There are days when I wish I audited a retail business. I have never had the pleasure, and I think it would be, to audit a business so connected to the general public.

I was speaking to a friend of mine who went to the Abercrombie store in London last week. Now you know the score, the whole store is a ‘retail experience’ with dark wood shelving, low lighting, loud music and various ‘assistants’ who all look like polished American grad students. In particular is their fascination with a semi naked, perfectly formed man, in the entrance.

My friend reports, and they are not averse to such experiences, that one of the polished people in the entrance was dressed head to toe in Abercrombie goods and said ‘hi how are you’ over and over to everyone who walked in. Now this was said with so little sincerity that it rang hollowly around the entrance.

Then, once in, fighting to see goods in the dark, they looked for a particular item. Seeing no signage and nothing approaching helpful labels, they eventually asked (well had to shout) a surly assistant (though good looking) to assist. Eventually they were directed to a particular part of the store, not asked what size or colour they wanted, and they were left to their own devices. At the till their experience got worse, with a huge queue which moved slowly as it snaked through the store.

So where was branding in all of this? I wrote recently in my Royal Auditing post that the devil of branding is in the detail of delivery. They left without purchasing the item. I think the lesson here is that branding has grown in some businesses beyond being a means and instead replacing it as an end. The staff in this case have been so indoctrinated that they see looking and appearing ‘correct’ as an end in itself.

Perhaps the Abercrombie franchise is more about brand image than selling. Perhaps this lost revenue will be recouped through a greater margin. I doubt it though, as the store is still pumping out relatively commodity items, not bespoke couture. This prompts the debate, therefore, whether marketing can become an end in itself.

As an auditor I have certainly seen this in marketing departments at my clients. Normally controlling the logo is all important, without a real connection as to why. The decision chain justifying marketing activity becomes, in effect, over extended, blurred and lost.

For me this is another example why compliance auditing of processes, however well intentioned with clear objectives, without asking about the ultimate strategic objective above it and the justification for the process in the first place, is somewhat to miss the point.

Strategic auditing with no understanding of the practical mitigations of risk is just as futile in my view as auditing compliance without a strategic risk understanding. The whole chain of control is, in reality, one holistic whole.

How do you ensure that you audit above and below the scope of your audit review opinion?