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How three retail accountants work

Three up-and-coming accountants working in UK retail tell Penelope Rance about the unique qualities accountants can bring to the sector

Francesca Spence

Retail Performance Manager, The Very Group

Francesca Spence began her retail career early, with a part-time job while at secondary school. After completing the ACA with KPMG in 2013, she worked for Laterooms.com, launched travel and lifestyle blog 5 Week Wanderer, and founded specialist tea start-up T-OLOGY, gaining experience in sales, marketing, procurement and commercial relationships.

In 2016 she joined The Very Group, the UK’s largest integrated digital retailer and financial services provider, which operates Very.co.uk, as Retail Performance Manager. “You need to understand the elements of what the business is selling; to know your point of difference, which for Very.co.uk is providing customers with a combination of brands they love and flexible ways to pay. You also need in-depth awareness of the important factors outside the basic transaction. 

“Ultimately, retail is about profitably delivering a great customer experience. Accountants in the sector need to understand all the factors that come together to create that experience, like logistics, flexible payments and customer service.

“Retail can be quite complicated, but it translates to day-to-day life, and you can empathise with the customer. It’s great being able to see things go from the inception of the idea, to actually happening on the website or app.”

For newly qualified ACAs, says Spence, retail is a great choice because of the many accounting principles it encompasses. “There’ll always be stock to deal with, budgeting, forecasting and the complexities of cashflow.”

Spence believes the future lies in differentiation. “It’s got to come down to the customer experience. Things like personal shopping suggestions, utilising augmented reality to ‘try on’ trainers and a seamless journey from homepage to checkout. Brands such as Gucci and Sephora are doing interesting things.”

In a world where customers make decisions based on more than just price, accountants have an important role to play, says Spence. “They can help the business understand which investments and technologies are worthwhile. For every initiative in the business, there’s someone in finance who has to do a benefit and risk case. The ideas need to be coupled with financial expertise and modelling skill, to ascertain whether they’re worthwhile.”

Claire Edginton

Financial Controller, Oliver Bonas

Having qualified in 2008 with Grant Thornton in Southampton, Claire Edginton decided a move into industry would offer a better perspective on the long-term impact of her work. “I joined Vitacress, a fast-moving consumer goods group that worked in fresh produce. I was there for five years and got to see all aspects of the business, which was absolutely fascinating.”

Having relocated close to London, a shift into retail was an attractive choice. “It’s a sector offering the variety of work I’d had in FMCG, and there was a great opportunity at Oliver Bonas as their financial controller.” 

She hasn’t been disappointed in the variety on offer at the design-led retailer. ”The size of the company means everything I do is very hands on. This weekend I’ve been helping with warehouse stocktakes, in high-vis and safety boots. I also work with retail operations teams for all our stores, looking at costs and profit contribution. I’m involved with the property team, considering new locations and our existing portfolio to see if we should be closing or upsizing stores.

“I work with the warehouse and fulfillment teams to help them with staffing, with our buying and merchandising teams, and with our facilities team to make sure that they are keeping our suppliers on their toes. We run a small fleet of vans, so that has its own challenges.”

With such broad portfolios, how can accountants ensure they have the skills to handle retail? “The challenge is rapid change. You don’t know from one month to the next how sales are going to turn out versus expectations, and you’re constantly having to adjust cashflow plans, so you need the skills to manage that.”

An appreciation of the bigger picture is also vital. “Everything is interlinked, so you need to understand how a decision on one area might affect something happening elsewhere. You’ve got your stores, online channels, marketplaces, maybe you do wholesale.

“The cost profile for all those channels is very different, so you have to understand each of them. You’re always under a lot of cost pressure working in retail, so trying to find ways of improving efficiency is really important.”

Marie Riley

Internal Audit and Risk Manager, Wilko

Having spent nine years in external audit and corporate finance with Grant Thornton, in 2010 Marie Riley jumped into the retail sector as internal audit manager for variety retailer Wilko. “I thought retail would be much faster paced, and I was attracted to the idea of putting accounting to practical use.”

Almost 10 years on, she has worked in commercial finance, and as a regional store manager, before becoming Internal Audit and Risk Manager. The pace hasn’t slowed and, Riley says, accountants have to keep up. “You need to work at speed, but also have judgement and accuracy to get to a sensible decision – especially in a very challenging market.”

One factor making life challenging for retailers is increased consumer power over how and where they shop. “People are buying in a different way, they’re buying online a lot more, but they’re also wanting to shop at stores where they get an enhanced experience. At Wilko, we have an online business, but the majority is store-based, so it’s about where those stores are, ease of shopping, what in-store customer service is like, and innovation in products.”

Accountants, Riley says, have an important role in spotting trends. “Accountants identify what’s working, what’s not, which promotions succeed, how to handle clearance of seasonal products. In internal audit, it’s making sure processes and controls are working, so you’ve got the right availability in stores.”

It’s still a sector that excites her. “It is challenging, so you have to be prepared to work at a faster pace, but with that comes the opportunity to look at a lot of different areas – how we buy, what we sell, own-brand product development, logistics. There are lots of opportunities for accountants to add value. It’s not a stagnant role. Things are changing all the time.”