Britain: A tale of two retail giants
This country must look to its Ocado future — and leave behind it's M&S past
Can anyone stand-up to Amazon? The online retail giant was going great guns before the pandemic, but now it looks unstoppable.
Yet there is hope — a challenger that might just beat BezosCorp at its own game.
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Remarkably, it’s a British supermarket. Ocado doesn’t have any shops, but it does have state-of-the-art automated warehouses. One of these ‘customer fulfilment centres’ features in a report for The Economist.
The anonymous author describes how hundreds of robots whizz around, assembling customer orders. It’s a truly remarkable feat of advanced engineering.
Right now, Ocado is a David to Amazon’s Goliath; but David has better technology. In any case, Ocado’s no pipsqueak. The growing company is already bigger than big names like Marks and Spencer:
We’re not just talking retail here. Britain is full of institutions that command public affection and customer loyalty, but rely too much on their history and too little on reshaping the future. M&S is one example, others include the BBC, the civil service, the Church of England and, dare I say it, the NHS.
It’s not that they’ve gone to complete wrack-and-ruin. They still do some things very well. So well, in fact, that it’s allowed them to get away with the things they keep on doing badly. Just think of M&S food and M&S clothing — you wouldn’t eat the former if it tasted how the latter looks.
As a country, we can’t keep carrying the deadweight. Like M&S, with its store-closure programme, there’s a lot of downsizing coming our way. To save the best of the old, the worst has got to go — and thus we desperately need enterprises capable of building anew.
By this I don’t mean disrespect for tradition or novelty for its own sake. Indeed, lazy institutions can always conjure up novelty by disrespecting their own traditions. Pull down a statue, cancel Rule Britannia, job done.
Real innovation, however, is harder won. So when it happens we should celebrate it. That means making some room in hearts. Cherishing old institutions is all very well, but they too were new once.
No mention of Tesco who in the last 6 months have trounced both Amazon and Ocado in the Grocery home delivery market. All done with old fashioned manual labour. Perhaps AI hasn’t won quite yet?
They’ll never take the human part out, regardless of A.I..
Computers do not consume. And unless we all have a home robot able to answer the door and put the food away, even robotic delivery from self driving vehicles will require human interaction.
There again, without human interaction or involvement, why would ‘BigCorpÂ©’ even bother?
Does Peter Franklin not know that M&S now has a contract with Ocado to sell its food? Seems like a shrewd move to me.
But a sign of its terminal decline that it did not originate the idea?
And bought half of Ocado’s grocery business last year, before the coronavirus changed the shape of the market, and the valuation of online distribution businesses. This won’t rescue M&S from the hopelessness of its clothing business, or from being over-invested in old-fashioned retail space, but it does seem like a way of growing the food business (and getting a decent share of the equity uplift in Ocado).
My sister worked for M&S for a while in the mid 1990s. She mentioned that they had been to lunch with ‘the management consultants’. I knew at that point that there must be something wrong with M&S.
Yes, I remember going into M&S in those days. The ‘assistants’, if you could find them, were in the corners talking together and looking miserable; the clothing was tat. The smell of rubbish management was recognisable as I was working for the Post Office at the time.
‘Britain is full of institutions that command public affection and customer loyalty, but rely too much on their history and too little on reshaping the future. M&S is one example, others include the BBC, the civil service, the Church of England and, dare I say it, the NHS.’
Affection and loyalty?! Most people have nothing but contempt for all these institutions.
Is that opinion based on a straw poll of Unherd commenters? That seems far more likely than reflecting the actual views of the UK as a whole, with the possible exception of the “civil service”.
He also seems not to have noticed that the C of E has actively spent lockdown trashing large amounts of its history.
‘Most people have nothing but contempt for all these institutions.’
Where are the data in support of this assertion?
Having recently joined Unherd, I’m appalled at the quality of discussion here.
M&S sandwiches are pants
But are M&S pants also sandwiches?
Only when filled with caramelised carrot chutney
Have you never had a Wensledale and cameralised carrot chutney sandwich, delicious.
Nom Nom 🙂
By all accounts M&S pants are pants these days. I wouldn’t know – I don’t think I have ever bought anything from M&S.
All well and good but all these nation sized businesses do is colonise their rivals in mergers and buyouts.
Set to be the world’s first trillionaire, Bezos will soon be like the guy in the movie card game who wins the pot, leaves his mates broke and then has no one left to beat, or anyone left with money to purchase his goods.
But why care when by then, death for him, is less than a decade away?
Ocado is all about hype.
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