Bob Morrell, managing director of Reality Training believes firms with large retail estates must reappraise their management responsibilities to connect frontline staff with their directors

Toys R Us, New Look, Prezzo, Maplin – all recent retail brands to have recently cut back or closed due to economic reasons.

Travel retailers are also reappraising their retail estates and the value of specific stores.

And now we have a continued slew of profit warning from other retailers, reduced shop visits overall, a bad Christmas and then the falls that follow in share price and the inevitable questions about the chances of survival of some retailers.

So what are frontline staff saying, to their store managers? What are the store managers reporting back to their area managers, and what of that vital business intelligence survives unscathed and in the same form to be reported to the anxious board?

Why is there such a disconnect at board level, such shock about poor performance?

Area managers in retail are supposed to be close to the action, to understand the mood, the expectation, to plan ahead, to help the store managers perform.

What are they doing in this tough scenario? What are their responsibilities?

I met an area manager who ran his area like it was his own business. He simply would not tolerate poor service, complaints, poor organisation and basics like tidiness (shops and people).

He was pretty firm with his store managers, but certainly fair, and always encouraging to his staff to give their best to customers. Sure enough, his area was the best performing.

So, what were his divisional directors doing to see if they could make their other areas as good as this chap’s? Nothing. He was seen as a bit of a maverick.

The difficulty for really senior people is that you can’t really have a problem with success, so it’s much easier to hold to the fire the feet of area managers whose regions are struggling.

Negative management always gives you something to do, somewhere to go, and you can be happy you’re getting the wrong things ‘righter’.

Another area manager I’ve encountered was regularly organising a ladder to be transported between stores.

Think about that. He’s getting a salary, bonus and car and he’s not doing anything more valuable than driving a ladder between stores.

Couldn’t the store managers just go and buy their own ladders? Apparently not.

I once attended a meeting for a travel brand where area managers had fed back that customers didn’t like being followed up on the phone after they’d been given a quote in a store.

This is nothing more than area managers and store managers colluding to avoid having something else (another important task) to manage.

This is mis-management and is hugely damaging because clearly, follow up, for any relationship business is essential. In truth follow up, or lack of it, is the Achilles heal of travel.

Over the last 20 years much has been aimed at store managers (technology and development) to help them do their jobs.

Time and again the area managers weren’t on the memo and have continued to try to manage in the old ways.

This jars with the store manager trying to coach and grow their revenues through service.

There needs to be a reappraisal of the value of these positions and make sure that the area managers are leading – not managing.

The big missing is the detachment that many area managers have from their responsibility for the stores and people in their area, and the actual performance of it in financial terms.

Operational management, the day-to-day running of the stores must surely be the domain of the store manager.

If you’re having to get involved in that then frankly that’s not management and your people need training, as do you.

Area managers should be transmitting the will of the brand to grow, delegate the decision making to store managers and concentrate on inspiring them and their staff to really excel when it comes to serving and selling, especially in uncertain times.

Making sure everyone is equipped to succeed is fundamental and frankly more important than an untidy shop entrance.

Technology makes it easier for head offices to monitor much they used to rely on area managers for, yet they are regularly asked to report on these things, because they always have.

Our view is that area managers all need to take a step closer to the action, and become commercial leaders first, administrators and counsellors last.