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It’s Calliope!

It’s Calliope? What’s Calliope?

Well, plenty of things, actually. Calliope was the Muse of Epic Poetry, back when the Greek Gods ran the world. Since then, the name has been applied to (amongst other things) a hummingbird, a font, an asteroid, a saint, a river, a housing project, five Royal Navy ships and a host of other things.  And it’s pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable: Ca-LYE-o-pi.

The name was also given to a steam-driven fairground organ, which you can read about here. I’d rather like to own one of these, though the horses might be high-maintenance.

Calliope, the wonderful operonicon or steam car of the muses EDIT

And in the spring of 2013, Calliope will be a retail business operating from a physical shop and a virtual website, selling gifts, books and all manner of attractive things, and run by my old colleague and friend Andy Adamson, and me.

Of course, there’ll be more to tell when we have a business to launch, but in the meantime, here’s what Benedicte Page had to say about us in The Bookseller:

Downer to open new store:

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/downer-open-new-store.html

06.12.12 | Benedicte Page | The Bookseller

Former Borders UK c.e.o. Philip Downer is to open a new store, selling books, gifts and other merchandise, in the spring.

The shop, named Calliope, will be opened in an undisclosed Surrey location for which the lease is currently under negotiation. Downer will run the shop in partnership with former Borders colleague Andy Adamson, who is handling commercial relationships with vendors. A recruitment process has begun for a store manager, with applications welcome.  Conversations with publishers are already underway.

Downer, who announced the venture at a meeting of The Galley Club last night (5th December), said: “We envisage a store and an online offer with a combination of books, gifts and other merchandise. I’ve been saying for some time that bookshops have to diversity and that being an expert 100% bookshop shows a profound failure to understand how customer expectations have changed. There is an opportunity to sell quality books to a broad consumer audience.”

Downer declined to give details on what percentage of his offer would be books, saying the volume and proportion of books within the retail offer would vary “according to season and customer demand”. They will, however, all be beautifully produced volumes, books “of quality, inside and out”, he promised. “I was a judge in the British Book Design and Production Awards and spent two days looking at these fantastic books and recognising that we have the design and production capability in this country to produce truly beautiful, attractive books. It is interesting the extent to which some of the major publishers is grasping that nettle.”

The bookshop will have an “interesting and extensive” but as yet unspecified online offer and will also act as a community resource, Downer said.

The name “Calliope” refers to the music of epic poetry, but Downer said he was more inspired by the old steam organ of the same name towed around the country by horses, the “explosive fairground noises” of which feature on one of the songs on “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

Calliope is already on Twitter, at @CalliopeGifts, so do follow us and keep in touch with developments, as we move from being a great idea to becoming a great shop.

Mr Kite 1

In the meantime, I’ll be undertaking at least ten somersets on solid ground. Have a good Christmas, and don’t forget, shopping at local stores keeps your economy and community alive – and their taxes pay for the services you use.

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Swann Song: Changes at WH Smith

The Bookseller has published a column I’ve written in response to WH Smith’s prelims announcement last week, which delivered the double whammy of £100m+ profits, and the upcoming departure of Kate Swann as Group CEO.  I’ve reproduced it below.

When the WHS announcement was made last week, two sets of instinctive responses crashed into each other.  The City reporters raised the roof for Queen Kate, during whose reign earnings-per-share have been driven to ever higher peaks, thanks to a combination of margin enhancement, cost-cutting and share buybacks.  And the naysayers pointed out that, yet again, sales were down – even in the go-go Travel division, like-for-likes keep falling.  Oh, and BTW, the store environment is pretty poor.

I try to take a slightly more nuanced (or reflective) view.  Swann has delivered extraordinary numbers through torrid times, but has she left her heir apparent, Steve Clarke (who is promising more of the same), with a sustainable model?

WH Smith has made every decision with its shareholders’ interests paramount – and that’s as it should be, am I right?  However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that those decisions have been predicated on short-to-medium term returns, rather than the sort of long-term investment that leading retailers make.  WHS is still a bricks-and-mortar company (notwithstanding a long-standing but rarely promoted transactional site, and the slightly more forward-looking Funky Pigeon online offer), trading in categories –  printed books, newspapers and magazines – that are in long-term decline.  Its overseas Travel expansion plans are broad-based – but winners need to be idenified from a pot-pourri of investments across several continents.

Retail Week has just dropped through the door, complete with a profile of Steve Clarke.  In the meantime, here’s The Bookseller piece:


How’s the retail shake-out working for you?

Some smiling faces in the retail community this morning, with news that like-for-like sales in September lifted by 1.5%, easily the best result of the year.  Why the bounce?  There will have been some pent-up demand, following the armchair weeks of the Olympics and Paralympics, and – extraordinarily – there was actual alignment between fashions instore and the weather outside, so customers stocked up on winter clothing.

This didn’t necessarily mean a kiss of life for the high street, however – online sales rose by 9.9% year-on-year, compared to 4.8% in August, so the big shift from physical stores to the online environment accelerated, once customers started shopping again.  And JJB Sports called in the administrators at the end of the month – one of the biggest failures in a terrible year for business failures.

There’s an interesting piece in the FT this morning (you’ll need a subscription), which lists some of 2012’s most notable casualties – Blacks, Game, Clintons etc – and notes the overall fall in the number of trading retail units across the country.  Most pertinently, it highlights the quiet retrenchment taking place within successful non-food chains across the country, whereby multiple smaller stores are being closed in favour of a fewer, larger stores in the big centres.  (nb my blog on the top eighty retail locations, from the start of this year).  It may not feel like it, but independent retailers are increasing their share of the number of trading retail units, with 67% of all stores controlled by indies, up 1% against 2011.

And this is where the retail shake-out in the headline comes in; progressively, over the past four years, the out-of-date leviathans, the single product chains, the superseded-by-technology businesses and the unable-to-respond-to-slicker-competition-or-just-ground-down-by-Amazon retailers have been bought out, merged or closed down.  There’s now a big “middle of the market” gap between the FTSE 100 corporations and the street-fighting new players, but this recessionary climate has been rolling for long enough to allow the biggest players careful application of their cash piles to reshape their store portfolios and integrate first-class online offers, while the new companies have grown up, and been designed from the ground up, for an omnichannel (apologies to John Ryan) world.

A guaranteed better retail tomorrow requires consumer confidence, and we haven’t yet turned that corner.  (With Europe unresolved, the end of austerity is still some way off.)  Nevertheless, we are seeing the birth of a new, fitter retail sector in the UK, with plenty of entrepreneurial spirit among the start-ups, and in larger, imaginatively run, modern businesses like Hotel Chocolat or The Hut.  This is a volatile and fast-changing sector (asked Bill Grimsey), and there will be more business failures, more empty shops, more job losses.  But good retail practice thrives on its ability to adapt, to anticipate changing consumer behaviour and surprise, delight and good value.  The new generation, and the wisest of the old, understand this, and are seizing the opportunity.


Physical retail: it’s still all about service, and it always will be…

I’ve written a blog piece for Retailer Solutions, reflecting on some timeless truths around customer service.  You can read it here.

I’ve been working in retailing for many years, and throughout the time, commentators, trainers, coaches and indeed CEOs have continued to return to the importance of customer service.  And yet, still, as a nation, we really aren’t very good at it.  On a day-to-day basis, the apparent “cost” of providing good, one-on-one service – in terms of people, time and training – still doesn’t appear to be worth the bother, for operators in big chains, and for owner-managers too.

The high street renaissance may be dependent on rebalancing the landlord/tenant relationship, weaning councils off their addiction to critical parking charges, or making the business rates regime fairer.  But if customer service is still poor, then sayonara, shopkeepers – and the retailers will only have themselves to blame.

Retailer Solutions is an initiative driven by Enterprise Ireland, the organisation responsible for the development and growth of Irish enterprises across the world. Enterprise Ireland is a champion of innovation, and can provide retailers with access to emerging technologies from Irish companies with world class solutions for retail. 


Relay race

Cannon Street Station is a National Rail terminus in the City of London, bringing commuters into the financial district from south-east London and Kent via London Bridge.  It’s busy for an hour or two each morning and evening, but outside of these times, and at weekends, it’s dead.  In 2010/11, it served 21m passengers, which sounds like a lot, but compared to Liverpool Street (56m), let alone Waterloo (92m) it isn’t a big number – around 40,000 people each rush hour.

It’s recently been redeveloped, with plenty of handsome new office accommodation on top, but this somehow served only to emphasise how empty everything underneath was, when I visited at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon.

Compared to other mainline stations, the retail offer is negligible, but interesting.  Cannon Street is home to the first Relay convenience store in a UK railway station.  It’s owned by LS Travel Retail, part of the Lagardère Group, which is a huge presence in travel retail in mainland Europe, Asia and America, but has only arrived in the UK this year with the Relay CTN and Watermark bookshop brands; they also operate Lonely Planet’s Manchester Airport store, and have multiple specialist fascias in their portfolio.

Relay is a brand consumers will have seen in dozens of European airports, so it looks familiar, but out of place.  The store is small (pretty tight, in fact) and neat, with the right ranges of newspapers, magazines, on-the-go food, confectionery and cigarettes, and small selections of grocery staples and books.  There’s nothing remarkable about the offer, but the shopfit is bright and inviting, the staff friendly, and everything is clean and well-ordered.

The tube network has many independent CTN offers, but mainline stations tend to be the province of the WH Smith Travel division.  It’s interesting that Relay secured this site instead of WHS…

…but not half as interesting as taking note of what WH Smith has done instead.

Smack-bang opposite the station entrance, on the north side of Cannon Street, there’s this:

Not the prettiest thing you ever saw, but take note: it’s clearly bigger than Relay, and it boasts two supporting brands in Funky Pigeon, WHS’s wholly-owned cards and gifts business, and Costa Coffee.  That coffee offer alone should be enough to get commuters across the road from the station – even though Costa Express means that you get self-service machines, rather than a smiling barista:

Plenty of room for customers too.  The store has a rear-facing dogleg, which permits a sizeable Funky Pigeon range, in addition to WHS’s regular Travel fare:

The timber floor, clean lines and bright environment all create a very inviting environment.  They also put one in mind of an old song:

There is no doubt that competition causes incumbents to up their game, and that’s certainly the case with WH Smith in Cannon Street.  Over to LS Travel Retail for the next leg of the Relay race…

Cannon Street image: e-architect.co.uk 


The rich and the poor: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy…

…who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

The quote, of course, is Disraeli’s, and it was brought to mind after I read this piece by Marcus Leroux in Monday’s paywalled Times.

The gist of the article (for those of you without a Times subscription) is that 25% of non-essential retail spending takes place in just 3% of Britain’s shopping areas.  Of course, the crushing dominance of London – West End, City, Knightsbridge, Westfield – will help to skew those numbers, as London’s share of tourist retail is exceptionally high.  But forecasters CACI have reviewed 4,000 different shopping destinations, grading them from A to E, with anything below a C having questionable long-term viability.

The retail landscape has become more differentiated in recent years, as a combination of demographic polarisation, plus online, supermarket and out-of-town shopping, has caused the geography of the UK to divide more starkly between winners and losers.  I pondered this in a blog I published at the start of this year, seeking to identify 80 centres that I believed had future relevance; in Leroux’s piece, he notes that around half of Thorntons and Argos stores are in D and E banded locations.  And when stores close, which centres do you think will bear the brunt?

Well, here’s the good news (he said, a little acidly): the clone town will be a thing of the past.  No longer will there be identical parades and malls of the same jewellers, fashion stores, chocolatiers and gift shops, from Cornwall to the Highlands; instead, we risk a brutally stratified selection of pound shops, pawn shops and cheap booze in struggling towns and suburbs, while chi-chi boutiques and cafes overwhelm the rest.

I’m not convinced this is a good thing (I am a One Nation kind of guy); and I wonder if all of the government’s attempts to focus on local retailers (Portas towns et al) only takes us a short way down the road.  I very much support reducing business rates, slackening planning red tape and freeing up parking in order to revitalise a shopping district – but that revitalisation requires strong and solid national chains as well as entrepreneurs and start-ups.  Any smart indie retailer understands the appeal of well-known neighbours, preferably robust and well-managed ones.

There is a significant risk that squeezed, mid-market retailers will be closing in the top locations, pushed out by high occupancy costs and sophisticated online shoppers; and closing also in the poorer towns, where falling sales are precipitated by falling employment, collapsing aspirations and a general hopelessness.

We may need to move away from the purist “you can’t buck the market” view to a more nuanced standpoint that recognises that decent communities need a well-balanced high street (as well as good jobs, schools, healthcare, housing…), and that allowing high streets in densely populated areas to fail is akin to leaving broken windows unattended.  Of course, those retailers need to provide goods and services that their customers need – which of course is what mid-market chains have always delivered, tweaking their value offer as appropriate to local demographics.  But once “some quarters in the City” (Leroux) have prevailed on Argos et al to close their D and E locations, recovery in those towns will become just that little bit more difficult.

Blindingly obvious “two nations” photo: Cheryl de Carteret on Flickr


Online retailing: when will new taxes be needed?

You’ll have to bear with me; I’m a following a train of thought here.  There’s nothing scientific about this, but there’s plenty for retailers and mandarins to think about.

I was reading a piece on The Next Web, about the rise in the US of online-only brands.  The article (which you can read here) discusses US enterprises like Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker whose business model is built around having no bricks and mortar availability for their products.  As Everlane CEO Michael Preysman says:

We are going to shut the company down before we go to physical retail…  Traditional retail models are bloated with unnecessary costs.  Online just makes more sense: we’re national from day one, we have a single store, we don’t have to cover costs of physical inventory in stores and we don’t have to pass on a 2x markup through retailers.

This moves us on from showrooming, and into a world where the showroom has been specifically designed out of the equation.  In terms of business planning, this is a big leap forward from “omni-channel” – the message from companies like Everlane is that, while there may be multiple ways for brands to communicate with each their customers, there is only one channel through which they will make their goods available to you.

This marinaded in my mind for a little while, then we started Twittering this morning about the sad closure of a fine record shop.  Record shops have been in the advance guard for physical closure and collapse in the retail sector for many years; however few we have left, it seems as they though they keep on failing.  As Steve from Rounder Records wrote:

We are closing because we can’t make it add up any more. We are a business that has been decimated by downloads (both legal and illegal), VAT avoidance by the big online retailers, a double dip recession, & the decline of the high street. Our lease has ended and we have nowhere to go.

So, I started to think, how many properly staffed, paying-their-taxes retail businesses (or indeed retail categories), anchored in bricks and mortar and supporting a vibrant high street, have to go to the wall before HM Treasury starts to feel the pinch?

Here are some purely illustrative and not properly audited at all numbers to think about.  Let’s assume – as the British Standards Institution believes – that total retail sales in the UK are worth around £300 bn.  (That’s 300,000,000,000 in pound coins.) And, to keep it easy, let’s assume that half of those sales – excluding food, children’s clothes etc – attract VAT.

20% VAT on a gross £150 bn equals £30 bn.  That’s a lot of schools’n’hospitals.  Of course, most online retail transactions attract VAT at the appropriate rate, but some don’t – all those downloads from Luxembourg, for instance.

Right, £150 bn less VAT equals £120 bn.  Stick with the train of thought:

Business rates at, say, 4% of ex-VAT sales, will raise £4.8 bn.

Staff costs, at 10% of ex-VAT sales, will raise £2.4 bn in income tax on those wages, assuming tax is paid at a flat 20%.  (Netting out personal allowances against higher tax band payers, for the sake of argument.)

Employers’ NI on those same staff raises around another £1 bn.

And if all those retailers make 5% net profit (happy thought) ,on which they pay 20% corporation tax, that’s another £1.5 bn.

Of course, online retailers have the same cost-heads, but with fewer staff, cheaper premises etc, the tax-take from their business activity is going to be significantly smaller than from a traditional bricks and mortar retail model.

Now, I probably ought to be having this debate over a third pint on a Friday night, but somewhere in this maelstrom of lower prices for consumers and lower operating costs for online retailers (yes, I know, they have to spend much more on marketing), there’s a lower tax take.

If online becomes progressively more dominant, as this graph from The Daily Telegraph suggests:

– and as I discussed in this blog at the end of last year, at what point will the current tax regime start to feel the strain?

It rather looks as though the Exchequer will need to raise more money – either from online merchants, through some form of additional levy (which in due course would lead to price inflation); or from consumers, either through raising VAT (though this is vulnerable to corporate strategic avoidance) or by raising income tax.

The channel change is gradual, of course, but inexorable.  We won’t end up buying everything online and nothing from physical shops, but there’s a lower-tax trend.  Looking to the future, our Chancellor and his shadow could just carry on flicking each other with wet towels, but – in the absence of real economic growth (driven by eg significant job creation in other parts of the economy) – I hope there’s someone in the Treasury giving this longer-term structural change some serious thought.