Change is the Only Constant: The Evolution of Leadership in Retail

How Has Retail Leadership Evolved?

I was a shelf stacker. The year was 1988 and this was my part-time job after studying business at college. The brown overalls would have fitted that large bloke from the film The Greatest Showman. I had no idea what to do with the orange sharp, tool-like thing that was somehow going to magically open boxes and the code word as the store manager walked up and down the aisles seemed to ‘Good Evening’, as everyone said it in a military-style like it was ‘Dad’s Army’.

It was my first day. You kept your head down, worked hard, and by jove don’t let the store manager catch you sitting on the L-shape truck thingy when you were supposed to be stacking shelves and flipping loving it. I wasn’t.

JD’s Visit

It was a Saturday. I could hear the buzz start around the store. Senior staff running, colleagues tidying themselves in the aisles. The queen? The immigration officer? Nope. ‘It’s JD’. I replied to Mary, who was stacking washing powder with me, ‘Who?’. Lord Sainsbury, she explained.

An unannounced visit. The worst kind she said – Poor old Keith (The store manager) he’ll be for it. She was right. The aftermath of the visit was that everyone got a rollicking. The store wasn’t tidy enough, a million things weren’t right, and to top it all someone had drawn JD woz ‘ere’ on the toilet wall, and yes, it was the one he’d used. Talk about unlucky (No, it wasn’t me).

In some regards JD’s leadership was great. He was clear, determined, and truly believed that retail was detail. The rest of the board were the same. Dropping-in on stores to catch them out. Rip the store manager a new one, as they say. Each and every time.

It certainly kept the store managers and staff on their toes, and when the occasional ‘not bad’ got shared up and down the hierarchy it was like folklore. The store manager was held in the same regard as Mother Theresa, achieving the impossible. And likely got promoted a month later for achieving what most others could not.

Sainsbury's light up sign on shop

Fear in Retail Leadership

The challenge with that type of leadership – fear – was that it was never going to last. In today’s world, people want to be inspired and the youngest generation wants to believe that they are working onwards something better than themselves. Modern leaders and particularly those in retail are trying to move away from roles that are evaluated by whether you half-killed yourself every day by doing at least 12 hours, and even then you were called a pussy.

scared businessman with laptop looking at angry boss in office
scared businessman with laptop looking at angry boss in office


Modern leaders are trying to embrace measuring people on results, mindfulness, mental health, diversity, technology, and all whilst trying to be self-caring. Maybe JD was right – it was simple – do exactly as you were told, do it a lot, and show that you didn’t give up. Today’s retail leadership is trying to keep hold of the things that made bricks brilliant – hard-working staff, whilst trying to support them in every way, and knowing that clicks are the real competitor, for which they cannot compete.

The modern leader in retail is going to struggle. Struggle to manage many more variables and demands than their predecessor, and all of it in less time, with less resource, and staff that don’t just want to work hard. The one key that has always been missing from ordinary leaders compared to great leaders is leading. Yes, obvious you may say.

Leadership Qualities

Yet, Google ‘leadership qualities’ and you will find endless articles about ’25 Leadership Qualities you Must have’, or ‘14 Things a Great Leader Does’, and so on. They all fail to identify the one thing that great leaders do – lead. The articles don’t even agree on the nest traits, qualities, characteristics, or anything else. People will always want leaders that make choices. Those that whether it is right or wrong, didn’t just wait for time to tun out on a choice, they made it.

Businessman stacking 3 wooden blocks with figures on them

They decided that left was the way to go, and not right. Choosing is the leadership quality that sets great from not. JD chose that retail was detail so whenever he walked into a store the soup labels all faced the front, there was not one grape on the floor, and if you wore a tie you wore it like you owned it, not like you once owned it.

Leadership is about making choices. That is no different now from 1988. Whether you are in bricks or clicks, great leaders make decisions and inspire their teams to follow those decisions.

This Retail Leadership article was written by Darren. A Smith for Gordons.

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