Chartered Management Institute companion John Clare, chief executive of Dixons, shares the excitement he finds in the electrical retailing industry.
Electrical retailing is the most exciting and dynamic marketplace for any retailer to both practise and learn their trade. Yet that may not be how it looks from the outside. After all, a customer buys a major electrical product only once every 15 or 16 months. It is a planned and considered purchase. How can that be a fast-moving business environment?
Well, the numbers involved (more than three million televisions are sold each year, for example) mean that, on average, 10,000 customers a day are in the market for a TV - more than 1,000 every hour. Similar numbers of customers are searching for cookers, washing machines, hi-fis, computers, fridge freezers and the rest.
For an expensive, one-off purchase most customers will shop around - it's not a decision you want to get wrong. They will study ads and web sites, and browse the high street or the retail park. What they want, above all else, is a low price, a bargain.
As a result, sales are exceptionally price-sensitive. A price pounds 10 lower than your competitor's, even on a pounds 1,000 product, is almost certain to secure the sale. So no electrical retailer can afford to let the competition have an edge on price for any period of time. Prices are adjusted and brought into line rapidly - even an hour's delay will cost you sales!
So pricing is a crucial element in the marketing mix. Of course, you need to create promotions and special offers and special purchases, but in electrical retailing, reactive pricing is just as critical - on a line-by-line basis and in real time.
To give you a feel for this world of price trading, we routinely check thousands of competitors' prices every day. On average, our stores - Dixons, Currys, PC World and The Link - change more than 100 prices every day. We use the most advanced networks, software and IT systems to do so.
One result of this is that customers frequently discover that all retailers are selling identical product lines at identical prices. A highly competitive free market tends to bring about precisely that result.
So how does the customer react? If price is no longer a key differentiator between retailers, what is? The answer is that different criteria vary in importance for different people. For many, the breadth of the product choice is the next most significant differentiator. For others, availability, the quality of the staff, the ambience or location of the store, the quality of after-sales service support - including the home delivery and installation offer - or even the length of the queue at the check-out are every bit as important.
On the basis of these and other factors, it is possible to undertake a classic customer segmentation of the market to create customer clusters. From that, brands can be created, aimed at specific clusters. That's why we have four UK brands, not one. The values conveyed by each of these separate brands - whether through the stores, the staff or the after-sales support, need to respond to the needs and tastes of their customers better than the competition if they are to be successful.
Our four retail brands span a range of customer types and their requirements. Dixons sells technology to individuals, with an impulsive and urgent trading style. Currys sells products for the home to families who may need reassuring in their choice.
PC World sells to computer enthusiasts and businesses, and defines itself by its product offer, expertise and service proposition. The Link sells to fashion-conscious mobile phone enthusiasts, and increasingly to small businesses looking for a flexible, value proposition.
None of these will be successful, however, unless their proposition is underpinned by offering the customer complete confidence that their prices match or beat all the competition and that they can deliver real advantages.
This means incredible focus on detail. It means tracking the customers, what they're buying, where and when, and where else they shop. What other brands do they care about and how do we ensure that we're always in their list of favourites?
So apart from its competitive pressure, what else drives excitement among my fellow electrical retailers?
Well, the products themselves are exciting. They have greater functionality, shorter life cycles, constantly depreciating prices, ever-increasing complexity and are driven to an ever greater extent by fashion.
More and more former 'luxury' products are now must-have essentials. Aspirant high-flying executives were once at the cutting edge of fashion when they pulled out their Mulberry filofax. Now you're a quaint eccentric if you write down an address rather than exchange an electronic business card on your mobile phone or PDA. Pocket-size DVDs may still be 'boys' toys', but more and more boys have them - not just marketing managers and City traders.
And you need to be on top of all of that. You need to understand what's cool and what's last year, and it's a punishing market if you can't spot the difference.
So, it really is fast-moving and exciting, and management of the detail is critical. It's a business world you either love or hate - and people know which camp they're in very quickly.