After news that staff at Oxford’s upcoming John Lewis store are being trained in drama, it seemed the retail theatre concept was going too far.
But when I’d finished chuckling about the apparent absurdity of the idea, I remembered my early days in retail as a Saturday boy in the 1970s gentlemen’s outfitters Harry Fenton.
I was, at the time, involved in local theatre and commented to my drama teacher about how so much of the shop environment seemed theatrical in nature.
The stock room and staff areas especially reminded me of the dressing room and scenery stores I was familiar with.
He seemed bemused that I hadn’t spotted the similarities before, but it wasn’t until I came to fit out my own stores, some 20 years later, that I fully appreciated just how many parallels there were.
On stage in-store
With so much of the customer experience depending on the same presentation factors of scenery, props, music and lighting, it’s perhaps not such a strange idea that the players in this metaphorical production should be schooled in the delicate arts of stagecraft.
In fact, it’s odd that no-one has thought of it before. Although no doubt I’ll be inundated with comments pointing out that it has.
“Boots’ gobsmacking comments about the sale of the morning-after pill caused a near-boycott of its stores”
There’s another similarity that also occurred to me this month, and that’s the fact that, as with theatre productions, we retailers can also suffer badly from bad notices, especially in the knee-jerk, citizen journalist world of social media.
So it’s baffling to see so many retailers fluffing their lines and falling into the orchestra pit with alarming regularity.
Indeed, in the last couple of weeks alone there have been three less than harmonious performances that would see many a West End musical end its run early.
Bad retail reviews
First there was Boots’ gobsmacking comments about the sale of the morning-after pill, causing a near-boycott of its stores.
That such a seasoned high-street player would court such opprobrium when its audience is so largely composed of women was particularly discordant.
This was followed by M&S using ear-piercing alarms to deter the homeless from bedding down behind its Ilford store.
A single thoughtless and very public move that undermined years of positivity about the brand’s connection with the homeless charity Shelter.
“These PR blunders were mainly a result of poorly thought out responses to simple operational issues”
Finally, Sainsbury’s in Penge decided that a food product popular with a particular ethnic demographic should be singled out for extra protection against shoplifters, leading to accusations of corporate racism.
These PR blunders were mainly a result of poorly thought out responses to simple operational issues, but they highlight how easy it is to fall foul of the media without even trying.
Moreover, they display an endemic lack of appreciation by management teams for how every part of their performance will be viewed in the wider arena.
But this doesn’t mean every minor management decision should need to be run past a media consultant.
“How we act behind the scenes is just as important as our performance front of house”
To return to the theatrical metaphor, staff at all levels should be trusted to work ‘off book’ (to have learned one’s lines) as long as they know the basic script, testing all their actions in the light of a properly embedded company ethos.
What these damaging incidents demonstrate is that how we act behind the scenes is just as important as our performance front of house.
As the Bard wrote, “All the world’s a stage”, and any actor will tell you that when you’re under the spotlight, improvisation can be a volatile performance element, especially if you don’t read your audience properly.