Change management can be a disaster if retailers don’t communicate it properly, but those that make the effort will be rewarded with more engaged workers. Liz Morrell reports

The fast-paced nature of retail means that change is ever present in one form or another, but whether retailers take the time to manage it is another matter. And, yet, not doing so can lead to massive problems – not least projects failing and a business that is unable to adapt to market changes.

While a merger or takeover is clearly likely to have a big effect on ways of working, other changes – from an office move to new systems – can also have a major impact and should be managed carefully.

First Friday managing director Robin Turner says retailers must plan a change strategy. One of the first steps is to complete an impact analysis. “You need a clear view of who will be affected; classify the impact on each job area and inform management of where and how they need to focus their attention,” he says.

Turner recommends retailers to appoint a change manager and a support team, who will be in charge of implementing the change. Blackwell chief executive Vince Gunn has been implementing a change programme at his business since he and his team joined the retailer more than two years ago. Because of the complexity of the changes, he recruited Unipart Logistics for outside expertise. “They have a very specific set of tools – the Delivery Management System,” says Gunn. Change has been co-ordinated by an in-house programme change manager seconded from Unipart. “We’ve now got a structure and process to work through,” he explains.

Making staff feel comfortable with change means ensuring that they understand what is happening. “Communication is key,” says Nitin Sanghavi, professor of retail marketing and strategy director of Manchester Business School’s Retail Centre. “Every word or non-action sends a message and has a very big impact. You have to think about the method of communication in each phase,” he says.

Change must also be led from the top. “Many retailers think: ‘Let’s just hand it over to HR and let them manage it’, but that’s the worst thing you can do because there is no one at the top walking the talk. You need someone to lead the change – such as Sir Stuart Rose at M&S – and you need firelighters at lower levels to help get it done,” he says.

Retailers should also consider how they communicate changes throughout the business. Turner recommends posters in the staff canteen or e-mail briefings for store staff, intranet briefings for managers and face-to-face discussions with more senior staff.

Opinion Research Corporation head of employee research Kate Pritchard says that openness is vital. “If you are facing change, keep on communicating it and make sure people are hearing it first-hand, rather than hearing rumours.”

Communication becomes particularly important during the natural point of change, where staff start to feel despondent. “There is a low point in the cycle of change that is a danger zone and where the temptation can be to abandon the project, but that’s the key point that needs more engagement and communication,” says Sanghavi.

Gunn agrees. “There is a temptation to tear the piece of paper up and do something else, but if you speak to others that have come out the other end, that galvanises you again,” he explains.

Although involving staff is crucial in helping them accept change, ORC believes businesses often fall down in this area. In its 2007 Putting it into Perspective report, based on benchmarking data from more than 300 employee surveys, only 42 per cent of employees said they had an opportunity to contribute their views and only 30 per cent felt their organisation managed change effectively.

Putting a change management structure in place may seem more hassle than it’s worth, but, to ensure success, it must be done. “It takes more time to invest in it upfront and to manage cross-functional teams, but it does pay dividends because people feel they have been involved,” says Gunn.

Mosaic Fashions group strategy and development director Meg Lustman stresses that cutting corners does not work. “Even the smallest changes need to be thought through, but until you get involved in a change management programme, you think it’s easy. By skipping the management process, the likelihood is you won’t get such a successful integration.”

Change can and should be an opportunity to engage people. As Lustman says: “It will take longer, it can feel daunting and it is a more consultative process, but the reality is, if people feel they have contributed, they will feel so much more positive about it.”