The Retail Relay: “Running a 3-legged race, in a 4 leg event?”

“A chain is as strong as its weakest link” could never be more appropriate than the chain of events that transforms a retail strategy into a store full of tangible, buyable products.

“And what the customer sees and responds to is unfortunately the result of the weakest link, not the strongest one!”



To achieve this commercial panacea therefore not only requires excellence within disciplines but essentially the perfect relationship between them. If the “baton” is dropped then the excellence of individual performances will be clouded by the dust of defeat as competitors disappear into the financial finishing straight on their way to being crowned commercial champions. In a competitive environment where the customer is spoilt for choice, only the right product in the right place, at the right time, inspirational and irresistible, is acceptable. Only excellence as a team, can achieve this.

The four leg, 400 metre, relay race of retail is a sequential story of teamwork between the assortment strategists, the assortment structure planners, the designers & buyers, and finally the visual merchandising team.

And whilst the visual merchandising team sometimes take the plaudits and the publicity, they are also often left to pick up the pieces of a misfiring team, underperforming and perpetually dropping the product baton, left behind in laborious hand-overs.

So begin the race with a “sound strategy.”


The reliable first leg, putting into place the pre-race strategy, the total-team training talk, the whole race planned through, the runners selected for each specialist leg, each runner trained to perfect performance fitness, expectations and targets set in place. The strategic leg has to always cope with the bending track and the confusion of competitors staggered at different stages of development and success, but once fully briefed, guarantees to safely hand over the baton to the assortment structure planning team, leading the team, and leaving the team exactly where they need to be to compete successfully.

The second leg is a straight race to develop the assortment structure, numbers and budget, relying on a smooth and firm handover from strategy. No glancing sideways, drawing always on years of experience, fully aware of personal performance statistics, fully briefed on previous errors, and focused only on a clear and unequivocal handover to the buying tea. A strong straight leg, with a firm hand and direct eye contact into the hand of the design and buying team.

This second leg is however a critical and dangerous leg where time and a straight direction can be lost, distracted by noises from the crowd, the pounding of competing heartbeats, one where the confusion of the competitor stagger makes poor performance difficult to measure and identify. Constant split-times, guidance and encouragement required to avoid the fatal mistakes only evident as the final two sprints unwind and when the competitive edge will already have been lost.

And so to the third leg of creative design and buying, storming sometimes calmly and sometimes thunderously unpredictably, around the second bend – balancing control with creativity in a unique and volatile combination of mind-sets. Often the leg with greatest natural talent this leg has been run many times, but each time in a different context, with changing competitors and always new crowds to please. A critical leg, where even the most professional runners suffer from common-place chaotic handovers, stalling starts from the assortment planning and stuttering momentum towards the final VM leg. Many dropped batons and unfinished races accompany the Jekyll & Hide role of the third leg runner.

And so to the final VM sprint where at last the stagger has unwound and the crowds can clearly see the true competitive race to the line. And what a crowd has gathered to see and be involved in the exciting climax where their support and adoration, allegiance and loyalty, disappointment and deflation will still effect which team they are supporting today. Unaware, or with a restricted view of the previous three legs, they focus only on the excitement and emotion of the winner and their patronage to a podium finish.

In the excitement of the final store delivery…

…pity the final VM runner who performs beyond expectations, but takes the baton so far behind the competition that to be competitive at the finish is futile…

…watch the agonising faces of the first leg strategist, the second leg planners and the third leg buyers as their competitive advantage gained through hard work and improved personal best performances disappears as the VM runner treads water…

…contemplate the final VM runner who never receives the baton at all, dropped in the chaos of all the earlier activity….

…or the mystifying no show of any final leg runner at all, inconvenienced or injured from too many previous races, making the buyers pull up short, agonising on how they can ever reach the finishing line without a full team complement.

…and marvel at the victorious quartet, as the final runner smoothly takes the baton ahead of the field, extends the lead bringing home the team to the gold medal, the plaudits, the popularity, the fame and financial rewards.


Running the retail relay is a four-legged race, reliant on “personal” and “personnel” peak performance and clockwork coordination.

Any retail business team is notoriously difficult to create and control containing as it does, behind the scenes and before the event, experts in marketing, finance, IT, logistics, store operations and other essential disciplines without which no successful retail team can operate.

“However, what the customer does see and does respond to is the result of the weakest link, not the strongest one!”

Is your retail team unbalanced?
Is your retail team incomplete?
Are the handovers embarrassing?

Are you running your most competitive race ever, strapped amateurishly together – a school sports day 3-legged operation in a professional 4 leg event?

Is the race from boardroom to stockroom, a series of unfortunate events?

VM-unleashed works with a variety of international retailers helping them build retail teams, plan and deliver commercial and competitive assortments.

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