Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

Lessons on letting the cameras in

These days social media might be more effective than TV coverage

Last year I had two uncharacteristic bouts of TV exposure. The first was in February when I went on the offensive (in more senses than I’d intended) to defend British food retailing during Horsegate.

The second, which benefited from slightly longer planning, was in the autumn BBC series about Iceland.

It’s fair to say the second got much better reviews!.

At a time when every retailer from Liberty to the pound shops is under siege from production companies, I thought it might be useful to try and answer the key question: does TV do your business any good?

Our series was undoubtedly very positive for staff morale, and for recruitment. It more than trebled the daily hits on our careers website.

It also boosted sales of some featured products, from the expected (Bubble Bobble King Prawns) to the more surprising (Doner Kebab Pizza).

Anecdotally, some middle class people who had always given Iceland a wide berth told us they had tried us on the strength of the series, and been favourably impressed.

But did it generate the sales bonanza that the BBC were fretting about when they debated whether they could really air the programmes before Christmas, in case they were seen as three hours of free advertising?

Absolutely not. Of course we’ll never know how things might have turned out if 2.5 million people a week had not watched the shows, but there is no evidence that overall sales saw any real benefit.

And that is all any retailer really cares about.

I think we got across that Iceland is a fun place to work: something already well recognised by our strong showing in the ‘Best Companies To Work For’ listings, though people tend to react to our high ranking there with incredulity.

But we still have a mountain to climb in persuading a large and sceptical section of the population that we are not comedy purveyors of cheap rubbish, but genuine pioneers in raising food standards who give our customers great quality at amazing prices.

I could have forged a new career as a media pundit on the back of the series. The list of invitations to appear on chat shows, news and business programmes has been almost endless.

I’ve turned them all down because I’ve got a company to run and it’s hard to see how airing my views on climate change or shoplifting is going to help us shift any more salmon fillets.

If you are still tempted to sign up for a series of your own, do remember that editing can turn anything you say on its head: a fact of which I became painfully aware during Horsegate.

You will struggle, but try to ensure you have the right to see any footage before it airs, and do your best to exercise some editorial control. Some shouting may be required.

Almost exactly a year on from Horsegate, we experienced another media storm over a trivial incident in Kentish Town that we christened Skipgate. I was out of the country so could not take up the many requests for interviews, but still managed to make my views known through Twitter.

I seem to have emerged a hero in some quarters for supposedly helping to get the charges against the three bin raiders dropped.

The lesson on which you might like to reflect before you sign up to allow the cameras in is this: getting your point of view across on social media may be quicker, cheaper and these days it will almost certainly reach many more people.

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