In this Amazon era, what are the major strategic takeaways for business?

October 30, 2017 3:41 pm
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Retail and ecommerce are changing globally. Around the world, new technologies, trends and business models are rapidly transforming the way people discover, shop and buy all of their physical goods, from grocery to fashion and everything in between.

“If one thing is clear at this gathering of the retail industry’s top brass, it is that pretty much everyone in the sector is figuring out how to beat, collaborate with or be the next”

Shoptalk Europe covers innovation in retail and ecommerce. It focuses on the evolution of how consumers discover, shop and buy in an age of digital disruption. This year, a trip to Kobenhavn brought together the trainers, T-shirt and jackets of the retail and digital economy. Like many industry bashes just watching and listening were the key learnings as opposed to being one of the hundreds of folks trying to pass a business card to the head of Tesco Online or the founder of the Dollar Shave Club in the hope of that big time call.
A vast array of subjects were discussed at this very Americana set piece event, a paradise for the absorbers of jargon; from engaging consumers through interactive technologies to emerging technologies that drive retail innovation. That said the degrees of specialism, insight and entrepreneurship were impressive.


One interesting and unescapable feature of this considerable event was the elephant in the online and offline world of retail; Amazon. Amazon was revered, spoken of in the main with great deference, admiration and no small amount of fear and loathing. Amazon is distinctive in this respect as it is both a competitor for some but also a key customer or distributor as well.

So, in this Amazon era, what are the major strategic takeaways for business?

Well, in the first instance trying to replicate or replace what Amazon does head on and win appears a bit of a forlorn hope. One perhaps needs to accept that Amazon is here to stay for a good while and is a formidable opponent. A similar perspective could be applied to Alibaba in China it should be said. Amazon has considerable scale on its balance sheet to see through its plans, which seemingly revolve around sub-optimal profitability to possibly reach a position where monopoly conditions will permit super-normal profitability.

As such, is Amazon using a form of capitalism that is sub-optimal profitability to potentially reach a market dominant position where super-normal profitability achieved? Or is that a naive expectation as Amazon is just a pseudo-commercial operation that is very ‘nice’ to its customers, earns enough to get by and will remain in sub-optimal profit mode even if it has a monopoly position? Hmmm. History does not look encouraging on that front. Head on though it feels like ‘getting by’ could be a credible outcome versus Amazon.

In this respect, who and what can stop Amazon apart from itself from becoming a ubiquitous behemoth controlling the distribution of goods & services decimating the margin structure of sector by sector? Well, competitors appear few and far between on this front albeit we note Booker-Tesco speak of their collective scale being a factor in coping with Amazon in the future.

Rather, we sense that it will be non-commercial folk and more capable competition in time, that will ultimately face into and potentially tame the Amazonia commercial beast. By non-commercial folks we think of competition regulators and tax officials, noting that Amazon was fined EUR250m very recently by the European authorities.

Capability is perhaps more interesting as a mechanism for small & medium sized companies to cope with Amazon, as opposed to large groups already with their heads above the parapet. Whilst Amazon has the reputation it has with shoppers on merit and never-ending innovation translated into the enviable functional service, there are many things Amazon is not, even as artificial intelligence, personalisation and other systematic processes emerge that mirror simple humanity come through.

As such one of the clear pendulums swinging the other way from prior narratives is the importance of stores to the future of retail. Some may have scoffed at such a suggestion in years gone by but the reality is far from so. The experiences that stores can deliver, the human social interaction, the easy choice and theatre are very, very difficult to replicate online. Indeed, many pure-play online retailers are opening stores; e.g. Ace & Tate, Birchbox and MyMuseli.

As such the first thing that dawned upon us as Amazon acquired Whole Food Markets was that in the grocery space, Amazon could not ‘win’ through centralised picking and excellent logistics to home alone. It needed the connection between a very fragmented customer base and a close fulfilment centre, that is in fact a “shop”.

Adrian Letts in Copenhagen, the Head of Tesco Online, alluded to this process too when he spoke of the store becoming more important to their grocery and non-food businesses than dark stores, for example, in the future. Indeed, the flexibility that stores offer to shoppers for direct shopping to online shopping is now only starting to become much more clearly worked out; e.g. shops as places where logistics providers can deliver products not bought in-store or sold by that vendor e.g. Amazon lockers.

Amazon should be a catalyst for management to be competitive, innovative and entrepreneurial. Efficient markets make business’ better and being better is a never-ending process. In Denmark Spencer Fung spoke of his Li-Fung business as being slow, a tortoise, that was not just competing with faster & slower tortoise but living in a world where hares were becoming even quicker. Spencer is trying to speed up his business through simplification and digitalisation, what was I saying about jargon earlier? Such a candid assessment from a large and advanced Asian group gives grounds for collective encouragement to my mind;

“the key is working out where I need to be simpler, quicker, more competitive, more innovative and so more entrepreneurial.”

The human touch, the experience, the accessibility, the theatre are all things that Amazon will have to learn about and invest in if it is to compete. As such the questions are, as spelt out by Jerry Storch, CEO of Hudson Bay Company;

Do I have great products?

Do I have great stores?

Do I have great staff?

In whatever field, a business is playing in and this use of great does not just mean higher category, super-premium and expensive, it permeates all product categories and channels. As such thinking about Amazon as a competitor and a potential distributor for goods, directly or through market place, is a healthy and logical outcome of the market economy working. Amazon is a superb construct and something to be respected and admired. Whilst so, the Amazonia tail should not wag outside the legal bounds that other firms have to abide by; something for firms, trade associations, non-governmental and official bodies to focus upon.

Coriolis is in the business of assisting business in the UK, Australia and in-between to become more competitive from within. In the fast-moving world we live in, where more is fundamentally the same than some folks think, but more is moving at the pace of Mr. Fung’s proverbial hare, help with change, help with pace and help with competitiveness is a helping hand indeed, which Coriolis is very well set up to do. Make Amazon not be a source of fear but a source of inspiration where it can be admired, copied, defied and defeated, certainly not loathed.

Dr Clive Black
Advisor to Coriolis

Another fine mess…..

September 7, 2017 3:49 pm
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A year ago, I was writing about the fall-out of the UK-EU Referendum and how we felt the business community and wider economy may fare. As it was, the whole country was fatigued by the never ending political shenanigans. Accordingly, once again, business folks went away in the summer shattered from the carnage of the political car crash that the May-Corbyn combine delivered. .

“I can’t stand this, there is just too much politics going on”

This year the viral reaction of “Brenda from Bristol”, bless her, perfectly characterised the national mood when Theresa May called the June General Election.

What an unmitigated disaster that was, little short of a national embarrassment.

Whereas we felt that the UK business folks would dust themselves down and ‘get on with things’ in late summer 2016, we feel a little less sanguine about matters a year later.

Firstly, there is undoubtedly fatigue and frustration with the political elite and the way that it is holding back rather than enabling business.

Secondly, brinkmanship of the EU and UK around Brexit is waring; these bureaucrats do not run businesses and seem not to give a flying fig about the reality that uncertainty creates.

Thirdly, the UK economy is decelerating a little albeit those doom-mongering economists continue to be proved more wrong than right.

The UK economy is interesting;

• We have very low unemployment, lots of vacancies and a skills shortage.

• Whilst inflation is back in the system, it is not as high as the Remoaners would like and so living standards are stable rather than imploding. Albeit for low income households’ inflation is regressive I should add.

• More to the point the UK has annualised against the devaluation of sterling and the inflationary pressures upon business look like easing.

• Interest rates also remain unhealthily low, they should be slowly and steadily increased as the degree of stimulation now does not seem healthy, but low rates makes money relatively affordable.

Such a deck of economic cards is not the worst that we have seen over the last twenty or thirty years for sure. That said, the political circus and Brexit uncertainty are making it that little bit more challenging for businesses to invest. And that investment is vital to the long-term prospects for the UK. Hence, whilst we expect most British entrepreneurs to remain stoical and so continue to ‘get on with things’, we could understand if they held back a little.

In this respect, having removed the two idiots that were her political advisors, it is welcome that Theresa May is now being forced to talk to business. However, that is a long way from being a proficient and effective Prime Minister for the UK. Accordingly, I believe it is time for business to be in the face of their local MPs and the government. More than this though I look to government to be more visionary and more committed about our supply-side needs. Whilst Jeremy Corbyn gives me as much confidence in terms of economic competence as do Coventry City’s defence at keeping clean sheets, he is right to goad government of the need for material infrastructure investment. To me this is the time to do something real and brave for the UK embracing our skills shortages, digital communication, green energy, advanced engineering, life sciences, creative industries and transport to just mention a few.

There is a need for material structural supply side investment to make Britain a place international capital wishes to commit too. There is a need for a vision to broaden our economic base to make it less dependent upon the City of London and stronger across our regions. We need to set out, and get on with long-term plans to improve air and rail communications forthwith. East-to-West rail links in the UK are archaic; It is insulting to the businesses of the north of England, for example, that the government can offer support for Crossrail 2 and cancel the electrification of the Liverpool to Newcastle-upon-Tyne rail line.
Outside the UK we also need a structural upgrade in our commercial capabilities around embassies and consulates. The UK is going to have to trade better in future decades and government needs to offer serious supply-side support, as we see the Dutch, Germans and Irish do for years. A somewhat seemingly permanently intoxicated ex-GP trade minister is a laughing stock and he revealed his true colours on business when he characterised our businesses people as more interested in golf than trade.
So, I do hope that you all come back once again refreshed. I also hope that bright eyed and bushy tailed you wish to have a go again despite the piteous state of our political class. That class though now needs to start listening to your needs and I implore you not to be passive. As a country, we need to be more competitive, more productive and more entrepreneurial. To be so, we could do with a bit more government help than hindrance and I also suggest you express what you need in terms of supply side policy to make your company more effective.

In this respect, the Coriolis team is an enabler of productivity and competitiveness and as such an excellent commercially focused supply side support from the private sector. As such Coriolis is on the same entrepreneurial page as you are and to me well worth engaging in to boost your capabilities.

I wish you well for post summer trade.

Dr Clive Black

Business feeds Amber Rudd’s ‘money tree’

July 19, 2017 2:01 pm
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Just over a year ago the business community of the United Kingdom (UK) was coming to terms with the quite seismic decision of the British to leave the European Union (EU). The majority of the business community wanted to remain in the Union, the “devil you know” seemingly better than the one you don’t.

It is also true that big business had a stronger penchant for staying in than many smaller firms, companies that feel the sharp end of Bruxelles bureaucracy without the administrative central resources of a large corporation to monitor and manage the regulatory burden; that said, much regulation comes from Whitehall that does not seem to garner the same interest from the Daily Mail; employment, planning and the thorny issue of relative enforcement.

The result of the EU Referendum, in the main, was accepted by business – the City, where the UK is too dependent, car manufacturers and big Pharma continued to protest – and the mantra after the big vote was, ‘well we just have to get on with it’. And so we did, H2 CY2016 was much, much stronger from an economic perspective than any City or Treasury economist forecast; the Governor of the Bank of England appearing especially out of touch with his emergency rate cut whilst the Evening Standard’s current editor was simply foolish with his scaremongering for an emergency budget.

What was also clear last year is that a lot of business folks went away and dwelt upon what the Referendum result actually meant for them. In doing so, tired of the political hum drum they went away on mass, most to the EU continent as it happens, and after some sleep, a few sangria and a couple of good books, started to plan the September push. Such rest was necessary and Briton’s business folks did the country proud in the following months.


Sadly, the summer of 2017 has the same feel. This is not an emotion that those same business folks – who take risks, invest, employ and generate wealth – wanted to repeat one year on from the UK-EU Referendum. However, Theresa May’s calamitous election campaign has left the UK a bit of a laughing stock around the world, from a political perspective at least, emboldened and united the EU with whom we have to negotiate an exit and so created another round of uncertainty, which just about all businesses, apart from flight of foot capital rich and/or speculators, abhor.

The damaged goods Prime Minister, her dysfunctional party when it comes to Europe, the minority government and the fully costed near lunatics that are the Labour Party represent a disaster of a political economy for British business. For anyone who is in any doubt about the misuse of the term “fully costed” read the Institute of Fiscal Studies paper on John McDonnell’s plans, noting that the bloke who was probably most relieved that Labour did not win the General Election was probably John McDonnell as he would have had a sterling collapse and capital controls to impose if he was Chancellor.

So, sadly, once again hard working entrepreneurs and industrialists will need time to reflect on what this all means and how to react this time around. I have to say that this time around there is more need to worry than was the case with the EU Referendum where for one reason and another we did think that the UK would dust itself down. Now we watch carefully as to how the Brexit negotiations actually go – don’t be too swayed by the propaganda on each side, make sure one looks at the detail where it effects your firm – and also business confidence and expectations.

We shall be mightily relieved if managers come back from holiday stoical again, believing that the pint is more than half full rather than empty. There is a lot still to go for, for British firms. The devaluation of sterling does indeed pose import substitution opportunities. That devaluation should also stimulate structural exporting, as opposed to just trading at the margins. What is also clear too is that we will have to trade beyond the EU at a strategic level, for which business organisations – the bodies firms pay subs too – need to be on their mettle.

I have also argued elsewhere that in an economy where labour may be re-priced and in short supply – UK unemployment in June 2017 was as low as it was in 1975 – people productivity, overall cost control – nay leadership – and tight cash management need particular attention strategically going forward. Now, I am not going to insult the management priorities of business folks but the wider context does underscore these themes to my mind.

In this respect, Coriolis is an organisation that I feel is particularly well placed to add value at the coal face, where it matters for British firms. More broadly though we must, whatever our industry, be noisy to fight for entrepreneurs’ interests in the face of an intellectually challenged Government. In a previous piece I asked for a manifesto for business. Whatever your view, make sure business’ interests are heard, because it is business that keeps the lights on, it is business that pays the bills and it is business that feeds Amber Rudd’s ‘money tree’.

Dr Clive Black
Advisor to Coriolis

What about a manifesto for the engine room?

June 6, 2017 1:08 pm
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I guess that in the end we get the politics and the politicians that we deserve. However, it is hard, post the Scottish Referendum and the UK-EU Referendum, never mind Trump and Macron vs., Le Pen, not to come close to despair amidst the current UK General Election campaign. Indeed, for entrepreneurs and business folks, it is hard not to feel quite fatalistic about things political.

Few politicians and their associated chattering political classes, which embraces swathes of the media of course, seem to have much awareness or interest in the engine room of the UK, the organisations that employ people day in, day out, pay tax, invest in the future and so create GDP and wealth. That engine room is, of course, business.


In midst of such seismic events and looking at the “basket” of current leaders it is indeed hard, not to fall back on a sense of dark humour:

An incumbent Prime Minister that is seemingly clutching defeat from the jaws of victory with a disastrous and ill-thought out campaign that does not exactly encourage the business community to think with confidence that the UK is a place to create, invest and commit.

A Leader of the Opposition that redefines idealism, has a very questionable past albeit what does that matter these days, and believes that money does indeed grow on trees; I do wonder if he has any familiarity with the power of currency markets and capital flows?

A leader of the Liberal Democrats who’s strongest rant to date has been about the Prime Minister’s no show at a far from compelling gathering in Cambridge, that Nicola Sturgeon could not be arsed turning up to either but Jeremy Corbyn had nothing else to do seemingly and so rocked up.

A leader of the Green Party, who appears well meaning it should be said but one senses would struggle to run the bath in 10 Downing Street never mind the Government.

I rest my case your honour…

So, taking a few glasses of Bushmills malt in to help clear the mind, what could business reasonably ask for from its politicians ahead of this Election, noting the small matter of pending exit from the EU? Well, whilst I am no Socrates or Plato, how would the following sound?

The establishment of a clear priority and commitment to provide the most stable and business friendly environment; one where business fully participates understanding its responsibilities as well as seeking to fulfil opportunities.

A commitment to an open and flexible market economy that seeks to encourage, nurture and support innovation and entrepreneurship for all; clearly in this respect we need to trade with the whole world.

A clear priority to raise education and training standards so that the UK develops the public and private sector human capital that it needs to be competitive in the future; within this important arena, for too long a political football, a structural priority should be given to mathematics, science & engineering, the digital universe and creativity.

Clear understanding, reassurance and effective processes to ensure that the appropriate labour force is available to business in the short and long-term; repeating the need for business to nurture, develop and treat with respect its human capital.

New structures and resources to link the UK’s world-class universities to business nationwide, a central part of what should be a wider and larger plan to structurally adjust levels of innovation in product and process.

Confidence building measures to acknowledge the need plus the will to improve Britain’s economic infrastructure; global air links, internal rail and road development, the digital air space (objectivity, capability & capacity) and necessary long-term energy needs. The latter should embrace innovation in the potential from the low carbon and renewable economy.

Liam Byrne’s note, Labour 2010; “I’m afraid there is no money”.

Prioritise confidence measures that responsible risk-takers can reasonably expect to benefit from their hard work and enterprise alongside the right checks & balances through the welfare state and tax system to work toward a more cohesive, wealthier and ultimately happier society.

A thriving business community that helps to fund world-class public services, services that in turn help to support and provide the context for business to press on.

A clear message to and resourcing for the UK business community about the opportunity and importance of both strategic import substitution and export activity to see through the necessary potential for growing competitiveness and participation in the global economy.

In a re-balancing economy, a City of London brings all of its global capability and competitiveness to work more effectively for UK business and not as a self-perpetuating club devoid from the responsibilities and accountabilities.



In uncertain times business will need to be on its mettle. No one knows how the Brexit negotiations are going to go nor whether the world economy will recover and be more inflationary or contract into a deflationary grind. Globalisation has brought many benefits but also challenges, which have not been identified or carefully enough managed, reflected in the rise of the discontented. However, the UK must bring forward a balanced economic model that allows our companies to be world class players.

Competitiveness, innovation and entrepreneurship are the mantras that Coriolis seeks to nurture, support and realise; mantras that the UK will need in bucket loads to withstand forthcoming headwinds and, if the rabid Brexiteers are correct, to see-through the world of opportunity that is seemingly coming our way.

Let’s hope that after the 8th June 2017 we can perhaps focus more readily on the day job without increasingly shallow politics colouring our business lives. Let’s also hope that our wholly uninspiring political leaders remember who keeps their lights on.

Dr Clive Black
Advisor to Coriolis Consulting

June 2017.

Problem Solving: Sketching it makes Sense

May 16, 2017 9:07 am
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We only retain 7% of what we hear and around 10% of what we read, so when it comes to the other 80% or so we need to make best use of it! Visual aids and learning by teaching someone what you have learned make up a big chunk of the remainder. It’s worth considering this when it comes to problem solving. By engaging your team in utilising this approach you can greatly increase the holistic understanding of the problem, find the root cause or failure mode, and find the best solution to solve it.

It’s very easy today to hold all your tools and information electronically. This ultimately makes your management of data easier, but you can bring the risk of locking the information away and not truly gaining its full benefit.

While having other media such as schematics, user manuals and SCADA screens is extremely helpful, getting the team to pull together a visual of the problem with pen and paper and explaining to each other their knowledge and experiences benefits the situation in several ways:

Understand the working principle. No matter the size of the team carrying out the activity, it is key that they first understand the nature of the problem. Each individual may have different skill sets and levels of knowledge, so a sketch of the scope and what the equipment does will align understanding and focus the problem solving.

Identify wear points. Going through the drawing, identifying the touch points and flow of the product through the machine, forces exerted during the process and parts designed to naturally wear will help begin to narrow the focus to the root of the problem. This can also work when wanting to define standard settings or listing bill of materials for a sub assembly or area. Using this approach can really bring the machine, sub assembly of a piece of equipment or process to life.

Share knowledge through different experience. Whether it be operations, maintenance, hygiene or quality, each will bring a key perspective to the problem, and therefore finding the solution. For example, there could be a design flaw or past modification which operationally looks fine, and can even be accessed for maintenance, but cannot be properly cleaned. This could give key insights into unlocking perspectives normally missed, or past redesigns that have not been fully documented.

Finally, it doesn’t have to be a work of art… Although some of us may aspire to be the next Banksy, your drawings don’t need to be perfect. Basic diagrams will give enough fuel to fire the discussion, unlock shared learning, and provide a ‘live’ visual aid. Let everyone have a go with the pen to explain their perspective of the problem.

In summary, problem solving is essential in driving behavioural change and improving performance. Utilise a cross-functional collaborative approach by sketching the working principle and learning from the team to bring it to life.


Written by Jeff Wilkinson, Coriolis Ltd