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Virgin’s Richard Branson Says Retail Survival Depends on Entrepreneurialism

If you ask Sir Richard Branson for the key to getting business done, he’ll say: “Screw it, just get on and do it.”

In a cheeky start to day two of the National Retail Federation’s Big Show 2017 Monday, the Virgin Group founder and serial entrepreneur offered his sympathy to the mass of retailers in the room.

“It’s a tough business,” Branson said.

That sentiment has been echoed throughout the show. The theme of the times—in retail and otherwise—is how to cope in this new world.

Branson has been in business for 50 years, surviving the success (and demise) of some of his ventures, but in that time, he’s learned the value of being entrepreneurial.

For retailers today, many of which are struggling to stay afloat as the retail they knew gets pulled from under their feet, they have to think outside of strictly being retailers.

“When we saw the writing on the wall for music retailing, we just decided we didn’t have to stay a retailer,” Branson said.

What the company did instead was look at what was selling best in its Virgin Megastores before they shuttered, one of which was mobile phones, so the next step was to sell mobile phones.

“People who own retail stores should not think of themselves as forever being retailers, they need to be entrepreneurial and think of businesses to spin off the back of their retail stores and use that to make the retail business survive,” Branson explained.

Smaller companies also can’t be fearful in the face of bigger brands—and there’s really no need to be in a market that’s felling these retail giants left and right. What they need is the right product that will best position them to target their consumer, and with that, size won’t matter all that much.

“We’ve been the David versus the Goliath in many different industries and it’s been fun,” Branson said. “When we started Virgin Atlantic, we had one plane and British Airways had 300. What we had to do was offer a much better product.”

Part of the pressing slew of questions for companies navigating this new retail path is how to get that right consumer’s attention and, ultimately, their loyalty.

The answer, really, lies in innovation.

At the start, much of the branding for Virgin was Branson himself. From stunts that required getting himself helicopter rescued from various seas five times, and an attempt to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon, the actions landed the brand right where Branson wanted it.

“I used myself to get Virgin on the front pages rather than a blurb on the back pages,” Branson said. “Initially I did it to put the brand on the map, but then I just did it for the adventure.”

Either way, it positioned Virgin Atlantic, and ultimately the family of brands as“sexy” and “exciting” as Branson put it, and that has its own effect on luring loyal customers.

For Branson, every new Virgin venture has to enhance the brand, not damage it. This year and in those coming, Virgin Galactic is looking to make another commercial trip to space, the company is launching Virgin Sport wellness events on Tuesday, and working on point to point travel that’s expected to be faster than the Concorde was.

But if his success could come down to one thing, it’s been flexibility.

“There almost needs to be a perpetual revolution going on within a company,” he said. “Because if you don’t have that going on, someone else is going to do it to you.”

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