Virgin's Branson talks retail fails, retail success and what makes for a rewarding customer experience

Feb. 7, 2017 | by Judy Mottl

Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson likely knows more about retail fail than most any other retail leader.

For one thing, he’s founded 400-plus businesses over the past 50 years and, secondly, he's pivoted more than a few hundred times in business.

He also has no qualms sharing tales on Virgin Group's crash-and-burn scenarios and how his brand survived re-inventions of retail (think iPod vs. the vinyl record store) that essentially put entire industries out of business (think video rental stores vs. streaming media).

The 66-year-old's first venture was a small mail order company, launched after starting a magazine at age 16, that led to founding his independent label Virgin Records in 1972.

During the heyday of his music venture, he recalls crafting a prank in which he put "music in a box."

Then, as the story goes, Apple delivered its iPod and Virgin's record stores soon fell into oblivion with the rest of the vinyl record industry.

"Beware the jokes as they can backfire," Branson shared with a smile during his standing-room-only key note session at NRF's The Big Show held Jan. 15 -17 in New York City.

During his panel talk, moderated by NRF Chairman Kip Tindell, who is CEO and founder of The Container Store, Branson was entertaining and informative – kicking off his talk by revealing he was born an optimistic and offering insight on what retailers must do to achieve success and sustainability.

Branson elicited more appreciative laughs in recounting why his brand's bridal store venture didn't go well.

"There are no virgin brides," he noted with a wide grin.

Yet in each fail, Branson took all the lessons learned to move ahead and retrench a retail focus.

Just consider a few of his notable business quotes cited by Wikipedia:

  • You don't learn to walk by following rules
  • You learn by doing, and by falling over
  • Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming
  • Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again

For example, when mobile music hit, and the "writing was on the wall for music retailers," Branson recalled how his team refocused.

"We looked at the products that were selling well [at the time in the record stores] such as accessories, mobile phones and video games," said Branson.

"You can’t think of yourself as a retailer forever. You need to be entrepreneurial and use the retail store to drive new business."

A big reason for his brand success, he added, has been a longtime focus on developing brand loyalty among consumers and customers.

One tip: "You need to keep brand fresh and try to make sure you enhance the brand," he shared, noting his conglomerate, Virgin Group, is a "way-of-life brand."

Branson shared that he always carries a notebook for jotting down interactions with staff and customers.

The notes, he said, often provide tremendous value in creating an "experiential" experience for consumers compared to an average shopping experience.

The note jotting goes hand in hand with good investigation and knowledge before a new industry move.

For example, when Branson and Virgin Group decided to move into the health club business, his staff spent a year investigating U.S. health clubs to determine what made some successful and what made some failures.

He's also learned to hand off tasks as a business leader.

"It's important to hire people better than myself to run companies. I let people make mistakes and praise as much as possible and not criticize," he said, noting "a good leader has to be a good listener."

And, he added, a good leader also needs to be a flexible leader.

"You need to be a perpetual revolution within the company and you have to move quickly and jump on opportunity," he advised.

Want to learn about more retail customer experience innovations, and hear insight from retailers making it happen and technology leaders developing CX solutions? Register for the ICX Association’s annual Interactive Customer Experience Summit happening June 5-7 at the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Dallas. Check out the agenda, register here.


Topics: Customer Experience, Retail - General, Trends / Statistics



Judy Mottl

Judy Mottl is an experienced editor, reporter and blogger who has worked for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews. She’s written everything from breaking news to in-depth trends. She loves a great pitch so email here, follow on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn.

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