Women must have a crucial role in saving the high street - a retailer's survival may depend on it

Tracey Boles
Consumers In The Christmas Eve Retail Rush
A total of 85 per cent of all retail purchases are made or influenced by women (Source: Getty)

Retailers will breathe a sigh of relief today as the joint British Retail Consortium (BRC) and KPMG sales monitor for May shows a modest recovery on the high street.

But the respite may be brief as customers remain cautious with their spending.

The sector is facing many challenges. Too many retailers are disconnected from their customers and are simply not “walking in the shoes” of their largely female customer base. This was amply demonstrated by M&S boss Steve Rowe, who created uproar last month when he said he was out to woo “Mrs M&S”.

A new study of 44 retailers by management consultancy Elixirr and Women in Retail, supports this view. It found that while 60 per cent of those employed in the retail industry are women and 85 per cent of all retail purchases are made or influenced by women, only 20 per cent of executive teams and 10 per cent of executive boards are female.

The authors assert that, had there been more women on the boards of collapsed chains BHS and Austin Reed, there could have been a different outcome at the former high street favourites.

Read more: The BHS collapse shows the retail world is yet to get it right online

Fiona Davis, director of Women in Retail, puts it this way: “Our belief is that having a closer connection with the customer and therefore having more women on boards simply makes commercial sense.”

Her report advocates setting “gender balance targets” for the boardroom, considering female candidates for recruitment and appointing an overseer of gender diversity.

The findings have received heavyweight backing in the form of Sir Ian Cheshire, chairman of Debenhams, who says that "leaders in retail need to accept that displaying traditional ‘superhero’ behaviour is no longer what works”.

Read more: 2016 set to be the year of retail failures - here's why

That's as may be, but retailers need to adapt in other ways as shopping habits change. To quote Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, the retail industry is undergoing significant structural change at a pace never seen before.

With online sales growing, a top notch multi-channel offering is essential. A flagship store in a prime retail location such as Oxford Street can offer an experience that seduces shoppers into browsing before they buy.

The time for change is now. A retailer's survival may depend on it.

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