Rob Slaski is a retail legend. Over the course of three decades, he worked his way up the ranks at Asda, before moving to Dee Set. He spoke to us about innovation in retail, frontline talent – and moving from a reactive supply of static labour to a proactive supply of dynamic labour.
Here are the key takeaways from our conversation.
#1 Loyalty is a myth.
Why did I stay at Asda for 30 years? It wasn't loyalty, as most people assumed. It was pleasure. I stayed because they never stopped putting opportunities in front of me.
Would I have been loyal if they didn't give me pay rises and bonuses and promotions? No.
Loyalty is the result when you're given constant opportunity to grow and to develop.
#2 There should always be more to learn.
What stands out in my retail career is the variety; there were endless sources of personal growth. I became a whiskey expert with no prior experience.
Retail is exciting like that. If you're engaged and interested and energetic, you can keep reinventing yourself. Think of every aisle as a potential new route to go down.
The best part is, you don't need to know about them from the get-go. You just need to prove yourself to be enthusiastic and capable in other areas.
#3 Mentoring can only get you so far. Fast growth comes from learning on the job.
The current captains of the retail industry all came through the Asda school. I've had mentoring from some of them. And it was brilliant. But you know what? Mentorship is a luxury of time more than anything.
At the beginning, we were just too busy to be doing anything other than working flat out. That's the perk of a lean business: you're handed responsibility, you learn fast, you get feedback on the spot. You get it right, you get it wrong. But you're always growing and adapting.
#4 Keep working. Always.
When something like Covid happens, frontline work feels catastrophic. The media bombards everyone with doomsday headlines.
You have to make so many decisions on the fly. How do you communicate to the frontline? What equipment do you have to give them? How do you source PPE quickly and get through the business?
In these situations, there's no time to think. You just have to keep going.
#5 Remember: you're not alone.
The first thing Morrisons and Asda did when Covid hit was put an arm round us. They said “This is going to be tough, but we're going to look after each other.” And that's stuck with me. That's how everyone should behave.
And for an SME like Dee Set, that kind of support was a godsend. It helped us keep the machine going despite it all.
#6 Take this as an opportunity for growth.
A crisis makes you realize your full potential. In some cases, you unleash talent you never even knew you had in your organization. You see your colleagues stand up, take on immense responsibility at the drop of a hat.
And act faster than they've ever acted before. Would they have behaved that way otherwise? I know I wouldn't have. Sometimes it takes a drastic shift in circumstances for people to prove what they're made of.
#7 ... and to check your ego.
Why do we hold meetings? So that your colleagues can inform you and update you. But when time is as precious as it is – really, what's the point? If you trust those people to do their work – and you should – let them get on with it.
I think every business that survived Covid realized half their meetings were driven by ego and not much more.
We wiped out all our meetings. And now we're running the business in a much leaner, more efficient way.
#8 Don’t blindly follow retail best-practice.
Covid forced retailers into digital maturity overnight. Pre-Covid, online shopping only accounted for 7% of all grocery sales. That's changed.
Memories of that food scarcity and the empty shelves stay in people's minds. But what does that mean for frontline workforces in retail? That we'll see some sort of seismic shift to more dark stores to support that online shopping?
It's an issue we've been wrestling with for years. By shifting from in-store to online, you're doing a swap that doesn't work in your favour. You're moving from an hour of your customer's time, which costs you nothing, to an hour of your colleague's time. Which, obviously, you need to pay for. It's not as profitable as people think.
#9 Frontline retail jobs aren’t at risk.
I believe frontline merchandising will always be relevant. The idea that it'll all move to sort of a robot solution? I don't buy it.
Big changes are coming. The landscape for retail is shape-shifting as we speak. And that's not even taking into account the ongoing war with Amazon.
We're always going to have people working on the frontline of retailing. We just need to target those workforces more effectively. That's the secret to success.
#10 The skills are already there. It's how we use them that matters.
The frontline of the future? It will agile, flexible and fluid. It will be capable of relocating the supply of the workforce. Of giving capacity wherever it's needed in record time.
We've already seen things move ridiculously quickly in retail. Development is exponential. We've got to be at the forefront of that. Otherwise, we'll be behind.
#11 It's time to unleash the full power of frontline talent
We've taken frontline workers for granted. We've not listened, made the effort to understand them, to know them. It's disappointing. But I think we're turning a corner, and I'm excited by that.
Every time I go out, I meet a frontline worker who's got skills way beyond their job description. If you could tap into that and bring it back into your business, how powerful would that be?
Technology can facilitate this, of course. But it's the human side that matters most. The skills are already out there. It's tapping into them and networking them in a way that allows us to build something special.