When Marks & Spencer revealed that it is to amp up the voice of its stores, including sharing P&L information with staff, the reaction in the retail industry was bemusement.

It was a welcome development, certainly, but comments on the story on our site and on social media also showed some disbelief.

Disbelief that it was not being done already. The need for such an initiative showed how distant some in M&S head office and management had become from the retail coalface as performance declined over years.

Retuning the corporate antennae in order to pick up the stores’ voice seems long overdue for M&S, primarily because it should then allow the customer’s voice to be better heard too.

“Imagine how many ‘data points’ the voice of the stores can provide”

While customer insight can be collected in all sorts of ways including through shopper panels, transaction and other data, it’s hard to imagine a more powerful pool of data than that which can be provided by employees.

M&S has 80,000 staff. It serves 32 million customers a year – store footfall is 18.6 million per week – and 78% of clothing and home sales goes through stores. Pretty much all of the retailer’s food is sold through its branches, though that will change when its joint venture with Ocado becomes operational.

Imagine how many ‘data points’ the voice of the stores can provide and, crucially, how it might lend itself to rapid interpretation and action.

Brain power

In last week’s annual report, published just after full-year results showing a further decline in profits, chair Archie Norman highlighted two “exceptional qualities” that M&S can draw upon – “a brand that customers want to succeed again, and fantastic colleagues in our stores who have a remarkable commitment to the business and are longing to be given the freedom to get M&S back to its best”.

But that potential was not being realised because the voice from the shopfloor had been, wrongly, dialled down and “had become disconnected from the centre”.

“The corporate functions exploited the faith of employees and created their own hierarchies with an almost deferential attitude, so the feedback loop was lost and decision-making was slow and often based on consensus or corporate politics not data,” according to M&S’s annual report.

It is nonsensical not to tap into the database – otherwise known as the brains – of M&S’ store managers and frontline staff.

The real picture

Gathering hard data is invaluable. But perhaps, certainly in many companies, there is one big drawback. Data is gathered on what happens, not on what doesn’t.

So retailers can measure footfall, transactions, availability, sales and a plethora of other metrics.

But employees in the stores can share data on the reality, not simply the spreadsheet version, which can too often be diced and sliced to provide retrospective justification for decisions and actions.

“Opening ears to the people who represent the business day in, day out can only be beneficial”

They might provide intel on the transactions that aren’t happening – and why – or hold a mirror to the reality of the many friction points that, while they may never feature in the consummate plans and reports laid out on paper, stand in the way of the proverbial seamless and satisfying in-store customer journey.

The right combination of data and human expertise could be a powerful advantage and, according to Norman, “the drum beat of trading pressure and store feedback is starting to drive a faster pace in the centre”.

There’s a long way to go, but opening ears to the people who represent the business day in, day out can only be beneficial. So far, The Mail on Sunday reported, a new M&S staff suggestion scheme has already generated 10,000 ideas.

Among them, and those still to come, there will no doubt be many that bring incremental improvements. Perhaps there might eventually be one that’s transformational.

No doubt some other retailers have also failed to listen to the word on the street, the on-the-ground intelligence-gathering network that their shops and colleagues represent.

If so, they should, like M&S, turn up the volume.