Boots has drafted in Dixons Carphone’s energetic Seb James to take the reins of its UK business. His appointment has come at a critical time for the high street institution.
James is renowned for his ambassadorial presence in retail and is often approached as a spokesman for the sector on issues ranging from Brexit to the living wage.
While Dixons Carphone’s results have been varied at best in recent months, James has lost none of his flair as a retail statesman who will weigh in on issues impacting the industry.
That is precisely what could make his mouthful of an appointment as senior vice-president, president and managing director of Boots so timely.
“Millennial-focused beauty brands and retailers are driving the sector’s overall growth, and Boots’ market share is under threat as a result”
The high street stalwart is badly in need of a vision and point of view in a market increasingly crowded with competitors and disruptors.
Millennial-focused beauty brands and retailers are driving the sector’s overall growth, and Boots’ market share is under threat as a result.
Boots’ brand identity could be characterised as ‘motherly’ by younger shoppers, who are increasingly inclined to spend with ‘big sister’ retailers like FeelUnique and Superdrug instead.
And while the latter has notched up record sales and profit growth by touting contouring kits and highlighter palettes, Boots’ UK sales have struggled – they fell 1.4% like-for-like in its most recent quarter.
Furthermore, Boots has notched up column inches for all the wrong reasons in recent months, from allegations from a number of its pharmacists that they were being put under too much pressure, to its at best foot-in-mouth and at worst misogynistic gaffe over the price of its morning after pill.
There’s a sense that this high street stalwart has lost a sense of who its customer is, and why they should be shopping with it.
“Boots will likely hope that a longer tenure from James will enable him to create and execute on a vision for the business in collaboration with Fagan”
James’ statesman-like reputation in the retail industry could make him just the man to help Boots metaphorically spruce itself up and remind shoppers of its raison d’être.
He takes the reins from Elizabeth Fagan, who did a brief 18-month stint as managing director and has held a variety of roles throughout the business over the last decade.
The brevity of her time in the role meant Fagan did not have much of a discernible impact on the business’ strategy.
Boots will likely hope that a longer tenure from James will enable him to create and execute on a vision for the business in collaboration with Fagan, who will take up the role of non-executive chairman.
James certainly had an audacious vision for Dixons Carphone during his time at the helm, which ranged from betting big on internet-of-things technology to a possible membership scheme for shoppers.
Boots’ mammoth merger with Walgreens has made its UK division a small fish in a very large pond.
While there are whispers that James could have been drafted in to lead the business through a demerger from the US pharmacy giant and an initial public offering, it seems more likely that his appointment signals an effort by Boots to find its voice again in an increasingly crowded and competitive market.