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And this is where the retail shake-out in the headline comes in; progressively, over the past four years, the out-of-date leviathans, the single product chains, the superseded-by-technology businesses and the unable-to-respond-to-slicker-competition-or-just-ground-down-by-Amazon retailers have been bought out, merged or closed down.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.

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The changing entertainment market

Retail Week, The Grocer, The Bookseller and others have all reviewed Kantar Worldpanel‘s latest analysis of the UK entertainment market, which focuses on the 12 weeks through to mid-June.

Despite all this coverage, there is a some vagueness as to what is and isn’t included in their definition of entertainment.  As far as I can tell, however, we are looking at:

– CDs (and other recorded music)

– DVDs (and other video content)

– console and PC games

– downloads

It looks as “downloads” includes ebooks, but the sector definition as a whole doesn’t include pbooks.

It’s unclear how broadly downloads are defined – all apps, or just those that have some kinship to traditional formats?  If so, that would be a “yes” to Angry Birds, but a “no” to business apps.

It’s also unclear whether all subsidiaries are properly accounted for – so, for instance, are LoveFilm downloads included in Amazon total?

Still, whatever the definition, it all makes for a good story.  The changes in percentage point share are pretty predictable – Amazon up, HMV down, Game Group – with multiple store closures following administration – well down.

But I am interested in the scale of some of the gains.  Of course, the overall size of the market fluctuates, but for iTunes to move from 6.0% to 8.8% represents an increase in penetration of nearly 50%.  And, LoveFilm or not, Amazon’s growth continues powerfully, with no reason to assume it will slow down in the foreseeable future.

Tesco’s tribulations and Sainsbury’s progress are both graphically illustrated here – indeed, if these numbers are a microcosm of current trading at Tesco, that would be a concern.

Meanwhile, Play.com sees its share slide, as it loses consumer visibility.  Amazon isn’t just taking sales from bricks and mortar retailers…

That the “Others” are growing their share suggests diversity in the market.  I wonder who they might be?


World E-Reading Congress: Legacy, bookshops and the future

The Bookseller has run a piece on the speech I gave to the World E-Reading Congress earlier this week, so I’m reproducing the text in this blog entry.

Whilst I’ve edited out some of the more obvious “lecture” elements (eg “Good afternoon, my name’s Philip Downer”), this is still a talk, so in places you may find it (even) more rhetorical than some of my usual writing; similarly, the grammar and syntax will be a little sketchy or forced in places!

My audience consisted of publishers, and those who provide publishing services – distribution, analysis, technical support, media coverage, plus a smattering of creatives (writers, illustrators, designers) and some online sellers of books and/or content.  There were no bricks and mortar retailers present.

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My theme for this afternoon is Bookselling: The past is another country, but the future is another planet.

This is a bit clunky, but on an agenda full of brave new worlders, keenly identifying opportunities and breakthroughs for the future of eReading, I am the lucky person who has elected to talk about shops.

I’ve given a few talks over recent months, and as I approach each one, the news for specialist booksellers appears to have got a little bit more challenging.  At Frankfurt last year, I observed that “We are entering a world where a handful of corporations own proprietary formats through which all the books, and a great proportion of all other creative content, are channelled.  New technology can do great things, but it can also damage supplier diversity and consumer choice.”

I stand by these words.  The bigger and more powerful the mega-corporations become, the more entrenched they’ll be.  They operate out of highly protected walled gardens, and their goal is to tie you, very tightly, into their specific eco-system.  It isn’t in their interests to allow this situation to change – even though I would argue, it is clearly not in the best interests of every author, publisher and reader, for a handful of tech-driven organisations to own books and reading.

I’m talking to you today about retailing, rather than the broader outlook for publishing.  However, the old author/agent/publisher/bookseller/reader model is significantly fractured and everyone in this industry needs to decide whether monopolies or diverse markets are more appropriate for its future.

As this is an eReading Congress, I think a show of hands would be appropriate.

Who uses an electronic device in their leisure reading – an eReader, a tablet, a smartphone?  [Practically everybody in the room.]

Put your hand down if your principle device is a Kindle.  [Around half of those present.]

OK.  Now, lower your hand if your principle device is an iPad or iPhone.  [The other half of the room.]

Sony?  Kobo?  Nook?  AN Other?  Samsung phone?  PC?  [No, no, no.  Everybody used Amazon or Apple devices.]

Although they play very different roles, there are of course two, big dominant players in our new world, a retailer and a consumer electronics company.  But Amazon and Apple are an odd couple

Amazon: is setting a course to becoming the world’s biggest retailer, and en route laying waste to the established author/publisher/bookseller ecosystem.

Take a look at its performance for the first quarter of this year:

Q1 2012

Revenue:      $13,180,000,000

Profit:          $      130,000,000

Margin:         1.0%

Amazon sells ebooks and pbooks at low margin, break-even or a loss.  This (we are assured) benefits the customer.

Amazon has very patient investors, who support a high P/E ratio, currently running at over 90x.  I assume they work on the principle that, once world domination is assured, the profits tap will be turned on.  Otherwise, where’s the value?

How many sectors and countries does Amazon have to dominate before this happens?

Apple:  is producing the products that everybody wants, selling phones, tablets and other hardware and content at a spectacular profit.

Notwithstanding Samsung, it pretty much leaves all its competitors in the dust.  It also, by-the-bye, runs a highly successful and much-respected retail chain.

Looking at its quarter one performance:

Q1 2012

Revenue:      $39,200,000,000

Profit:           $11,600,000,000

Margin:         29.6%

This extraordinary margin, we understand, also benefits the customer; so Amazon’s 1% is a good thing, and Apple’s 29.6% is also a good thing.

Naturally, Apple’s investors are as happy as can be, and they’re even being promised dividend payments in the future.  Oh, and Apple’s P/E ratio is a rather more rational 10.5.

Jeff and Steve have made this world for us in which consumers are happy to pay top dollar for the best hardware, and the lowest conceivable prices for content.

In the past month, of course, a new alliance has been formed – something of a 1990s supergroup.  Is the Microsoft/Barnes & Noble alliance strategically brilliant, or a last throw of the dice?  Microsoft has a track record of alliances with previous cycle winners, like Yahoo! and Nokia.

However, publishers and many readers are looking for alternatives to Amazon’s hegemony.  The deal enables B&N’s Nook and College divisions to separate themselves from the old superstore business, and provides the firepower for the Nook to be launched worldwide, with a solid retailer base in the US.

Are Barnes & Noble the future, or is this just a coming together of legacy businesses?  And what is a legacy business, anyway?

Ten years ago, if I’d said “legacy” to you, you’d have understood it in the old sense – “Something handed down from an ancestor or a predecessor or from the past”.  A legacy was a good thing – real value created by previous generations, and a solid foundation for the present and the future.

Today, the word “legacy” is used as an unthinking term of abuse – essentially, any business that has a history longer than a few years is a “legacy” business, and thus unfit for purpose, and ripe to be taken down.  Established publishing houses are described as “legacy businesses” by teenage entrepreneurs seeking to discredit them.  Perhaps they fail to distinguish between a business that has a valuable inheritance, and has the capacity and the drive to embrace the new world, with one that isn’t in control of events.  Or perhaps they confuse all established businesses with the fireworks of the tech sector, the Netscapes and MySpaces that crashed and burned; the Yahoos and Research In Motions whose innovation has been eclipsed by other, newer stars.

It’s inevitable that what appears to be change-making today will become – necessarily – protective and fixed tomorrow.  Perhaps, in this sense, “legacy” simply means “grown-up and responsible”.  Well, there are worse things to be, and, companies that once behaved radically will start to behave protectively instead, in order to maintain their primary income streams.

But let’s talk about retailing, because this is where a physical legacy can become really toxic.  In the 1930s, Woolworths opened nearly 400 brand new stores across the UK.  When I say “opened”, I don’t mean “rented a tin shed and screwed their name to the front”.  I mean, they acquired freeholds, and built big, brand-new stores.  This was a massive investment of cash and confidence in the market.  The crowning glory was the Blackpool store, which opened in Spring 1938.  Five storeys over 75,000 square feet, including two vast restaurants.  Woolworths was one of the biggest and most powerful consumer brands in the world.

Building all those stores guaranteed Woolworth a strong presence in every town in the country.  This was the legacy of its period of supergrowth, but as time passed, the retail offer lost its focus; the freeholds were sold, and the legacy of great stores was no longer a valuable inheritance, it was a millstone of failing retail premises.

Historically, this is what retailers have done – opened stores, and carried on opening them until sometime after the market cries “enough”!  Clintons Cards and Game are two of the most recent examples in the UK – and then, of course, there are the challenges facing the remaining booksellers.

Right, here’s a scary prospect for you.

Imagine you’re running a chain of bookshops.  We may be talking about hundreds or a handful; we may be talking about any country in the developed world.  Two or three years ago, the era of the superstore came to an end.  Now, I would argue, the era of the chain bookshop is going to follow, unless the model is radically reinvented.

So, if you’re running a chain of bookshops today, you have to do two impossible things.

The first is to deal with your straggling real estate, because, as I’ve discussed, the single biggest challenge for any bricks and mortar retailer is their legacy of old stores.  However carefully that estate has been built, however appropriate it was five years ago, it is now shot through with toxicity.  All of those shops are tied to long leases, with upward-only rent reviews.  Landlords are operating in a shrinking market, so are in no position to give concessions to any business that wants to close a shop while the lease still has years to run.  This leads to pre-packs and CVAs (company voluntary arrangement), but these acts of desperation are usually the prelude to administration.

All retail businesses have an unproductive tail, and any location that’s bad at the moment has the scope to get worse.

Archie Norman, Asda’s former CEO, has observed that retailers should close 5% of their estate every year, and he’s absolutely right – but I can think of no retail business that has heeded that advice until it’s much too late.

As a bookseller, your bricks and mortar shops have to be super-viable.  You must close today’s loss-makers, and tomorrow’s loss-makers too.

Plenty of retailers are facing this problem right now – Argos, French Connection, Mothercare and Thorntons have all been in the news in recent weeks.  However, although they’re vulnerable to online sellers, it’s still difficult to digitise a romper suit or a box of chocolates.

So, close your under-performing stores.  Then define your customers and their interests, and close any further stores that don’t match that profile.

Your second impossible challenge, and one that is at the heart of this conference’s purpose, is that you have to compete in an omni-channel marketplace, and you have to do so against some of the richest corporations the world has ever seen.  Logically, this is impossible, because it requires huge resources, and your chain of bookshops can’t do this alone.

This is where the book trade needs to pull together.  This industry is at a crossroads where it either allows the global corporations to progress from being walled gardens to becoming super-fortresses; or it fights to ensure plurality.  I salute unreservedly the stand that Macmillan and Pearson are taking, alongside Apple, in the Department of Justice case regarding agency pricing.  A couple of weeks ago, Amazon decided to give away the Hunger Games eBook free of charge.  Now, maybe I’m just losing it as I get older, but can anyone explain to me how giving away the best-selling book in the world helps to secure current income, or to create a future value proposition, for anyone other than Amazon?  It may be that the publisher and thus the author still got paid, but at the long-term cost of proclaiming their work to be without value.

Booksellers today need the freedom to participate in the omnichannel world, and it is in everyone’s interests to lower those barriers.  That means removing DRM, so that content becomes device-agnostic; customers can buy the hardware that suits them, and the content, at an appropriate price, from the retailer who can do the best job for them.

I would love to see thinking of this sort emerging from Microsoft and Barnes & Noble’s NewCo.  If B&N thinks it now has the firepower to challenge Amazon without also changing the ground rules, then they will find that Amazon can always out-gun them.  Anybody else with a stake in ebookselling needs to do likewise.  You won’t beat Amazon by being a pale imitation of Amazon, pleading with consumers to do what’s best for the long-term health of the book trade.  Consumers have enough to worry about.  They will respond, though, to a different, better offer.

Your retail goal – because you’re running a chain of bookshops, remember? – has to be an integrated ebook and pbook offer, with full online visibility of stock by branch for your customers.  You’ll need a financial model that supports “showrooming”, because it’s a fact of life.  You’ll offer Click and Collect, targeted social marketing and all the rest of it – everything a sophisticated pure-play online retailer does, with a shop attached.  You’ll need to understand more about your individual customers than ever before.

Your online and ebook offer can of course cover all categories.  Your pbook offer must be reshaped to reflect the new reality.  That means fewer fiction paperbacks, and fewer reference books, because the day of the “general bookshop” is over.  You need to be known for doing a few things extremely well, not everything tolerably competently.

All of this sounds scary, and you will all be aware that the number of specialist bookshops in the UK has declined by over 20% since the credit crunch kicked off.

Booksellers – and, by extension, our suppliers and our customers – invested far too much energy in worrying about supermarkets, and not enough in recognising that Amazon wasn’t just another specialist competitor in a healthy eco-system, with a novel twist.  Today, if we take all the UK’s true specialists, the Waterstones, the Foyles, the academic chains, all the independents, and add them together, I don’t suppose their unit sales are as great as Amazon’s are now.

There’s a school of thought that says, well, you pesky booksellers, you should have done more.  Should have done it sooner.  More fool you.  I think this is a little like acknowledging that a fine historical building has caught fire, and saying “they should have installed a better sprinkler system.  I’m not calling the fire brigade” – when there is still plenty of merit worth saving, and plenty that you’d miss if that magnificent building was gone.

Specialist booksellers – including independents – are now barely competing with each other at all any more.  They’re competing with Amazon and Apple; they’re competing for time as well as spending.

However, here’s the interesting thing.  At the risk of sounding like Clement Freud on Just A Minute, I’m going to run through a diverse list of retailers.  Here goes:

Anthropologie • Argos • Asda • B&Q • Bentalls • Blacks • Comet • Conran Shop • Cotswold Outdoor • Dobbies • Eden Project • English Heritage • The Entertainer • Fortnum & Mason • Habitat • Halfords • Hamleys • Harrods • Harvey Nicholls • HMV • Historic Royal Palaces • Hobbycraft • Homebase • John Lewis • Lakeland • Morrisons • Mothercare • National Gallery • National Trust • 99p Stores • Oliver Bonas • PC World • Pets At Home • Poundland • Royal Horticultural Society Wisley • Ryman • Sainsbury’s • Selfridges • Tate • Tesco • Toys ‘R’ Us • Urban Outfitters • Wyevale Garden Centres

Most of these businesses are thriving, successful enterprises.  Some are struggling – but all of these chains are also booksellers.

Some, like the supermarkets, are big, important players.  Others offer books as a value proposition, or as part of the lifestyle offer they’re promoting, or as a souvenir of a day out.

But they all believe that there’s a place in their shops for physical books.  Most of these retailers have a much clearer understanding of their brand, and of their customer, than general bookshops have.

The physical bookshop struggles, but the physical book can thrive.

We tend to look at the problem from a “growing online, declining physical” standpoint.  But if the solution is to ensure that all physical stores have multichannel capability, surely the same applies to pureplay online retailers?

As Sarah Wilson of the Egremont Group has argued persuasively, without a high street presence, without the ability to see and touch the goods you want to buy, online sales will plateau.  After all, if we all really wanted to, we could stop using bricks and mortar shops tomorrow, and just buy everything online – it’s all there, after all.  But we don’t.  Consumers of the future will be looking for an “integrated experience… as they choose to shop across channels and increasingly look on pure plays as employing yesterday’s model”.

OK, this is where it gets interesting.  You’re running a chain of bookshops, remember?  But chains are inevitably bland.  Chains are corporate.  Chains are bound by process; necessarily managed to lowest common denominator standards.

I’d posit that more good managers leave book chains and open their own bookshops than happens in most other sectors.  They do it because they love what they do.

So, at this stage in the development of the bookshop, I think it’s time to acknowledge this.  You could create a partnership model, like John Lewis’s.

Or you could be bolder, and create a franchise model.  The centre would provide the technology, the systems back-up, the buying power.  The managers acquire ownership of the stores, buying an interest in them or purchasing them outright, customising their shops as appropriate for their markets.

You cease to have a chain of stores.  Instead, you have a network of individual specialists.  They may go down the children’s route, open cafes, build non-book sales.  Or they may, like the Harvard Bookstore, invest in Espresso Book machines; providing a real specialist service, with same-day delivery to local addresses, and next-day around the world.

That network of stores doesn’t have to be restricted to your core business.  You can sell your chain’s expertise to other independent bookstores, and reinvent yourself as a bookshop service organisation.

We have a number of good businesses supporting UK booksellers.  Gardners’ networked Hive website, offering pBooks and eBooks online; the Bookseller and Nielsen, providing news and reliable data; and of course the support of the Booksellers Association.  I’d like to see all of these organisations – and others – committed to supporting everyone who is a bookselling specialist, whether they’re primarily selling eBooks or pBooks, online or instore.  If anyone could pull this together it would be the BA, but the organisation would have to repurpose itself appropriately.

There’s a way forward for individually managed and owned shops that have full access to ebooks, and yet can localise their offer to suit each physical location, each local residential, business and academic population, in a way that chains inevitably struggle to deliver.

And funnily enough, your carefully tailored local offer could be exactly what individual customers around the world are looking for.  And today, you can reach out to any potential customers.  You can identify where there are similar populations, elsewhere in the country, elsewhere in the world, and serve them too.

Of course, this means that you and your shop need to have to have an opinion.  A point of view.  A personality.  All of these things rolled up into a specific and saleable competence.  Please some of the people most of the time, because you can’t be all things to all people.

Supermarkets have done their damage, and will reduce their book ranges as the mass-market transitions away from paper books.  This is an opportunity for our industry’s specialists, who need to improve in quality and consistency.  Some of our best bookshops are among the smallest and most independent, in every sense of the word.

Customers will still seek out good, well-run shops, and I suggest that the distinction between “independent” and “specialist chain” is a whole lot less important to everyone’s future, than the distinction between “specialist” and “non-specialist”.

A healthy bookselling sector is in the best interests of everyone in the trade – authors, agents, publishers, readers.  Bookselling needs to remodel itself for the future, and do so in partnership with all the other key players in the publishing business.

But books and bookshops still matter, and there are still people who want to sell books.  If those specialist bookshops focus on competing with each other for ever diminishing returns, they might disappear altogether.  The more effectively they can work together, the more robust our retail offer in the future.

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My eBook, A Year at Front of Store, is available in these Amazon Kindle territories –

United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Spain


Shapps/Portas – and now…?

Housing Minister Grant Shapps has announced the government’s official response to the 2011 Portas Review.  You can read the Communities & Local Government Office’s full text here.

It’s been quite a week for retailers, with the government promoting local shopping by manufacturing a petrol shortage which will ensure we’ll only be spending at shops we can walk to this weekend.  Much more seriously, the impact of channel change on established and historically successful retailers is being felt across the world – Game Group’s administration, the collapse of leading Dutch bookseller Selexyz, famous for creating the “world’s most beautiful bookshop“, and today the announcement from Best Buy that (a) it’s closing 50 US stores and (b), short of slashing costs and talking hopefully about online opportunities, it’s a bit short on strategy.

So, back in Britain, there are plenty of feelgood elements to Grant Shapps’ announcement: market days and Town Teams were particularly eye-catching back in December, so they get full support, but there’s relatively little money forthcoming – around £12.8m, which will fund a few more Portas Pilots, but is a tiny sum of cash – it’s rather less than, say, Foyles in Charing Cross Road turns over in a year, or under a third of the estimated cost of the Leveson Enquiry.

Paradoxically, though, I’m not calling for loads more cash; I’d prefer to see more real local power and accountability, with councils mandated to create a successful business environment for the communities they serve.  This will be the acid test of the programme, as there is much promised on revoking archaic bylaws and reforning planning  – will local councils have the guts to go the whole way, and will the government be prepared to devolve real decision-making and – at council level – revenue raising powers?  Step forward the first council that wants to tell Grant Shapps that, actually, we think a 5.4% increase in business rates is a little steep in the current environment, so here in Tomorrowtown, we’d like to do things a little differently.

Well, I can dream.  But beware of short-term revitalisation and too great a focus on heritage and bringing back “the old high street”.  There is, understandably, much hand-wringing about the number of vacant shops across the country – 14.6% of total stock across the country, it says here.

But hang on just a second – is that the number of empty premises, or the volume of empty space?  Or, to turn the numbers around (without knowing the answer) what is the total volume of trading square footage in retail today, compared to ten or twenty years ago?  I’m going to bet that the number has gone up, but that old stock has been allowed to rot on the vine.

As retail commentator HatmanPro has observed on Twitter, much of our empty retail space exists because newer space has superseded it.  In too many town centres, successive new developments – blocks of stores, little shopping centres – have been dumped into vacant spaces, increasing the total volume of footage and laying waste to older shopping streets and districts, on the assumption that, as the population grows and we all become wealthier, more and more shops can prosper.  Even without the internet, this is patent nonsense – I’d like to see new shopping centre openings accompanied by a structured reduction in dead space; a recognition that, with 10.7% of all retail spend now online (and that number will grow and grow), even the most Pollyannaish assumptions of future economic recovery will not merit the number of old shops cluttering up our old towns.

Will Town Teams and local councils have the ambition, the power and the cojones to repurpose spaces?  Will they be able to do so, and maintain the variety of chains and independents, generalists and specialists, commodity sellers and boutiques, that a thriving town centre needs?  I really hope so.  But the “beating heart of the community” needs to be strong and vigorous, and must look beyond the reduction of street furniture and controls on levels of parking fines – if 15%, 20% of all retail spend is going online (because that’s what the consumer wants), then those high streets need to reflect tomorrow’s needs, rather than yesterday’s longings.

And having said all of that – if this comes off, when those first Town Teams cajole their councils into really making a change and doing  things differently, this is going to be damned exciting.  Retailing is one of the things we do best in the UK, and everyone who’s committed to a retail career wants to make it better.

Pictures: The Sun; bhbeat.com


Modern Warfare

There is, sadly, little sense of surprise in the news that Game Group has finally called in the administrators, as the chain’s poor Christmas was followed by the reluctance of the banks to prop up a struggling enterprise, and then the progressive withdrawal of support from its suppliers.  However, what does shock is the speed at which a plc can go from success to failure, once the storm starts to rage.  In 2009, Game Group posted pre-tax profits of £119m, up 75% in two years – here was a company that was beating the consumer recession – although this proved to be the last of the good news, as the absence of new platforms, lower pricing from online competitors, and the growth in downloaded content progressively reduced profitability and investor confidence.

Game themselves – slick and capable operators who’d innovated in many ways (eg by mainstreaming the second-hand market) – now had a brand that was too anodyne for the hardcore gamer.  They should have repositioned their primary brand to better serve that market, rather than chasing the more family-friendly (and fickle) Wii market.  Instead they sought to serve the hardcore through the rougher and readier Gamestation brand, having committed the Retail Deadly Sin of acquiring a parallel business in 2007 and then having to post-rationalise it (see Clintons/Birthdays, Mothercare/ELC, WH Smith/Waterstone’s and many more down the ages).

Their second Deadly Sin was to focus on international expansion at the expense of the home business, when they should have been replicating their physical dominance (a one-third market share at peak) in the online sphere.  That’s a tough, going-on-impossible trick to pull off when the competition includes retailers like Amazon and developers like Zynga and Rovio, but it was where the market was going and it’s where Game should have gone, in a fair and equal world.

However, this world ain’t fair nor equal, and a retailer – any retailer – committed to decades-long leases in prime pitch locations at the most expensive malls is naturally going to be focused on how maximise those stores’ sustainable profitability, how to turn them around – in short, how to protect the legacy/millstone that they’ve inherited.

It’s this lack of flexibility than can kill even market leaders in the current consumer climate; their lease commitments are so onerous that they have to focus on hauling those locations back towards profitability, even though there are precious few examples of gone-bad retail locations miraculouly coming good again.

Game Group’s collapse is the worst, in terms of potential job losses, since Woolworth at the end of 2008, and it is to be fervently hoped that some jobs, stores and the brand can be saved.  However, it once again throws the plight of the middle market into sharp relief, as a profitable core of Game stores won’t prosper unless the online/download/value challenges I instanced above can be resolved.  (And any good news that all of this represents for HMV will be short-lived too.)

Meanwhile, the less attractive or affluent high streets and shopping centres are being hollowed-out by store closures.  The Portas Review rightly promotes the conversion of retail premises to other uses, but what strategies, one wonders, are the shopping centre landlords contemplating?  The biggest and best – the Westfields, the Meadowhalls – can thrive, but all those poky, low-ceilinged 80s developments with their shallow shop units, the natural home of Game and many other 2011-12 retail casualties – how will they be repurposed?  Which major landlord is going to break ranks and announce a new strategic approach to asset management that isn’t built on the old assumption that everything will remain largely the same as it was before?

In February 2012, 10.7% of all UK retail sales – including food – were executed online.  In February 2011, the figure stood at 8.3%.  That’s a lift of £140m in a dull month, when overall retail sales were flattish at the very best.  Factor in Christmas, and you’re looking at the thick end of £2 billion transferring from bricks and mortar to online over the course of 2012.

Despite all of this, I personally remain convinced that physical retail has a strong future but – as my headline suggests – bricks and mortar is trapped in a losing war at the moment.  That war will end – a truce will be called, and a new equilibrium established – and it will be consumers en masse who end hostilities, once a new balance of online purchasing (for value and convenience) and physical retail (for the experience of the product, the face-to-face benefits, the “localness”) has been established.  

Of course, online and physical will blur, as they already have for successful, robust businesses like John Lewis or Apple (this hoarding is just two doors down from Game in Kingston’s Bentall Centre).  It’s proved to be very much easier for customers to evolve into multi-channel operators than it is for the retailers that serve them.

But the biggest and the best will survive and thrive, as will the smaller operators, who know their market, understand their customers and can move swiftly without too much legacy encumbrance.  The mass, the middle market?  That’s proving to be much more difficult.

Author’s note: My alma mater, Borders Group, of course committed more than a few Deadly Sins in its time; but the concession agreement we had with Game in the UK was highly successful for both brands during its all-too-brief existence.    

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

My eBook, A Year at Front of Store, is available in these Amazon Kindle territories – 

United StatesUnited KingdomGermanyFranceItaly and Spain.  


A showroom with a view – the future of high streets

Frankly, you could cancel most of the drama series on TV nowadays and instead stream a live tale of everyday retailers into the nation’s homes.  Tesco, Peacocks/EWM, Game, Iceland and many others are all delivering stories of real tragedy (job losses), hubris, separation and (in Malcolm Walker’s case) triumph.

It’s edge-of-the-seat stuff, and today’s sensational news of Richard Brasher’s exit from Tesco is just the latest exciting plot twist.  Furthermore, this is interactive experience, as customers are the ultimate arbiters of who succeeds and who fails.

It’s also a tale of legacy and inheritance – too many stores in the wrong places, old management styles or an immature multichannel offer all presage disaster ahead.  Stand by for next month’s Titanic metaphors…

Last Friday’s Retail Week devoted several glossy pages to a gallery of multichannel leaders from across the sector, representing companies as diverse as Harrods, Sainsbury’s and Wickes.  In a very short time, “multichannel” is moving towards “omnichannel” (thanks Gareth), as consumers move faster than stores to blend their online, mobile, and bricks-and-mortar shopping activities.  The customer is always right, and – frustratingly for both parties – the customer is now often several steps ahead of the retailer.

The more this snowball gathers speed, the more quickly prescriptions about the high street become out-of-date.  So here are a few thoughts, wrapped around a simple statement:

Showrooming is here to stay

At least it is for as long as the showrooms can remain open.  But the ease with which customers of all ages have embraced comparison shopping, and the unemotional way they’ve ditched their old loyalties in favour of better value in tough times, has come as a nasty surprise to many retailers.

You spend years building your brand, extending your storebase, cementing a reputation for value and/or service and then, without so much as a Gerald Ratner speech, the whole house of cards is blown away, and the company is left not with a proud legacy, but a horrible mess of bank debt, unprofitable shops and over-complicated management structures.

Nevertheless, customers enjoy showrooming, and no large retailer can succeed in the future without an integrated offer that recognises stores are showrooms.  It needs to have few enough of them, in cost-effective enough locations, for the whole P&L equation to add up.  John Lewis Partnership (reported last week to be investing £450m in “growth and multichannel leadership”) will build its JL and Waitrose online offers, not as “alternative stores”, but as an integrated part of their consumer offer.

Companies with an optimum number of stores can integrate their online commerce/service offer with bricks and mortar and move forward.  But – and this painful – not enough stores are being closed, yet.  This in large part is due to the challenges leaseholders face when managing their real estate legacy – leases are long, penalties are onerous, and landlords are struggling to see where replacement tenants will come from.

Winners and losers

Leaving the food sector to one side, I envisage a future where large, successful chains, selling unique merchandise, are able to sustain a reasonable sized store-base, with customers using the brand’s services through any combination of physical and virtual contact points.  These companies will be able to leverage their use of technology to stay ahead of their competitors, but they must always look forward.  Retail legacies are of no more real value than the beautiful company histories that retailers used to commission – interesting for the archivist, irrelevant to the customer.

This means embracing technology that has the capability to kill much of your bricks and mortar offer – because if you don’t close down your weakest branches, someone else will shut down the whole lot.

As an example, one techology that has been talked about and tested for a long time is the virtual changing room.  This is a great gadget for boutiques – but can you imagine the fractious queue for the magic mirror in a small provincial Top Shop on a wet Saturday afternoon?  Much more efficient to provide the technology as an app that customers can use through their online-enabled 42″ TV screens in the privacy of their own homes.  I can easily envisage “magic mirror parties” at home – much more fun than a chick-flick.

Winners will run forward with new applications, and will be unsentimental about store closures.  They’ll have uniqueness on their side – must-have products available nowhere else.  Physical shops will still matter, but they won’t be required in the numbers that they have been historically, adding weight to the “fewer, better stores” trend.

There will be more losers.  If you’re selling branded merchandise available from multiple suppliers, if you’re selling products manufactured in the Far East and sold, unchanged, around the world, if you’re selling a product with limited touch-and-feel qualities, if you’re selling generic or commodity products, then the road ahead is a very thorny one.  Is marrying Comet and Game likely to be a good idea?  Rephrasing the question, and assuming (rather rashly) that both business’s unwanted legacy real estate can be disposed of, are the brightest and best within Comet and Game able to focus on a future in which physical stores are just a part (a small part), and leading-edge technology will enable them to sell more products, more effectively and more profitably, than Amazon?

We have moved on very quickly from dead record shops and dying book shops.  Any sector, any shop, that cannot provide a vivid reason for customers to continue to shop there starts to look like a showroom for online brands to exploit.  (Shortly afterwards, it looks like an empty store.)  But does this mean (roll of drums) the Death Of The High Street?

I think not.  It means the radical reshaping of the high street, though, and without getting all butchers-and-bakers-and-candlestick-makers, it does mean combining the best of the past with the most desirable elements of the future.

It means far fewer shops – 20% less, 30% less?  The number will vary depending on the prosperity and lifestyles of the local customers, or the effectiveness with which that high street (or shopping centre) can act as a regional or national magnet.  But the good town centres of the future will either be local, or super-regional – in-between won’t stack up anymore.

It means a high street which (as the supermarket chains have figured out) provides the staples you need in a hurry, and (as the best independents have figured out) a choice of goods that you simply can’t buy anywhere else.

It means a high street that provides entertainment, community, and relaxation – not one where hours are spent in unpleasant shops, buying commodity goods.  There’ll be more meeting up (facilitated by phone, of course), more coffee, more chat; more escapism, more novelty, less stress.  Because there are fewer shops, there’ll be less traipsing.  Parking provision might even improve (well, I can dream – though more shoppers’ buses would be welcome).

Manufacturers will run showrooms – if the value chain in many categories has eliminated the margin a physical retailer requires, then technology companies, for instance, will have to follow Apple’s lead and provide opportunities for consumers to see their goods, prior to buying them at the best price from whichever online supplier works best for them.

So the future of the local high street becomes a blend of entertainment, uniqueness, staples and showrooms.  Customers would appreciate this, but it would require some categories to disappear completely, and others to reinvent themselves.  Can the retailers, the landlords and local/central government – if government post-Portas is paying attention – do this, or will too much business transfer to Amazon before the necessary changes are made?


Christmas trading 2011: results table – Wednesday (and final?) update

25th January 2012

WH Smith traditionally brings the Christmas results season to a close, and here they are, down 6% in the high streets and 3% at their Travel division.  Although this was accompanied by the usual statements about the entertainment categories (CD, DVD, now an infinitesimal part of Smith’s mix), and “resilience”, “challenge” and “cost controls” all made their usual appearances, there was little indicating retail progress.  Strong categories?  Kobo and online?  Former British Bookshops stores?  You can manage a business for cash for so long (and it’s been so long that it’s remarkable), but at some point you have to sell more product, to more customers, more often.  That’s what we want to hear from WHS, and it’s what’s missing again.

19th January 2012

I’ve been on the road for the past couple of days, and quite a few gaps in the table have been filled during that time.  Strong sales from Primark and Matalan indicate that there’s still a desire for value when it’s done well.  Of course, you might say the same about Peacocks, which by all accounts remained operationally profitable, but has been crippled by debt and forced into administration, threatening the biggest one-off loss of retail jobs since Woolworths in 2008.

The Centre for Retail Research in Nottingham has published a sobering schedule, detailing retail failures from 2010-2012.   They state that, over the five years 2007-2011, 173 retail businesses folded, comprising a breathtaking 18,342 stores, and over 150,000 jobs.  Questions please to the CRR –here’s the link.

Back to Christmas 2011, and at the other end of the fashion scale, Burberry and Mulberry have announced excellent growth, but it’s been unclear whether the numbers have referred specifically to UK retail, so I’ve omitted them.

No such qualms with not-retailers-at-all Greene King and JD Wetherspoon.  Looks as though we still have money to spend on a night at the pub!  And animals had a good Christmas, even if their owners cut back, with Pets at Home up 4.9%.

I posted a like-for-like book sales for Oxfam last week, and this has been followed by a flurry of other figures, reported in the Guardian.

Biggest news from the mid-week period has been from the electricals retailers, with Dixons (Currys/PCWorld) hailing -7.0% as a relative success, and Comet’s  -14.5% a reflection of the grim condition of a business struggling through a sale process, and pretty much disowned by Kesa.

However, I think there are good things to be said about Dixons, but they need a separate blog – watch this space…

16th January 2012

Just three additions today – Boots and The Perfume Shop, both looking good; and the McArthurGlen outlet centres, which appear to have had an exceptional season.  It’s worth bearing in mind that Christmas historically has peaked early at outlet “villages” like Swindon and Cheshire Oaks – outlet customers search out the best bargains early, and then complete their shopping in traditional malls and high streets – from memory, the final weekend in November was typically the best in the run-up to Christmas.

Who are we still waiting for?  Of those who made Christmas trading announcements last year: Electricals – Currys/PCWorld and Comet; books/media – WH Smith and Waterstones (though the latter is now privately owned, so is under no shareholder pressure to announce); fashion: Primark, Matalan; DIY: B&Q (though Christmas is hardly a prime season for them, it’d be good to benchmark their performance against Homebase and GCG).

Who would we like to hear from?  Big, successful private businesses like Arcadia and River Island; PE-owned growers like Pets at Home and Hobbycraft; discount grocers like Aldi and Lidl, and bargain retailers like Poundland; niche successes like Jack Wills and Cath Kidston; mega-brands like Selfridges…  It’s a long list, and any analysis of published numbers is inevitably just a snapshot of a sector which is far less plc-dominated than in the past.

13th January 2012

A quick final update before the weekend is upon us.  Has Tesco had enough press coverage?  As Twitter noted last night during News at Ten, you’d think they’d called in the administrators…  Still, Philip Clarke has been very candid about the challenges Tesco faces, and has been reminded (as The Times editorial today emphasises) that no company stays at the top forever.  I’m thinking hard about Tesco Extras, and a separate blog might follow…

Nils Pratley on The Trouble at Tesco

Harry Wallop on Is This the End of Tesco Dominance? (QTWTAIN)

Meanwhile…  Good numbers from Original Factory Shop, The Entertainer and Superdrug, but another tough season for Theo Fennell.  Nul points to Asda and Ted Baker for announcing total growth for Christmas, but not like-for-likes.  Of course, I appreciate they don’t have to announce anything at all, but if I had shares in Wal-Mart, I’d want to know what was what.

12th January 2012

After a positive start to the week, things have turned ugly with poor results from Tesco spooking the markets, and throwing fresh doubt over the sector.

As you can see from the table above, Tesco has performed significantly worse than other supermarkets (and M&S food, which has been broken out separately in reporting, and which saw a like-for-like increase of 3%).

House of Fraser has posted some remarkably good numbers, but it isn’t clear whether they’re inc or ex-VAT.  For the record, I’m a committed ex-VAT person – including a variable rate of tax in your sales is no way to accurately reflect like-for-like shopper behaviour.

(At Borders, 75%-80% of our sales were VAT-free – books, newspapers and magazines – and the remainder was VATted – stationery, CDs, DVDs, toys etc.  We also paid a “special rate” of VAT, where eg a CD-ROM was attached to a book on computing or language learning, which reflected the fact that part of the whole product was zero-rated.  I’d like to think that the HMRC officers required to create and police these rules, and audit the proceeds, cost rather more than the total tax take.)

Anyway, back to Christmas 2011, and as expected, times were tough at the likes of Halfords, Thorntons and Mothercare.  Argos had a particularly grim set of results – for how long will 750 stores be sustainable?

Some more variances to reporting periods, highlighted in green.  These were the reporting periods twelve months ago:

  • Tesco LY: 6 weeks to 8th January
  • JD Sports: 5 weeks to 1st January
  • New Look: 15 weeks to 8th January
  • House of Fraser: 5 weeks to 8th January

FTSE 100 retailers are now shown in bold.

10th January 2012

Plenty of results added to today’s table, including a couple of outriders that you may not have seen reported elsewhere!

Game takes over at the unhappy end of the chart; their LY numbers are highlighted because of a change in reporting period – for 2010, they reported five weeks to 8th January, this time around, an additional three weeks pre-Christmas were included.  The Co-op also made a change – the prior year numbers relate to a 13 week period, October – December.

There’s some inc-VAT (Debenhams) and ex-VAT (Majestic) differentiation, which given the rate jump from 17.5% to 20% has a bearing on different companies’ numbers.  And of course, these are just sales – not profits.  The rumbling undercurrent – “of course, their margins will have taken a hit” – accompanies many of these announcements.

Nevertheless, it’s great to see many more pluses than minuses on the schedule – long may it continue…

9th January 2012

And they’re off.

It looks as though this year, every media source and his dog is going to be publishing regular updates on Christmas trading, so I’ll keep this brief, and update it as required.

I’ve included last year’s numbers, where I have them – and as this is a busy office, I haven’t dug out LYs where I previously didn’t have them – I’ll try and infill if Edwin Drood becomes unwatchable.

Worth noting that, where comparisons exist, the order of companies is exactly the same as last year.  (The reporting periods are all similar, so these are good comparisons.)

It’s worth remembering that bad results always take longer to calculate than good ones…

And for the many hundreds of you who enjoyed my “8o towns” blog from last week, I’ve shown store numbers.  Counting stores is always an inexact art, but most of the chains are on multiples of eighty.  Some will stay that way – supermarkets, Next.  But there’s restructuring in the air.

Just to keep us all honest, this article from the Telegraph highlights some of the more imaginative ways that Christmas performance can be characterised.

And, lest we forget, the following chains probably won’t be providing Christmas trading updates:

Barratts Priceless, Blacks, D2 Jeans, Hawkins Bazaar/Tobar, La Senza, and Past Times.  Ask not for whom the bell tolls, but let’s hope stores can be rescued, and jobs maintained.