In Conversation With … IORMA Board Member: Ian McGarrigle, Founder, World Retail Congress

Ian McGarrigle
IORMA Advisory Board


 in conversation with

Pandora Mather-Lees,
Director IORMA 

May 2015

Pandora Mather-Lees 3

Ian McGarrigle, founder of the World Retail Congress, has spent most of his working life in retail.  Ian has worked across global markets including the Middle East and was on global PR consultancy Bell Pottinger’s retail team until earlier this year.  IORMA values Ian’s presence on its board because of his widespread industry experience and his open mind and keenness to explore all aspects of retail, as seen from the fascinating topics, speakers and panels conceived at successive conferences.  Ian is super-connected across all aspects of retail and has an unrivalled insight into consumer behavior.

I approached Ian to share some of his knowledge and motivation for participating in IORMA.

PML:  It is an exciting time right now as you leave Bell Pottinger to focus full time on the World Retail congress.  Is this a sign of confidence in the future?
IM:  I am delighted to be back; it is very exciting as I was involved in the launch of the congress back in 2007.  It was hard work creating it prior to that and I thoroughly enjoyed my work at Bell Pottinger and when I was invited back I was delighted as there were many global changes being driven by the internet, e-commerce and social media. The industry has changed so much and we want to drive the congress forward with new ideas to reflect what is going on.

PML:  You have been on the IORMA board since its inception and I assume you were attracted by the work of IORMA in Omni-channel retail: what was your main motivation for joining?
IM: When I was approached by John, who explained the aims and objectives I felt I had to be involved.  At the time we were just starting to embrace Omni-channel as a descriptor of what was happening in retail and I fully applauded the aims that John and the team were initiating and felt I wanted to be part of that and to help.

PML:  What help do you think IORMA can bring to prospective associates and what is the value of IORMA to people in retail?
IM:  Whether you call it Omni-channel retailing or not, the whole industry is searching for insight, help and support and IORMA’s strength is bringing together experts.   The retail industry is hugely competitive – it is about winning customers and business from your competitors.  Nevertheless there is a need and desire to share issues.  The role that IORMA can play is to offer a forum and support by connecting associates who already have experience on an issue or problem – or indeed just bringing together that enormous knowledge in the form of the reports, research and data that IORMA accumulates.

PML:   Indeed John has positioned IORMA as a Knowledge Centre, not a trade association, so this is a vital part of its work.  Coming on to your knowledge and role in IORMA, you have a significant amount of knowledge and expertise to share – how do you feel you can help IORMA associates?
My whole career has been about observing and writing about the industry.  My involvement with the congress and over the last ten years has been about the international network.  So I can leverage a body of contacts, knowledge and awareness of case studies; who is doing what in the context of new markets and what is happening globally or regionally.  One is always trying to make sense of trends and the direction in which retail is going and many of my conversations are about that – putting things into context and comparing with other markets.  This is what I can bring.

PML:  That will be really valuable, especially looking at the work IORMA is initiating with its CEO round tables and its global reach.  You mentioned the congress and the next location is in Rome which will attract people because of its setting.  Nevertheless it is so well established now, is it a “must attend” for those in retail?
Of course I would say yes!  Seriously however, every single year we start afresh and think hard about what would make this compelling for people to attend. We strive to make it a meeting place for senior people in the industry anywhere in the world.  Some people think they have to be in international retail to attend; that is not the case, you will truly gain something from coming to the congress whether you are a domestic retailer or someone with  connections across many counties.  We are unrivalled in being a pan-retail event.

It is also a powerful networking tool.  There are serious meetings that have been pre-planned and I always see chance conversations that have led to something really significant.  Going back to the role IORMA plays, the congress too brings together like-minded people in the industry, by talking to someone from a different country or even a different sector they learn so much.  I like to think that people get back on trains and planes knowing they have picked up great contacts and ideas not to mention something that has inspired them to take back into their business.

PML:  In terms of connecting people when planning the event, do you organise specific tools to help them connect – something like business speed dating for instance?
Yes we have a number of initiatives and a few weeks prior can see who the core audience is and we can share that so people can see who is attending.  Each year we see new delegates coming from North America, Europe and the Middle East so we work an enabling them to integrate and make appointments and we are planning some tailored events.

We are promoting exchange of information particularly a CEO private network where they can connect with each other,  initiate further discussions and pick up on thought leadership papers we are producing so that they  form relationships beyond the three days that the congress takes place.

PML:  Given the Italian location this year, I assume you will be having some key speakers from Italy.  However it is not a country known for its sophistication in retail, despite being ahead of most countries in terms of luxury brands.   What is your perspective on Italian retail?
I don’t disagree!  Italy is hugely important for fashion and luxury, but it is one of the few markets in Europe which is still dominated by the independents – boutiques and family run businesses.  In the UK we often view that with sentimentality and want some of it back!  In the conversations we have had with Italian retail leaders they admit they are behind and we are getting great support from them.  They recognise they have been too insular so they want to come to the congress to learn and find out what is going on.  We should not ignore the big brands however.  Benetton just confirmed this week and some luxury brands.  We have encountered a fantastic openness to what is on offer.

PML:  It is a huge incentive and an opportunity for Italian retailers to participate and certainly this year there are new additions to the programme: Why should I attend this year and what will I get that is new?
We took a step back to review this overall as the programme needs to reflect what is going on in retail and we are making this really compelling.

First, the theme is about transformation whereas last year it was about disruption.  The programme is tighter and cut back to two and a half days from three to focus in.  Less is more, we are avoiding repetition and editing down the programme to the key issues keeping retailers awake at night and how the industry is transforming is very pertinent.

Second, we are leveraging the macro issues (economic, political, and ecological) for Day 1, involving top economists and world banks.  Day 2 will be about who is transforming and how, what talent they need and how they embrace Omni-channel.  Day 3 is about the future and telling retailers something they don’t already know and don’t get from their consultants and company reports so as to lift their eyes above the horizon.

Third, we are bringing in experts from outside the industry for the first time.  Sir Tim Berners-Lee will talk about the web and where it is going.  He is focused now on security, data and full use of and access to the internet.  He will also be conducting a private session with CEOs.  We also have top experts from Google and other large organisations focused on future developments.

We also want to focus on CEOs attending with a programme to encourage them to engage at very high level.  There will be private meetings and they will dictate what topics they want to talk about.   We have teamed up with the Oxford Institute of Retail Management, part of the University, with a small group of 20 CEOs in a session led by two leading professors from the leadership programme at Oxford.  It will open up the dialogue with CEOs which will continue after the congress with a mentoring element added too.

We are conducting some research on where is the industry going and the latest thinking.  For this we are working with Planet Retail to see what consumers want from retailers in the near future and this will be global involving 100,000 consumers from markets around the world.  Experts at Oxford will build their own thinking around the research and present results in a debate in Rome.

Finally, another issue that comes up time and again is the issue of the millennials. These digital natives are influencing the retail industry and we need to understand too, what a retail CEO or a boardroom of the future needs ill look like. Rising stars will be asked what they think about the future.  This will be driven by an expert search firm and the research will be built upon for the following year.

PML:  The millennials panel last year was extremely enlightening and well moderated so this is a good area to extend and develop.  Coming on to another growing sector, do you have much on luxury this year?  There are a couple of events on the programme.  How important is this for you.
  We are the World Retail Congress so we are trying to embrace all aspects, but each year the luxury sector has been well covered.  There are conferences specialising on this and we would not try to compete, but it is important for us because mainstream retail can learn much from this sector; luxury brands have been pioneers and surprisingly for many, they have been successful early adopters of the digital channels and effective in reaching the young luxury customer so this shared learning is very important.  We will have some key speakers such as Jean-Christophe Babin of Bulgari and Daniel Piette from LVMH, not to mention some high end players from the Italian luxury sector.

PML:  The sharing of knowledge is vital.  I attended an IORMA round table on logistics and returns with both luxury and non-luxury brands and that interaction between the two sectors was really important and stimulating.

Coming on to your background and your experience in the Middle Eastern markets,  people would be interested to hear about the region and in particular Saudi Arabia.
Not a great deal is known or understood about retailing in Saudi which is why I was keen to accept the offer to join the Board. Panda is leading the way in developing modern retailing in Saudi with a rapidly expanding portfolio of not only supermarkets and hypermarkets but now convenience stores too. They are very impressive stores that could happily sit alongside the very best in the world.

And in the malls, some of the world’s best brands can be found and that looks set to increase as more space continues to open.

I have been able to travel to Dubai – one of the key heartlands of the Middle East which has fascinated retailers.  If we look at what is happening in Dubai and Abu Dhabi with the airports and malls, they are determined to create an infrastructure with tourism and hotels too. They are getting international representation and building more space to meet the demand which is growing exponentially.

Considering the Omni-channel aspects, middle eastern developments are ground-breaking but they are all about bricks and mortar. Despite everyone being on their Smartphones and the trend to use mobiles all the time, they are not used to shop with!  People prefer to use air conditioned shopping malls so as to meet friends and congregate. Culturally this is high on their agenda.  However they are aware of the potential of Wi-Fi in the malls which is provided for free is world class.

It will be interesting to watch what is happening there and how the heavy use of smartphones can be exploited in the physical space of the shopping malls.  There will be a point where you will start to see that popping up.

Saudi has less demand for e-commerce right now but that could change.

PML:  This leads us on then to the final question, how do you see the future of consumer commerce globally.
IM:  Well change is absolutely assured and as an observer it is really exciting.  We don’t know what the future holds but it will be like nothing we have seen before.  However the next generation’s expectations will be high and on it will be many new ventures such as 3D printing and artificial intelligence together with utilising the power and capability of mobile phones and technology. It is interesting to see that some of the biggest players do not own any stock, for instance Alibaba and Ebay  or Uber which does not own any taxis.  So we are seeing some real human business with corporations who are dominating our world but don’t actually own anything, so it is difficult to paint a picture of the future!  Everything will be thrown up in the air and it will be interesting to see how it will fall.  Retail however will always be about buying and selling and above all creating needs for goods and services because that is what our lives are about.


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