“Change creates opportunity”: Entrepreneur Gerald Ratner offers up advice to retailers at Synaxon Conference

Gerald Ratner is the entrepreneur who infamously said in 1991 that, while it was true a pair of gold earrings sold at his Ratners store cost less than a prawn sandwich from Marks and Spencer, they would probably not last as long as the sandwich.

His empire subsequently collapsed, but Ratner came back, launching and selling a health club, and then building a new online business. As VIP guest speaker at this year’s Synaxon Conference, he shared what he’d learned from his experiences with a rapt audience. And afterwards, PCR was able to snatch a few minutes with him.

What advice would you have for retailers today?

Change creates opportunity. We built our business in the 1980s on change. The demographics changed. Suddenly, it was young people – 16 to 24 year-olds – who, for the first time in their life, starting getting disposable income and spending it. We took advantage of that because we the first to adapt to the new market. Rather than expensive heirlooms and lifetime purchases, we started selling fashion items, like cheaper earrings and chains, and putting them in the front of the window rather than an expensive diamond ring. We were one of the few jewellers at the time who were catering for what the market required. When things change, if you are quick and you change with it and give people what they want, you’ll find that a lot of your competitors are still living in the past.

Are there parallels you can draw between your experiences and what’s happening in the market today?

There’s always parallels. People don’t change, situations change. There are still incredible opportunities out there and it’s the businesses that taking then and adapting to them that are doing well. The ones that are complaining about Brexit and the demise of the High Street and the difficult environment who are not achieving anything. It is a bit scary because it has changed dramatically, but you have to change with it. It’s not rocket science. There is no point in living in the past and flogging a dead horse. You have to give people what they want.

Is it just about recognising the need to change then?

Yes, a lot of people won’t recognise it. They are in denial or they just think it’s a hopeless situation. We have just heard just today that Dixons Carphone is struggling, now who would have thought that would happen, because we all spend time looking at our phones? 

Have people clung onto the traditional approach to retailing for too long?

Yes, but I’m beginning to think that it’s also time to go from the Internet, which might sound strange when it’s all everyone one talks about, but that’s perhaps the time when you have to move on and find the next thing. We started off [with Gerald Online] with very low marketing costs – they used to be about 3% or 4% and we’d be on page one of Google. Now that same cost is 25% because everyone and their dog thinks the Internet is some kind of a panacea and prepared to pay big bucks and Google has a monopoly. The real profit has gone out of it, unless you are like Amazon and don’t need to spend money on Google.

The challenge then is knowing where to go next?

Yes, to be in fashion. To have a product that is not something everybody else has, to not do what everybody else does, and to be ahead of the game. To look to the future and not sit on your laurels – however successful you have been. As Echo & the Bunnymen said, Nothing Lasts Forever.

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