faced some hard truths when he started at The Warehouse.
But despite the company having recently turned sales figures around - from seven years of continuous decline to 15 consecutive quarters of sales growth at time of writing - Powell is allergic to the word ‘proud’.
“You need to be healthily paranoid in retail – you can’t ever relax. To say ‘proud’ implies a certain level of complacency, and you just can’t allow yourself time for that,” he says.
Starting at The Warehouse in February 2011, Powell says the red sheds, the core Warehouse business, “needed a lot of work”.
One of the biggest changes since then has been putting in place a process for innovative ideas to become reality.
“In retail it’s not hard to get ideas, but you have to execute them, getting stuff off PowerPoint and into stores and online. And that’s a patiently impatient process.”
Powell says when he explains this to people their eyes tend to glaze over a bit.
“But it’s how a large company makes decisions and that needed to be defined and it wasn’t defined - it was a key part of the work that needed doing,” he says.
Another big change has been significant investment in The Warehouse Group online channels.
All of the Group’s businesses (The Warehouse, Warehouse Stationery, Noel Leeming, Warehouse Group Financial Services and Torpedo7 Group) are now multi-channel retailers.
But Powell says they need to extend from being just multi-channel to being fully “digitally enabled”, encompassing digital marketing, social media, mobile apps, and in store Wi-Fi.
They’re making moves in the right direction: The Warehouse used to spend seven percent of its marketing budget on digital – it now spends seventeen percent.
While the company still has hurdles to overcome, Powell says The Warehouse now has a solid base for growth.
“We’ve done the right things to stop the long term systemic decline of the business and we’ve now got a foundation for the next phase.
“But there’s always more to do…we’ve not climbed Everest, we’ve just hit base camp.”
This story was originally published in NZRetail magazine issue 736, March 2015.