A series where we talk to retail’s movers and shakers about how they are tackling the challenge of becoming a greener business in an industry that is far from green – assessing organisational change, eco initiatives, and much more.
UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, may have turned up at the Currys repair centre in Newark on Monday (9 October), telling workers “you are saving millions of people a fortune”, but he was there in Green Retail World’s slipstream.
“When you extend the lifetime of their laptop, their TV, or allow them to buy something refurbished – all of that is just putting cash in their pockets,” the premier told staff at the east midlands facility, echoing the sentiments felt by this publication following our visit in September.
While in Newark, we caught up with the Currys chief operations officer (COO), Lindsay Haselhurst, who calls the repair centre one of the business’s “greatest assets”. When we sat down with Haselhurst for an exclusive chat about sustainability strategy it was clear Currys’ talk of creating a more circular business models is not just hyperbole.
Repairs, recycling, and refurbishment of technology and preventing e-waste, which takes place at the east midlands hub, is central to the electricals retailer’s sustainability strategy. But it is also a key component supporting its burgeoning services offering and is a revenue driver in its own right, according to Haselhurst and her fellow leadership team.
And because of the size and capability of the repairs centre and the work Currys has undertaken to improve processes in the last three years, partly by embedding greener thinking within the wider organisation but also by truly calculating the value of repairs, the retailer arguably has a greater opportunity than most to drive the circular economy.
“At Kingfisher there was huge aspiration and ambition around the circular economy but it’s incredibly hard to make it work and certainly make it work from a commercial perspective,” says Haselhurst, who was group supply chain director at Screwfix and B&Q parent company Kingfisher prior to joining Currys in 2020.
“When I came here and I inherited the repairs operation I started to see the art of the possible. I suddenly realised we had an ability already to create a circular economy.”
She argues customers always say they want sustainability, “but they want it at a price point”, and the repairs operation at Newark – which fixes customer products, refurbishes returned items, and recovers spare parts from old tech for usage elsewhere – allows the business to make money from circular activity as well as keep customers happy.
“A lot of education around sustainability I’m able to bring to life here in a way I couldn’t have done in my previous existence – and that’s because of the repairs capability and at each stage being able to make it commercially and financially viable.”
She adds: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stop talking about [sustainability] and start doing it.”
Good for business, consumers and planet?
So, let’s break down that “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity in more detail.
Currys’ services arm, which includes technology care and repair and credit options for customers, is growing. In the 2022-23 financial year, the retailer had 1.9 million credit customers, which was up by 12% year on year.
Some 10% more care and repair packages were sold compared to the previous year – and this is where the need for the repair centre really ramps up. By scaling this facility, consumers receive the promise of tech breakdown support when they need it, items fixed within seven days, and gift cards for replacement products if they are beyond repair.
This whole services ecosystem is obviously ticking boxes for customers and the business, but emphasis on repairs and the growing focus on making tech last longer is positive from an environmental perspective.
As previously reported, the new diagnostic and arbitrage system Currys has deployed means every item coming back as a customer return or repair undertakes an in-depth, first-stage analysis to ensure it is routed in the correct manner internally. Following such an approach has enabled Currys to realise savings benefits in spare parts to the tune of circa £6 million.
It also means the business is maximising the value of returned items and ensuring they are repaired and sold again at the best possible price. During the tour, Green Retail World was shown multiple white goods and other tech products that previously would have been sold as second hand for nominal fees but which are now higher priced and fuelling a more lucrative pre-loved economy for Currys.
Haselhurst says: “You looked at repairs and it was all about the process.
“When you open it up and say ‘actually, before you repair it…’, there’s a huge opportunity. We’ve been stitching together ideas and capabilities over a good couple of years.”
She adds: “So much innovation is driven by our skilled expert colleagues who say ‘this isn’t good enough, I need to find a different solution’. That is properly exciting. We created a framework and ambition but it’s colleagues who filled that ambition with substance and capability.”
One example of the efficiency improvement is in “no fault found repairs”. These are “a waste of time and money, and energy”, says Haselhurst, but the diagnostic processes now in place mean issues like these are spotted early and turned into revenue through, for example, the separating of parts for future repairs or speedier refurbs.
Currys is not prioritising pre-loved, and Haselhurst is keen to express repairs are simply another option for customers. Not all tech shoppers want second hand – in fact, there is still huge demand for new tech, as Apple iPhone launches highlight only so well.
“Not all customers care about long life tech, but others do,” she explains.
“Some want to renew regularly and we are there for them, but what we can then do is help them do that with a clean conscience by taking their old tech and recycling, refurbing and reselling it. For me, it’s about recognising the customer behaviours, allowing them to do what they want to do, and creating in the background more sustainable, more circular economies that sit behind it.”
Haselhurst says the circular economy work needs to be viewed in light of the wider business performance – “the reality is we’re a business and we have to make money”. That suggests Currys is approaching its sustainability strategy in a commercially savvy way, and doing so in a difficult trading environment, although the economy in itself has created a more bouyant market for more cost-effective pre-loved tech.
The UK and Ireland arm of the business reported profit before interest and tax of £170 million last year, up 45% on 2021-22. Cost savings in the business increased margins and offset falling sales, according to the retailer, with group like-for-like sales down by 7% due to a fall in consumer spending in a tough macro environment.
“I’m an operator – I always say come back to the numbers,” Haselhurst explained during the capital markets day presentation attended by wider media and investors.
“I’ve been doing this [retailing] for about three decades. I have never known a tougher supply chain context than we have had over the last three to four years in terms of volatility.”
She lists Covid and the post-pandemic supply and demand volatility, as well as an uncertain geopolitical situation, as factors that have impacted the business in a significant way.
“It’s the most turbulent and difficult three and half years I have ever seen. Despite that, we have delivered.”
Boardroom sustainability influence
Moira Thomas is the group director of sustainability at Currys, and Haselhurst says she works closely with her to ensure green thinking seeps down to an operational level. But the COO says sustainability is no add-on for her – it’s a strategy she was previously responsible for as logistics director at Screwfix and something she is committed to embracing at Currys.
“Ed Connolly is chief commercial officer – and the reality is he has huge sway and influence on the Scope 3 emissions and how they get tackled,” Haselhurst notes.
“With Scope 1 and 2 emissions, the majority sit in my world – stores and operations. It’s about recognising that as much as we have a dedicated and focused sustainability team that actually most of what they we need to do is executed by the wider business.”
She adds: “I care, I’m genuinely interested, colleagues care and they are really interested – for me it’s part of the package here. What Moira does is help us understand how we do that more effectively.”
In an indication of how day-to-day operations are embracing sustainability work at Currys, Haselhurst continues: “Moira and her team bring the expertise and the specific knowledge on sustainability and we bring the willingness and capability to execute it.”
Ability to only go so far…
Currys’ climate-related targets are to achieve net zero emissions by 2040 from a 2019/20 baseline, which includes the goal to halve scope 1 and 2 emissions and scope 3 emissions by 2029/30. The reason these are split out is because they present rather different challenges – with scope 3 such as large percentage of overall emissions for any business.
Indeed, as Haselhurst said as part of the capital markets day presentation, even though Currys has already achieved a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, primarily through reducing energy consumption through a roll-out of LED lighting and new reporting systems and using lower-emission sources of energy, that is “the low-hanging fruit”.
“It gets pretty tough from here and actually we’re quite heavily dependent on technology advancing this decade to unlock and enable that net zero,” she explained.
Talking specifically to this publication, she clarifies: “It’s in vehicle technology.
“Just over the hill is the promise in improvement of electronic vehicles or hydrogen – our approach is to have our fingers in a number of pies, to understand the tech. We’re deploying it, understanding what the limitations are and helping work with and feedback with the manufacturers.”
But, she adds, “realistically, today, the tech isn’t there [to help businesses drive down carbon emissions in their transport]”.
Haselhurst is hopeful, though, about the direction of travel and that transport technology will develop in such a way businesses can reach their net zero targets or at least reduce their emissions significantly. She says: “You have to live with the ambiguity and the grey there is and you have to believe.
“The investment is there and we’re seeing it progress all the time. So why not? What we will do is provide the testbed and provide solutions that are viable – it has to be a commercially viable solution and at the moment we’re not there.”
As we’ve covered on these pages previously, Currys is prominent in various pressure groups and business collaborations involved in striving for change, including the Climate Group’s EV100 initiative.
That is Currys’ position right now, according to the COO; testing, showing willing, and lobbying for the relevant technology to help it meet ambitious environmental targets, knowing businesses can play a part in a brighter future. All the while not forgetting the UK currently fairs badly when it comes to both the creation and disposing of e-waste.
Currys – as the UK’s largest electricals retailer – has a responsibility to drive wider improvements in that space. And having collected more than 60,000 tonnes of unwanted tech in 2022 through its takeback schemes, such as ‘Cash for Trash’, and thinking hard about how it then deals with the material, the business is clearly taking these responsibilities seriously.
With prime minister Sunak walking through the doors at Newark on Monday a few weeks after pulling back on several UK greener targets and amid a period of what some have described as net zero flip-flopping, Haselhurst and her team would have been entitled to ask if the government is doing likewise.
At Green Retail World, we are giving retail executives and industry leaders, like Lindsay Haselhurst, a chance to explain how they are enacting environmental change within their organisations. Please contact editor, Ben Sillitoe, if you’d like to put yourself forward for an interview on this key subject. Sharing good practice can help the wider sector move in a positive direction.
[Main image credit: Currys]