Employee engagement – what does it mean, and where do you start?

In any week, we often spend more time (awake) with our work colleagues than our much better other halves, family and friends. As a rule, you don’t marry someone you don’t trust and you do not befriend people you do not like, however some of us find ourselves spending over 8 hours a day in a business we do not 100% trust, working with colleagues we do not really like – how did that happen?

Every retailer knows that an engaged workforce will be:

  • more loyal
  • less inclined to be looking for other employment
  • more productive

… therefore saving the company money in recruitment and induction training, and saving time in managing underperformers.

All great news, however with an ever changing mind set and changing expectations regarding work / life balance, what factors influence employee engagement?

Research shows that the following areas will most affect whether people are engaged in working for your organisation, rather than just being happy in their job. In descending order:

1. Trust in leaders – Does the business clearly communicate their goals (vision, mission, etc)? And is the top management’s behaviour consistent with those goals? Do they keep their promises and do as they said they were going to do?

2. Relationship with immediate line manager – Does your organisation hire people who fit the company culture? Has the company culture been defined? Do managers behave and lead accordingly? What do line managers do to develop strong working relationships with their teams?

3. Environment – We have all heard about the Google offices and perks, not every business can (afford to) replicate that, however as we often spend more time in the office than home, it should look and feel more than acceptable – from furniture to technology, from wash room facilities to break-out areas, from the reception area to the meeting rooms. An easy rule of thumb: would you be proud to show your mother around the place you work?

4. Belief in the organisation – Do the people working for the organisation feel that the purpose of the business is worthwhile, or do they at least like the purpose? Is there an emotional connection? Easier in an upstanding charity business than in an investment bank I’d say….

5. Opportunities for career growth – Do people understand where they fit in and how they relate to others in the structure? Is there a clear path for promotion? Do people understand what would warrant a promotion?

6. Opportunities for development – Do individuals feel that they are coached, mentored, trained, developed, or are they just coming in to do a job, do it well and go home? Do people feel that they are developing their career or do they just have a job with a monthly pay cheque?

7. Relationships with colleagues – How does the business engender relationships and mutual understanding across the business? Not only is it helpful to know how your work ‘fits’ with the rest of the business, it also develops respect for each other when you all know how, together, you make the business tick.

8. Enjoyment of work – The job is the job is the job. Why do people enjoy their work? Different strokes for different folks. Find out from your team what makes them tick, look for common ground – how can you make their work more enjoyable?

9. Compensation level – Funnily enough, compensation is not no.1 in employee engagement, however it clearly is an important factor. If your business is a top quartile payer, than you’ll reduce staff turnover (after all, not all other businesses can match their pay), but you will also be able to recruit the top performers, who are more likely to be interested in career development.  And as long as you can deliver that, you will further reduce staff turnover … more stability in the business equals higher productivity.

10. Recognition programme – Is there a clear and consistent manner in which good work and good ideas are publicly recognised within the business? This is not difficult, yet so many businesses struggle with this or at least struggle to keep going once they have set up a recognition programme. Make it someone’s responsibility to drive this. So easy and so effective.

11. Business transparency – This really links in with point 1. Is everyone in the business clear on why they are there, what the objectives are and how you plan to meet these goals? Do you give regular, company-wide feedback on progress? What has gone well, what not so well? What are the obstacles in your way? Who has good ideas on how to deal with these? Those businesses, where everyone is in the same boat and all are rowing in the same direction, will reach their goals quicker and give their employees a real sense of achievement, belonging and pride!

At a time when demand outstrips supply of talented individuals, we’d better spend time and energy on keeping the ones we have. As a result you may just create the environment and engagement that attracts more talent!

You get what you pay for

To minimum wage or not to minimum wage, that is the question.

This week’s headline news of Aldi increasing their pay structure made me think. As a retailer, would I want to pay the minimum wage, the living wage, London weighting, an extra 10% … or just blow that whole pay structure out of the water and hire the very best people for the job, which would mean that their salary is determined by supply and demand?

There are a few examples of where that has worked extremely well – staff in Apple stores tend to have taken a step back in seniority when joining, but have maintained their previous salary level – Apple gives great service. And Costco are paying well over the odds with the result of a great shopping experience, extremely helpful and friendly staff and virtually no staff turnover.

I can hear the collective sigh from all finance directors and budget holders, thinking that they cannot increase the payroll-to-sales ratio in stores any further, as it has invariably already taken a hammering due to lower level in-store sales and increased online turnover.

Playing devil’s advocate, let’s assume that online turnover continues to grow at the detriment of in-store sales (pretty likely in my opinion), this will mean that an increasing number of stores will become unprofitable and will close (even more likely).

One option open to most retailers is to improve the in-store customer experience and fight the bricks and mortar sales decline with extrovert staff who want to be there, who can relate to customers and who will make the shopping experience stand out from the dreary experience one receives in most stores.

We all know that one store where the service was excellent, where that shop assistant was just brilliant and where you walked out with a smile on your face. And here is the problem, why can we only remember one such store?

I think now is the time to be bold and hire the staff you want (not just those you can get), pay over the odds, train to within an inch of their life and measure results. Just one such hero in each store will have a huge effect on morale, if managed properly, and give the other staff something to aim for. Raise the bar, create memorable experiences for customers and you may find that the extra spend on wages will be outweighed by the extra sales and margin.

These are investment hires, so a return on investment is required, it is eminently measurable, so why hesitate?

Idle Thoughts – when laziness is a powerful weapon…!

This is a guest blog from Sophie Devonshire, CEO of The Caffeine Partnership and author of Superfast: Lead at Speed.

It’s a truism in business that to get anywhere, hard work is essential. Occasionally, though, it helps to be a little ’lazy’. In researching my book Superfast: Lead at Speed, I discovered that successful leaders are skilled at ‘strategic laziness’, smartly choosing to do less.

The art of strategic laziness

One leader who understood this was the German Chief of Army High Command in the pre-war period. Kurt Gerhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord was a successful strategist and leader who resigned his office in 1934 due to his opposition to Hitler. In assessing how to make a success of his army, he classified his officers into four simple groups. “There are clever, diligent, stupid and lazy officers, “ he said. “Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent – their place is the general staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy – they make up 90% of any army and are suited to general duties. One must be aware of anyone who is stupid and diligent – he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will only cause mischief. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions.”

Hammerstein’s classification feels as relevant as ever to organisations of today. Laziness for Hammerstein did not mean idleness, it meant doing what was most efficient and effective – and no more. If you spend your time doing everything and thinking about everything, you will not have the cognitive clarity to focus on those things that really matter. Smart leaders are often natural delegators who look for simpler, easier ways to make things happen.

Automate it: make it easy

Bill Gates is alleged to have said, “If I want a job done, I give it to someone lazy. They’ll work out the fastest and easiest way to do it”. A ‘consciously lazy’ mindset helps you to think about how to scale things, about how to make them easy so you can do more, more often. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes stated that by 2030 there was likely to be a system of ‘technological unemployment’, with people working 15 hours or fewer per week. You may not be ready for that, but it’s definitely true that wasting time tweeting again and again when Tweetdeck or Hootsuite can do it, is as mad as choosing to wash up by hand or to get the mangle out.

It’s your duty as a leader to find ways for your team to automate and accelerate by using smart tools.

Do less: delegate and empower others

One of the global leaders I interviewed for my book made his name as the eponymous third of an advertising agency and then as CEO and chair of a media company. He told me that he had two clear objectives for meetings he went to:

a) He wanted to add as much value as he could in that meeting;
b) To make sure he left the room without anything on his ‘to do’ list.

Not only was this empowering for those around him but it allowed him to focus on the things others couldn’t do or didn’t want to do.

Ask yourself: ‘Do I have to do this?’

Then only do it if you are the only person who can do it. Laziness is an excellent leadership trait. If it doesn’t come naturally, nurture it. There are so many opportunities out there for those of us in business at the moment: the exponential growth in technological development, the international potential of markets, more flexible career options. These are choices you can make every day to shape your career and organisation in different ways. If you focus on what really matters and put your attention and energy there, then that means doing less elsewhere.

Save your time for what really matters.


Credit: Sophie Devonshire, CEO The Caffeine Partnership and author of Superfast: Lead at Speed

Customer service – nurture or nature

Here I am in early September, the summer seemingly behind us, hurtling towards autumn and slightly down-hearted after a number of conversations with clients, candidates and general retail friends. Things are tough, sales are slow, margins are thinning, Sterling is dropping, do I dare say it – Brexit, no consumer confidence, general uncertainty, etc, etc.

Boris, May, Corbyn, it is just all so depressing.  House of Fraser, Homebase … do I need to go on?

However (and there is always a however as you can’t keep an optimist down), we are quietly forgetting that unemployment is at an all-time low, the fact that retail businesses are disappearing, means that there is more left of the pie for the remaining retailers to go after (not many tears shed over the demise of Homebase at the Kingfisher head office, I bet..) and the change in weather will drive fashion sales – woolly jumper anyone?

Although I absolutely recognise that retail is a tough gig right now, I cannot help but believe that retailers are making it tougher for themselves than necessary. And this, dear friends, brings me to one of my favourite subjects – Customer Experience.

By and large, we cannot control the economy, the weather or the political climate. However we can, to quite a large extent, control how customers are made to feel when we have them as a captive audience in our shops.

That of course is down to shop fit, visual merchandising, availability and most importantly the shop floor staff.
I found it fascinating that straight after the demise of House of Fraser and before it was bought out of administration, I was in Debenhams and had a shocking experience of disinterest, apathy, name it what you will.

One of their main competitors had gone bust and this person clearly did not see it as a threat that she too might lose her job if Debenhams’ fortunes aren’t turned around, nor did she see it as an opportunity to win a customer.

And although I was frustrated at the time, actually it wasn’t her fault. And here we come to the question: nurture or nature.

Had she been recruited because of her extrovert personality, her ability to connect with people from all walks of life, her desire to please and make people feel good, then she would have made a sale that day or in the very least, leave a lasting impression of great customer service.

Had she been recruited as a ‘blank canvas’, someone we’ll train and develop to within an inch of her life and teach her to eat her kpi’s for breakfast and understand that the shop floor is a stage, so you have to put on your best sales act, then she would have made a sale and possible leave an impression of good service.

The fact that she clearly did not fall into the first category, means that something had gone wrong for this person in the second category…

So, as always, the recruitment question is, do we hold out for the individuals with the right mentality, personality and outlook? Or do we recruit and then train and develop (and hope for the best)?

Of course skill sets can be trained, however my view regarding attitude and general soft skills is that you can’t train what God didn’t put in.

Is there any retail organisation out there that is consciously paying a higher hourly rate in order to attract just the individuals that they feel will enhance their customer experience? Is any business trying this in an isolated manner, ie in a store designated to be a centre of excellence?

Would the additional payroll costs be negated by additional sales, more loyal customers, higher frequency or a real lasting relationship with the customer?

I can’t answer those questions, however I would love to hear from those that can.

Of course, I would like to think that the situation described above was one isolated incident, however there are so many shops where you enter enthusiastically and leave disappointed.

I genuinely believe that those retail businesses that deliver exceptional customer experience, are those who will survive.

Digital Transformation Officer – does every retailer need one?

Digital Transformation Officer – Does every retailer need one … or two?

There are a fair few retail CEOs who worry that if the digital transformation of their business fails, their company could go bust, for newcomers to the retail sector threaten the livelihood of existing businesses.

It is actually the lack of customer centricity that is the real threat to traditional retailers, because the disruptors build a business around the customer using digital technology. Many established businesses struggle, not because they do not recognise the need for change and the threat posed by more customer centric start-ups, but because they are hampered in implementing digital transformation (quickly) by legacy systems and historic ways of doing things.

An early example of that could be Blockbuster for not embracing a streaming service, instead trying to continue as a physical rental retailer.

The retail sector is a good example of a forerunner where digital technology is disrupting the industry.

So what do retail businesses need to do?

We’re seeing a few Digital Transformation Officers appointed. However, my question always is “How does a lone person secure success if digital transformation effectively changes the business model, which impacts not just the customer experience, but how the business organises its front of house and back of house operations, how it markets its goods or services, how it sells them and how it delivers them?”

Surely one person cannot take responsibility for all this!?

In my view, true digital transformation is embraced by and is driven by the Board. Top down across all business functions.

So what would be the role of the DTO?

Again, my view is that the DTO coordinates and brings together digital initiatives from all departments and work streams, whilst also playing devil’s advocate in challenging thoughts and ideas, and being a visionary who keeps a close eye on external developments, opportunities and best practise. This person needs to be as much as a conductor as they need to be a composer, ensuring ultimate harmony in delivering the symphony.

So does every retail business need one? ….or several?

The answer to the question is: absolutely!

Those CEOs who are visionary and who feel comfortable driving wholesale change will probably perform this function themselves alongside their CEO duties. Others may want to appoint a person who takes this on as a full time role. That said, all senior executives need to be on board to stimulate and manage digital transformation in their respective functions, thus becoming digital transformers themselves.

It takes a brave boss to admit they are overwhelmed to prepare the company for future challenges, however if the CEO is struggling then a Digital Transformation Officer could be the way to kick-start and embrace change.

Want to discuss further? Give me a ring!

How to manage a team that is older than you…

Picture this – it is 1984 and like so many Business School graduates, I found myself a job with the objective to climb the greasy pole as quickly as I possibly could.

My first job took me out of Europe to South Africa, where, after a training and induction programme, I was to manage an out of town furniture store with its own distribution facility for home deliveries (we’re talking a type of IKEA operation but smaller) – a total of 120 staff, managed through a team of 5 direct reports. I had worked in the furniture sector before, so this was familiar territory and I was ready for this. This was why I had done Business School, right? I was 23 years old.…and conveniently forgetting about a language barrier (my English was passable but by no means fluent), a cultural barrier and the dreaded age barrier.

My excitement carried me through my first few days on the job. I was exceedingly polite, cheerful, and helpful toward the much older team I was sent in to manage. My job was progressing wonderfully until one member of the team, at least 20 years my senior, interrupted me mid-sentence and asked with barely concealed passive aggressiveness, “How old are you?”

“How old are you?”

There were clearly so many other issues I grappled with in the first few days, that I hadn’t expected that question, therefore it stopped me dead in my tracks. I was surprised how much it hurt and how personally I took it.
Over the next few weeks, the age references kept coming. I heard everything from “You’re younger than my grandson” to “Are you old enough to drive?” and “The cleaners did not come in today, would you mind doing the toilets?”

No respect, and although my hair was rapidly thinning, I couldn’t exactly fake wrinkles.

Although initially disheartened that my age was undermining me at work, I was determined that it would not affect my performance. I’d like to say that I figured it all out and managed the situation like a pro, however this turned out to be the school of hard knocks and I made many, many mistakes – some small, others now cringe worthy. That said, with the benefit of hindsight, I discovered some valuable insights.

1. Two ears, one mouth. Use them in that ratio.

Know when to listen and when to speak (and speaking last takes a real effort and is a skill not to be underestimated). In early conversations I had with team members, my mind would fast forward to the points I felt I needed to make to prove that I was capable. After a while, I came to the realisation that others felt their ideas and opinions were being glossed over and dismissed. It took a conscious effort to quiet the voice in my head that wanted to prove itself, however really listening to others and questioning their ideas was worth the effort. If your colleagues feel valued, respected, and heard, they’ll notice your maturity, not your age.

2. Know your staff.

Although older doesn’t always mean wiser, it does usually mean more experienced. You need to figure out the strengths of each individual and leverage it. Once you know their talents and strengths, you can turn to them when faced with certain issues or problems. They will look good and you will shine brighter as a leader when each individual member of your team is given the encouragement and tools to perform in the spot light.

3. Let’s get the job done, why focus on the process?

Each person delivers their best work under a different set of circumstances. Let’s pay attention to your team members’ needs and see whether they can be fulfilled. We used to work in a noisy, large open plan office, however I had an employee who required absolute silence in order to concentrate. I couldn’t understand that process, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt—she got one of the meeting rooms as an office so that she could work in solitude, and the rest of the team would catch up over coffee with her twice a day. In the end, her work was exceptional, so why not?
Surrender your ego, and put the team’s ability to succeed first.

4. Be bold about your age

The good news is that is now illegal for someone to ask your age in the workplace. The bad news is that people ask it anyway. Bearing that in mind, give some thought to how you want to answer the inevitable question so you don’t get caught off guard. If they see you looking like a rabbit in headlights, you’ll run the risk that you confirm their suspicion that you might be faking it until you can make it.
If you are comfortable with sharing, go ahead, otherwise “old enough to do the job” will suffice! Whichever way, just be prepared for the question, answer it with confidence, and move on. Don’t let it become a subject for continued speculation.

5. Be cool, calm and collected.

All too often, the mood in the office is dictated by the manager’s temperament. If you’re stressed, you’ll easily become irritable and you might find it difficult to concentrate. The problem is that if you are young (and less experienced in leading others) your age will soon be blamed if you show your frustration, even though managers of all ages share this trait. However the real danger is that your team may look for de facto leadership elsewhere in the business.

The end result is, that if you are chaotic and unsure of yourself, your staff will pick up on it. If you can be a source of calm and reason for your team, your age won’t matter.

6. Gain respect, don’t seek approval

Was it Machiavelli who said he would rather be feared than loved? Although I wouldn’t advice instilling fear in your employees, I think there is a difference between respect and love, and when it comes to employees’ treatment of the manager, a healthy amount of respect is always best.

Your office is not the time or place for you to find your new best friend or workout partner. If you are driven by the need to be liked, your employees will inevitably start to wonder who is actually in charge Have clear parameters for behaviour. Speak up when people cross boundaries, if you don’t then other employees will notice. Although seemingly insignificant at the time, seeking the approval or acceptance of your staff gives the impression that you are a pushover, or worse, that you are scared of offending them.

Finally, remember that you may be young, but if you are in a leadership position, it is likely because you have devoted your life thus far to refining your career and ability. There is an anecdote about a lady who saw Picasso briefly doodling on a napkin in a restaurant: She asked to buy it from him, and he said, “sure, that will be $100,000.” She was aghast at the price tag, and commented that it had only taken him five minutes to create the drawing. Picasso responded, “No, it took 30 years of experience to draw that.”

Never allow others’ perceptions of age dilute the value of the life-long hours you have devoted to your gift, your skill, and your leadership.

Nail Your First 100 Days Like A Boss

boss's chairEven after a thorough recruitment process, there are no guarantees that you will settle into the organisation as quick as you would like. The first three months are crucial, as you get to know your boss, the people, the culture and the challenges of the role.

For those taking on increased management and leadership responsibility, this period can be especially challenging, not to mention stressful.

Whether you have been recruited internally or externally, there will be high expectations placed on you. No different to that of a newly signed striker for a major premiership team, it’s results that matter and now the pressure is on – whether you like it or not the honeymoon period is already starting to countdown.

During this crucial stage, you will want to make sure that you are:
• Up and running as fast as possible
• Building relationships quickly
• Having a strong personal impact
• Demonstrating solid leadership skills
• Achieving results

Crucially you also need to identify the handful of key stakeholders that will influence your career as you progress within your new role.

Make an impact

So how on earth do you ensure that you make the best possible impact during the first 100 days, balancing the expectations others have for your results whilst navigating a new work environment, and building relationships?

All of this can be tricky and requires an increased level of adaptability from you. It may even push you way outside of your comfort zone, calling you to draw upon a different skillset than you have been used to using.

In this period the image of the leader is created, and the integration and impact the leader will have is given its foundation. This first 100 days may break a person in a new role.

This is where working with an executive coach is invaluable, and with so much at stake, wouldn’t it make sense for you to have an Executive Onboarding Maestro in your corner dedicated to making your first 100 days a success?

“Few companies develop a systematic ‘on-boarding’ process for their new leaders, even though this is a critical function with major organizational implications” Goli Darabi, Senior Vice President, Corporate Leadership & Succession Management, Fidelity Investments

Nicholas Alexander First 100 Days Coaching Programme

The First 100 days programme supports the leader by coaching them through these and additional challenges they face. Our coaches provide the thinking space for new leaders to step back from the day to day operational pressures and work out what’s important to the business and to the new manager.
During this time, through face to face or skype coaching we will help them to:

• Make a powerful first impression
• Match their style to the business context, culture and politics
• Develop and start a strategic change aligned with the business needs
• Communicate effectively with key stakeholders
• Build up an effective team around them
• Ensure that quick wins occur so that credibility is increased
• Create a strong support network in the organisation that goes beyond the current team.
• Integrate more effectively into the organisation
• Accelerate value creation so results arrive sooner
• Sharpen the appropriate leadership skills for their business


What benefits would you have gained from working with an executive coach during the first 100 days of your last appointment?

Defining Leadership in Today’s World

Leadership in today’s world requires new leadership values. No longer is a leader simply a person who can make a good and inspiring speech. Today, a leader faces challenges of huge political, economic and environmental proportions. A leader should have the ability to convince followers (and others) to change destructive habits, be good communicators and focus more on the participation of women in leadership roles.

While in the past, civilizations have faced war and threats from beyond a country’s borders – today, we face more threats from within. Habits and focus need to be changed to reflect those threats and leaders should have the conviction and morals to convince and advocate positive change.

Convincing people to make positive changes such as changing our habits to better sustain the earth on which we live is the job of the true leader. Recognizing leadership skills in ourselves and others should be studied and followers should choose or elect leaders in their lives who reflect their same moral values.

Reducing poverty is another challenge for today’s leaders. There are speeches made, but few so-called leaders have set forth a plan to help this plight on our landscape. Just as in business endeavors – small goals must be set and reached so that the big vision can be realized.

With our ability to find facts and figures with a click of a mouse, people can be informed about the problems and challenges facing all of us in today’s world and elect and choose leaders who advocate positive change.

The importance of listening

Leaders today must also listen to and hear everyone’s input and solutions – including our youth and our seniors – that may have fresh views or answers they’ve reached by years of experience.

Dennis Meadows, Professor Emeritus and Director, Institute for Policy and Social Science at the University of New Hampshire, U.S., recently stated at a forum, “We need leadership in the next decade and we’ll find it. If you want to be a great leader, don’t imagine you’re going to find a way that makes everybody happy.”

That’s an important factor to consider when contemplating leadership in today’s world. What is decided and put into action may not please everyone, but as long as we’re moving toward positive change in a helpful, rather than destructive, way, people should maintain an open mind.

Leadership in today’s world should consist of an approach which is open and transparent and goals and visions should be communicated fast and effectively so that everyone has time to think about how they fit in to the changes which are going to be made.

Styles and challenges of leaders are going to change drastically in the coming years and the results will hopefully be positive and ensure a stronger and better future.

What is Your Leadership Style?

Knowing your leadership style can help you in many areas of your life and career choices. Styles of leadership differ from person to person and involve your style of implementing strategies, how you motivate others and how you provide direction to followers. Some styles of leadership to study are:

1. Paternalistic – As you might have guessed, the paternalistic style of leadership is becoming a “father figure” for your followers – whether family or work-oriented. The paternalistic style of leadership promotes trust and loyalty and followers tend to become committed to the person.
2. Laissez-faire – A leadership style where the rule of thumb is “hands off.” This leader lets the workers and subordinates make all the decisions and only offer support when it’s requested. The Laissez-faire worker/leader relationship may be effective in certain cases – such as in an environment where the workers are very skilled and/or educated and where the followers can be trusted.
3. Authoritarian – Strictness is the style of this type of leader. They may micromanage because they prefer to keep close control over their followers. Policies and procedures are the main emphasis of the Authoritarian leadership style and the focus is on efficiency.
4. Democratic – Decision making is shared with followers in this type of leadership style. Promoting the desires and needs of group members is paramount and the leader believes that everyone should play a part in every decision made.
5. Transformational – This type of leader has the objective of transforming his or her followers. These leaders may be very charismatic (such as evangelists or political leaders) and meet challenges with excitement and a clear purpose. They’re great communicators and may often be found in top roles of leadership.
6. Transactional – The focus of this leadership style is on motivating through rewards or forms of punishment. These leaders recognize good performances and may provide material or psychological rewards for effort. They may also use corrective intervention if they feel that a worker’s performance isn’t up to par. Transactional leaders are good at enforcing rules and laws.

When you know your style of leadership, you can better have a vision of the work you may be suited for. If you decide you’re a “laissez-faire” type of leader, you likely wouldn’t be happy in a career suited for an authoritarian style.

Knowing your leadership style is especially helpful if you’re considering making a career change or taking courses which put you on a certain career path. Get to know the various leadership styles before you make a crucial life-decision.

Follow @ryan_if or @maartenjonckers on twitter for links to more useful articles and general retail-related chat