The latest in our series of Retail Careers Interviews sees us talk to Victoria Ward, our strategic transformation consultant, who shares her journey from Merchandising to Consultancy at First Friday.
Retail Careers: An Interview with Victoria Ward
First Friday’s team all have strong roots in Retail. Tell us about yours:
I began my career some 30 years ago on the shop floor of Harrods. In those days we were paid a small commission on everything we sold so Wesley Snipes spending £1,000 on a chess set with me was a good day from a lot of angles!
I was only at Harrods for about 9 months but it was a great base and I knew I’d found the sector I wanted to stay in so I began looking at what other roles there were and soon discovered the world of merchandising.
I started as an allocator at Signet not long after the infamous comments by Gerald Ratner – there was quite a lot of stock to clear, as you can imagine! Seeing the results of those comments at close quarters was a real lesson in branding and image as well as price and volume. A stark contrast to the rarefied atmosphere of Harrods.
So where did you learn the basics?
I learnt my basic merchandising skills at Signet – line flows, stock holding, phasing (with the help of 2 huge peak selling periods of Valentine’s and Christmas) and range construction, but I was keen to find something a little pacier, so I applied to join Next and learn to be a buyer.
Their head office near Enderby in Leicester was glorious and I knew it was where I wanted to be. But having done really well on the maths and commercial tests, they invited me to join them as a Merchandise Assistant instead – and I’ve never looked back!
What did you love about your early life in Merchandising?
I loved the numbers – putting ranges together for each phase within the season, balancing the prices, colours, volumes etc. Office space was plentiful and we had a fabulous mock shop for the Visual Merchandising team to get the displays right.
We launched preview directories to 25,000 customers each season and used the results to adjust buys. We had pagination reviews to fully predict how product placement affected selling patterns. We ring-fenced stock and ran an omni-channel operation long before that term was coined.
I loved the puzzle of it all, balancing all the competing demands to provide customers with a commercial range.
Climbing the Merchandising career ladder
How did your role change as you gained experience?
I joined Dorothy Perkins and the pace of life really picked up, phases and line-lives were shorter, fashion was more risky and competitor shopping became a much bigger part of the picture. It was a challenging environment in which I thrived: lots of responsibility, lots of discipline, but also lots of fun.
Business was good but things were beginning to change with new competitors like the supermarkets entering the market. I remember the Quality Control team carefully deconstructing a bra to see how Tesco was selling it for £10. The answer it turned out wasn’t in the bra but it was in the volumes they were generating – unimaginable volumes for most high street retailers then.
The Arcadia systems were more sophisticated than any I’d seen up until then – black screens with vivid green text. If only we’d known then how simple retail was with a single channel trading in a single country. But we did huge amounts of depth to ensure the profitability of everything we did and errors were sweated over when they occurred.
I spent 7 years at Arcadia in a number of brands, eventually becoming a senior merchandiser. I worked with some fantastic buying colleagues, many of whom remain close friends, but when I was approached by Tesco for a Head of Merch position I was ready to continue the learning curve with a very different company.
What were the key skills you believe you gained at Tesco?
Tesco introduced many of the same disciplines in merchandising that Arcadia had, largely due to John Hoerner moving from Arcadia to Tesco. He can be credited with creating a strong coaching culture within everyone in the clothing division. This is a skill I am very grateful for today in my role – as a consultant as John taught us all that “no lesson lands like the lesson we discover for ourselves“.
What are your standout memories and proudest achievements?
Tesco was on a real upward trajectory and it encouraged us to take risks to build the business – you were allowed to fail, but not of course make the same mistake twice. When Woolworths fell by the wayside I bought as much of their Halloween dress up as I could find and we made massive increases that year. We introduced reverse logistics on Back to School and dramatically upped the margin. We had the scale to really attack the market and push for market share across children’s wear, it was a fantastic time to be a retailer.
Terry Leahy had 2 values we all had to operate with – ‘Treat each other how we want to be treated’ and ‘No one tries harder for customers’.
This was a very carefully worded vision which empowered us to put the customer at the heart of everything we did. We had huge levels of autonomy in our areas with simple clear structures to provide visibility and growth came year after year as we focused the ranges, negotiated down the supply chain to the cotton mills to get the very best price and utilised our incredible scale.
That growth meant I was encouraged to keep reaching for the next job and so needed to ensure the team reporting to me were supported to reach their potential which is an area of my job I particularly loved and why the change part of my job is such a joy for me now. Clearing the way for people to take and make the most of new systems, structures and opportunities is incredibly rewarding.
From Merchandising to Retail Consulting…
All this retail experience is amazing, so why move to consulting?
The why is really easy; I like problem-solving, fixing things, working with groups of people to come to a good structure and process to improve things in a company. I also really enjoy the variety. It’s a great privilege to be able to see how different companies work and what their “secret sauce” is because there really is no one-size-fits-all solution on software, structure or process.
I realised that what I had most loved in each of my roles to this point was the change – the commercial and people journey to make more sales, increase profits, provide customers with what they wanted – that buzz of building.
That realisation led me to make the move into consultancy and my background – very deep merchandising experience, honed in a variety of businesses at different stages of their development – means that clients get someone who speaks their language, someone who really has done their job and knows where the pitfalls are, who knows when a compromise is ok and when it will really hurt, and can help them work through the best solution for their business.
How did you choose First Friday over any other consultancy?
First Friday was a natural choice for me as the cornerstone of their approach is experience. All of our consultants and trainers have lengthy, often senior, experience in retail. We’ve all walked the walk and got the scars of being in the real business world which is quite different from a number of the big players who recruit more-or-less straight from university.
A decade in, and the First Friday approach of nurturing and encouraging my skills in the areas I most enjoy still gives me the opportunity to grow and develop. It was refreshing when I made the move out of the big corporates to be able to create a role around me.
Each team I lead on a project is a careful balance of skills for that specific client, each person is motivated in their specialism, is an expert in the field and works seamlessly as part of a team, so each project is different which keeps it interesting.
Was it a steep learning curve at First Friday?
My very first role as a consultant was similar to an interim merch director role, so it eased me into the different relationship you have with the client than you do as a permanent employee. You are there to challenge the status quo when you see things which could be done differently and you need to be able to be honest with the client about areas of process, system or people which need to change to ensure that a benefit profile is met.
The focus on not just technical skills, but behaviours and impact with blue chip retailers ensured that I was able to pitch appropriately to the client and any analysis is trusted for much the same reason. You are able to confidently express and qualify your findings. Developing simple tools and formats to get these messages across to the business is a key part of my working life now – I’ve traded Excel for PowerPoint.
Together, as a team we have developed our approach, we never stop learning and adapting. We are not there to impose “the First Friday way” on clients, but to use our experience in both BAU and projects to guide and support clients to deliver lasting change.
What were the biggest differences between Merchandising and Consulting?
All of that experience of course made me a subject matter expert from the first day of my first project, but I still had a lot to learn about projects themselves. There is a whole different set of terminology to learn to begin with – HLD, DD, DA, CR – it felt like everything had an acronym that everyone else knew but me!
The other big difference was the weekly cycle. For 20 years I’d hit the ground running early on a Monday morning and been on a treadmill of lessons, actions and plans.
In my new project world, people have 5-minutes to ask you about your weekend. The drumbeat of a project is much more dictated by the type of project and the stage in the process rather than the day of the week. So on a system project, High-Level Design (HLD) is usually more measured and regular, whereas by the time you’re at launch every day is fast-paced and even quite frantic as you support the end users.
But each project is different which is the real joy of it.
And what do you think makes a good consultant, great?
To be a really great consultant you really need to have a significant amount of experience in your field. All clients will look to a consultant to help them solve problems – big or small, recently identified or deeply entrenched – so having a wealth of experience to draw on, having learned from mistakes and having earned the foresight to spot potential issues is what makes you stand out.
First Friday has built a great team and network over the last 20-or-so years, so we all have colleagues who have a wealth of expertise across multiple types of retailers at multiple stages of development and multiple projects. We are able to dip into this experience and either pull people in or stress test approaches, and we are all happy to help each other whether we are on the same project or not. We really are a team at First Friday.
So it was a good move from Merchandising to First Friday?
The move into consultancy has definitely been a great success for me and I am constantly energised by the people I work with in each client, and by the exchange of ideas with those people – whether they be on the software end, the programme end, at the coal face of the business, or my First Friday colleagues.
I’ve learnt so much from my colleagues and am so lucky to work in an environment that both supports me and gives me freedom.
Interested in joining our team of retail consultants?
Learn more about our specialist team of retail consultants and trainers – and how you can join them – over to our Meet the Team pages.