5 ways travel retail can prepare for the next decade

I am always keen to find new perspectives and apply them to the world we operate in – Travel Retail. This has led me to seek out insights from different fields and industries. More recently, I have been fortunate enough to work with someone who has given me a glimpse into why the British Military Elite are the best at what they do. Fascinating.

When I stumbled across a book called “Stand Up Straight – 10 Life Lessons from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst” I was curious to learn more. It was so good that I read it twice. Although the book is only small, it is packed with useful insights. The lessons, whilst from a military background, can easily be applied to Retail. In fact, for most of the lessons in the book, I have had the good fortune to experience while working as part of winning retail teams.

When I think about Travel Retail and preparing for the next decade, there are 5 key principles that jumped out at me from the book. Without realising it, I had been taught or had been following these principles that are taught in Sandhurst, only in a retail setting.

The 5 principles, if applied will be relevant in 10 years time as they are today, irrespective of how much the market changes. The principles are as follows:

  1. The Standard You Walk Past Is The Standard You Accept
  2. The Road To Greatness Starts with a Perfectly Folded Sock
  3. Repetition & Practice are the Seeds of Victory
  4. Anticipate for the 3rd bend in the road
  5. It’s a nice feeling to win all the time but so much can be learned from failure

1. The Standard You Walk Past Is The Standard You Accept

Principle: In the book, this relates to standards within the military. If you walk past, overlook or let things that are not right go unchecked, you are part of the problem – so don’t be part of the problem.

Travel Retail Application: I have travelled a fair amount recently. Part of my travels have been related to our bespoke Retail Excellence service where our clients want to know how the staff they employ are performing in store. Part of my travels have been just as a traveller. What I have seen in stores are standards and behaviours that could do with….. a little bit of an upgrade. Old school retail discipline is something that could help enhance the retailer experience for the shopper and grow sales.

 The Recommendation: According to the book, Sandhurst teaches their officers in training that you should always hold yourself and your team to a higher standard. Do not walk past, do not let things slip. Stop and fix the issue. Do not accept poor sales skills, staff chatting, dusty shelves and empty spaces. Strive for better. Always.

2. The Road To Greatness Starts with a Perfectly Folded Sock

Principle: The lesson here is that every officer starts by learning to fold their socks in just the right way, make their beds and keep their area perfect. Whatever happens to them that day, they know that they did one thing really well, no matter how small. Positive actions at the start of the day have a ‘ripple effect’ and has a positive affect on the rest of the day.

Travel Retail Application: When I worked on the frontline in domestic retail, I had to maintain my section. At the start of every shift, I had to clean my area, fill any gaps and ensure that it was in tip top condition for the day. It was inspected and if it failed to meet the required standards, I had to do it again. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was my approach to my section was the same as the folded sock. If I had a bad day, at least I had something to be proud of.

The Recommendation: In a frontline setting, make sure every member of the shop floor team has an area they own, that they can maintain and be proud of. Take pride in even the smallest detail.

3. Repetition & Practice are the Seeds of Victory

Principle: To win at something, to be the best, you need to practice. Just because you have done something once, it doesn’t mean that you can do it well or have learned everything. Repetition eventually creates automatic behaviours and this creates a sense of preparedness that will deliver success.

Travel Retail Application: When I joined a domestic retailer as a sales person, I went on a 5-day residential to train me to sell on the shop floor. Yes, 5 days! This was a seriously intense course. A full day of training followed by dinner and then homework in the evening. We finished at about 11pm every night and had to be at the classroom by 8:30 the following day. The thing is, when I went back to my store, the training didn’t stop there. Every week we had product training and had to repeat all the steps we had learned in that residential. To this day, I remember the sales technique and could walk into one of their stores right now and give the average sales person a serious run for their money.

I also remember the new way of operating the shop floor that was introduced to cope with ‘peak season’. This is the time of year when foot flow, conversion and spend is very high. My manager took this new operating model very seriously and before ‘peak season’ we practised, practised, practised. We practised until it was second nature. The result? We smashed our targets and won the regional prize for top performing store.

 The Recommendation: Training should not be a one-off event. Training should happen every day. Fine tuning behaviours, processes and detail should be taking place on every shop floor. Continuous feedback is critical to learning and improvement. It brings focus, drive and results.


Principle: According to the book, British Army Officers are taught to anticipate issues and be prepared for them. On every exercise, they anticipate and prepare for what may lie ahead of them.

Travel Retail Application: Even with a steady and seemingly endless flow of passengers, things can go wrong. It is essential that Travel Retail prepares for situations that are likely to affect it. OK, tanks rolling onto Heathrow after 9/11 was something that no-one could predict but things like failed deliveries, accidents, systems going down etc can all be prepared for. Things like cancelled flights and procedures for strike action can all be practiced so that operations remain slick and professional.

Coronavirus has tested our resolve like no other. My belief is that this type of incident will happen again. We need to be prepared.

The Recommendation: Travel Retail should anticipate issues and prepare for them on the front line as well as in head office environments. Retailers and brands should consider employing a business continuity manager / director to plan and prepare businesses for the bumps in the road ahead. Anticipate, Plan, Execute.

5. It’s a nice feeling to win all the time but so much can be learned from failure

Principle: This one is probably a little more difficult for people to feel comfortable with. It is about changing people’s perspective on failure. The book talks about embracing failure as a learning. It is about taking feedback, learning from it and moving forward. It also talks about how those at Sandhurst are continually assessed and receive continuous feedback to drive self-improvement. The officers are pushed past the point of failure. They are intentionally made to fail to build their resilience because resilience is what they will need out on the battle field.

Travel Retail Application: Travel Retail is a wonderful industry but it can be a very sensitive too…. And that is its Achilles heel, its weak point.  Let’s be frank here. Anyone who remotely questions or challenges anything can rapidly find themselves being seen in a less than favourable light. In our industry, everything works, everything is positive and everything is rosy in the garden. Is it though? Really?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone presented at a conference and said ‘Hey, we tried this, looks amazing doesn’t it? Yeah…. It didn’t work. This is the reason it didn’t work and this is what we learned from it’. It will never happen but think about how much value that would bring to the audience?

We have much to learn from our big cousin, the aviation industry, where every failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and not repeat mistakes.

I remember a time when I spent a couple of hours merchandising my section. I had to put every product (over 50) in the new price logic, and presented in exactly the right way. It only took a couple of hours because I had cut corners. My manager came out of his meeting and popped over to do an inspection. He pulled it apart and turned to me and said “It’s shit. You already know it is and why it is. Do it again”. I was furious but, after I had calmed down, I looked at my section with fresh eyes and realised he was right. I never cut corners in that store again. Was he right to give feedback in that way? We can debate that for hours. Bottom line was that he got the result he wanted (a better display) and I became more resilient because of it.

Fast forward to when I moved into Travel Retail and I finally got my airside pass. I was told by my line manager to go and see the ‘jewel in the crown’ store.  I returned and was asked what I thought. I mentioned some positives and then finished with “… on another note, tickets were strewn across the floor, shelves had gaps in and there were 7 members of staff huddled around a till chatting while a customer was waiting to be served”.  The feedback went down like a lead balloon. Remember, I had previously worked in a retailer where you didn’t have time to sugar coat things – you told people straight, it was discussed, and you moved forward with a solution.

What use is feedback if it is silenced or ignored?

 The Recommendation: It will sting for a while but learn to accept feedback for what it is… an opportunity to improve. Travel Retail needs to continuously learn from feedback. If everything was perfect we would have higher conversion rates, higher sales and better in-store execution.


So, how should we prepare Travel Retail for the next decade? In my opinion we need to follow some of the lessons in the book.

  • We need to continuously strive for higher standards, being good or great isn’t enough anymore
  • We need to “sweat the small stuff” again and go back to focusing on the detail
  • We need to practise, practise, practise
  • We need to be prepared for bumps in the road and have a plan
  • We need to embrace feedback if we are to make real positive change

I hope you have found this useful. Drop me a line with your thoughts. I am off to read that book again. Until next time.



Have a great week.


Founder & Managing Director
One Red Kite Limited

Author of “Travel Retail : The Insider’s Guide”
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