Martin Butler on the modern customer

mlb blur hi resIn the country to present at the forthcoming 2016 Westfield Breakfast Seminar Series, UK-based retail strategist and thought leader, Martin Butler, spoke to Justin Grey about how retailers can meet the escalating demands of the modern customer.

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Part retailer, part marketer, Martin Butler has devoted a 30-year consulting, researching, and writing career to understanding the modern customer and what it takes for retailers to win the war for the ever-changing, ever more powerful customer of today. His latest musings on the matter are covered in his most recently published book, It’s Not About Us, It’s All About Them.

While he cut his teeth early on working in international advertising agency, Butler all but considers himself a retailer from birth.

“I was born into retailing, so it’s kind of in my blood,” he told Inside Retail Weekly. “I’ve been worrying about customers for over 50 years.

“I was always very fascinated with the customer. I’m really fascinated with the modern customer. That’s really what it’s all about.

“We’re seeing changes the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Retailer have to accept that they have to know more about their products than their customers do – or certainly have a grand ambition to do that.”

Butler believes that central in winning over the modern customer is giving them unique value – value they can’t get from anywhere elsewhere. It’s this exclusive value that will secure the futures of the more savvy retailers in the market.

“Until we as retailers can add value to the modern customer, then we’re not entitled to win their business, and that’s all there is to it,” he deadpans. “No-one is in a monopoly situation any more. People can offer things cheaper because they don’t offer the same selection as other people, which is essentially what Aldi is doing. And as a retailer you have to determine where you want to fight your battle for customers.

I think the worst possible experience you can have is to walk into a shop with a disaffected, disenchanted, non-passionate sales assistant, and when you ask them a question for advice on something, and they read the box or packaging alongside you. There is little or no point having that person there. And that is where the people that have been running a lot of unsuccessful retailers over the last 10 or 20 years have gone wrong.

“The customer is now in control – and now more powerful than ever. And you have to realise when you’re running a retail business, that nothing you sell can’t be gotten somewhere else. So why is someone going to choose to buy it from you. And that’s fundamental.”

Australia and global retail

Over the years Butler has engaged on a consulting basis with a number of leading Australian retailers, including Woolworths. As such, he has established a clear opinion on what Australian retail is excelling at, and where we are playing catch-up with overseas markets.

“You can be as good as you want to be in this country,” he opines. “And I think that’s the answer. That’s it. Full stop. I warned people five our six years ago about the imminent arrival of Zara. People were aghast, and it’s now happened.

“That’s the reason I think that a lot of the major brands are coming to Australia, because they’re seeing an opportunity where maybe the home-grown brands don’t quite view the customer with the same level of reverence as they do. But there’s no reason why Australian retail can’t be world-class, and indeed some of it is, but much of it isn’t.”

One Australian retailer that Butler lauds is Bunnings, and in particular its lauded leader, John Gillam. He believes Bunnings will do “jolly well” with its acquisition and rebrand the Homebase chain in the UK.

“Take Bunnings, it’s planet-class retail. I mean, I can think of very few that are better than that. I think John Gillam is one of the finest retailers on the planet – and I’ve told him to his face.”

Likewise, Butler sees a very bright future for David Jones under the ownership of the very astute South African corporation, Woolworths Holdings Limited.

“David Jones, the operators [Woolworths Holdings Limited] are world-class. I’ve spent a lot of my time Cape Town, and what they do over there for their Woolworths food offering is outstanding. The other brands that they own over here are pretty good as well, so I think watch out. David Jones is going to be what it’s all about. Their head is in the right place, and the customer is emotionally positioned in the right place for them as well.

“The key thing here is that the really successful brands are those that are customer-obsessed. And customer obsession demands that you understand who your customers are. And that includes your workforce, as well as your customers. Retail is a phenomenal business. It’s a phenomenal business to be working in. It’s a great job. It is a world-class job. But I think you get what you want, and maybe Australia is just waking up to it a little bit now.”

Martin Butler will speak at the forthcoming 2016 Westfield Breakfast Seminar Series, to be held in Perth (August 23), Adelaide (August 24), Brisbane (August 25), Sydney (August 30) and Melbourne (September 2). For more information on the event visit


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