Retail differentiators will survive despite economic headwinds, says Peter Cowgill

The former chief executive of JD Sports has said that retailers differentiating themselves from their competitors will “be winners” despite the current economic climate and ongoing cost-of-living crisis.

At the Retail Technology Show, Peter Cowgill, who is currently executive chair of The Fragrance Shop, told retailers that while they cannot do a lot about the current economic environment or government measures, if they are the best in their particular market they will survive or “win”.

During an opening session at the exhibition and conference, which is taking place at Olympia on 26 and 27 April, he said that retail differentiators can benefit from times of financial difficulty, because marginal operators fail when “life gets tough”.

He added that a number of retailers “failed or diminished” during the pandemic because they lacked agility, flexibility, recognition, and innovation, advising companies to not assume “success today means success tomorrow”.

“Success today is great, but enjoy it for a very short space of time because the challenges are for tomorrow,” he said.

Popularity during the pandemic

Cowgill attributed queues seen outside JD Sports’ stores following the lifting of Covid-related restrictions to “consumer engagement and brand strength”.

“JD Sports understands its consumers,” he told attendees of the show. “JD Sports has capitalised on that and strengthened that through a lot of very targeted marketing, innovation, and having the right products in the right place.”

When asked about what retailers can do to address the fact it is becoming more difficult to predict consumers, Cowgill said that companies need to target discretionary spend.

“The most dangerous thing to do is to stand still or become complacent about consumers,” he said, adding that it’s important to continue engagement as the market and consumer demand shifts over time.

Turning JD Sports around

The ex-JD Sports chief executive, who worked for the international sports retailer from 2004 until May last year, said that when he first joined the business it is no secret that it was in financial distress – at the time, the company was in the bank recovery section.

He said that his strategy was about reducing cost structure and closing stores that were “cannibalising each other”. Following this, the business was able to “steady the ship”, and thereafter focussed on improved accountability and metric analytics.

“Knowledge is power,” he said, explaining that the company intensified its analytics online and in-store, while the product team also became very analytical.

“A big point was differentiation” he said, explaining that the business increasingly understood the target consumer and "supplied them accordingly".

Cowgill added: “We had to negotiate hard with the brands and then we enhanced advertising campaigns."

Cowgill also talked about changing the speed of service and retrieval at tills and in the stock room – where the company introduced strategies like tablets where store employees could take money in order to reduce queues.

The Retail Technology Show is taking place at Kensington Olympia, London on 26 and 27 April 2023.

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