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In today’s retail market, successful businesses need to be clearer than ever before on whether they are competing on difference or scale, John Lewis Partnership chiefs said in last week’s results.

You’ll find plenty in both camps among the winners of this year’s Retail Week Awards sponsored by Salesforce.

The winner of the AlixPartners Outstanding Contribution to Retail, entrepreneur Julian Richer, epitomises the former.

And for scale there are few to rival Primark, now in 11 countries and preparing to open in more, and whose chief executive Paul Marchant takes home the Clarity Retail Leader of the Year Award.

Retailers big and small, and all sizes in between, can learn from the best of both types.

These days, there is no one guarantor of success and there probably never was.

Richer made his name and fortune by being unique. He originally went against the grain but today few would argue against his way of doing business.

Like others, he has had to confront the potentially existential threat posed by Amazon and a new generation of retailers that transformed consumer expectations. But he found a difference that enabled his business Richer Sounds to thrive.

“Julian Richer’s retail approach can equally be applied to businesses with huge scale”

However, his success and influence has been built upon a bigger differentiator. What really set him apart from others was being a great employer, long before that was fashionable.

Ensuring the happiness of those that work for him ensured the happiness of his customers. It’s a retail approach that can equally be applied to businesses with huge scale.

Richer’s methods were adopted to great effect at Asda by Archie Norman, who called on his insights as an adviser during its legendary turnaround.

Some of those ideas are now being applied at Marks & Spencer, where Norman and chief executive Steve Rowe aim to restore its success.

As Richer says: “Making work fun, rewarding what you want to achieve, communicating with your people, giving them recognition and showing them loyalty – all those things are relevant if you’re running an army or a chain of shops.”

Remaining relevant

Similarly, all retailers can learn from Primark. It achieved scale because of what made it stand out in the first place.

That was fundamentally great value for money. But it is more than that, as Marchant reveals.

Despite its size, the retailer has sought to maintain “healthy paranoia”. So while Primark has always focused on amazing fashion at amazing prices, it gives customers more – and needs to so its success, through bricks-and-mortar shops, continues.

As Marchant puts it: “When it’s raining on a Saturday morning and it’s cold, give me a reason to jump out of bed and go shopping because it’s easy to stay home, watch Netflix and stay cosy.”

“Retailers attuned to shoppers and to society cannot just survive, but thrive”

None of our winners has ever sat on its laurels. They have never forgotten that they must remain relevant tomorrow as well as today.

You see that across all of our winners – publicly quoted or family-owned, long-established or start-ups, pureplay, bricks and mortar or multichannel.

All are finding ways of fulfilling consumer needs and desires so that they resonate with shoppers now and into the future.

Making a difference

Perhaps there’s one more element that defines retail winners in our awards and in tomorrow’s world – engagement with the wider world around them.

Sensitivity to shifts in society and an ability to reflect them has often marked out the businesses that went on to achieve the greatest success. Not only price or product, but good citizenship – something that retailers do not always get the credit they deserve for.

So our new Retail Activist Award was created to recognise leaders who have made their voices heard on big issues of the moment.

The inaugural award goes to Ann Summers chief executive Jacqueline Gold for tireless campaigning over decades on equality – in the industry and beyond.

It’s another way of making a difference, and the sort likely to be an ever-more vital ingredient to the recipe of any retailer that hopes to achieve or sustain scale.

Congratulations to all of our winners. The last year may have been tough for the industry as a whole, but the winners’ achievements show retailers attuned to shoppers and to society cannot just survive, but thrive.

Retail Week Awards 2019: The winners