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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.

To comment on this blog post, just click on “leave a comment” in the Tags block above.

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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

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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.    

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

United StatesUnited KingdomGermanyFranceItaly and Spain.  


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.


Westfield Ho! Visiting Stratford City, Part Two

Welcome back to the second part of the Front of Store Westfield tour…

Sticking with the Lower Ground Floor, we emerged from the phone shops into a world of children’s specialists.  Build-a-Bear, Lego and upscale clothes stores like Polarn O Pyret and Atelier de Courcelles are already in evidence; Mamas & Papas will follow on a higher level.  (Observation: upmarket children’s stores have foreign names.  JoJo Maman Bébé would be another.  Whereas the mass market has clunkier, English names.)

So, The Entertainer.  The six-day toyshop is a staple in many shopping centres, and this was a pretty standard store – reasonably fully stocked, but many popular brands had been allocated limited space or were unstocked, and generic product took their place.  Putting all the rollerblades in “Boys Toys”, including the pink ones, summed up a rather formulaic experience; staff stayed firmly behind the tills (including those wearing “can I help you?” sashes), which rather defeats the experiential joy of a good toyshop.  We left, feeling a bit flat, and crossed the mall to Mothercare.  Here, shopfit quality has been lifted (attractive light woods and pastels), and roomsets show off nursery furniture to advantage, but again, there were no staff on the sales floor.  The customer may have sought assistance with car seats or buggies, or wanted some show-and-tell in the curiously unbranded Early Learning section at the rear, but all staff were again coralled behind the tills.

Retailing isn’t easy at the moment (you may have noticed), but it does seem curious to under-staff your most important new stores within a week of opening.  If you can’t throw some payroll hours at converting new customers to your brand, and you don’t have a high-concept store design or radical new products, how are you going to get your store to stand out from 300 others at Westfield?

Pausing to admire the publishers’ pack-shots on the Foyles hoarding (opening next month), we headed into one of Westfield’s biggest draws, the John Lewis store.  And our initial impressions were… oh dear.  This has all gone badly wrong.

The Partnership has built a large store that feels small.  Perhaps the escalator cut-out is too big, but where M&S is spacious, JLP is cramped and tight, particularly on Lower Ground, where the juxtaposition of menswear to the right and kitchenware to the left feels absurd.  The shopfloor has been segmented using fretworked screens and other devices which only serve to further cramp the feel of the place – the aisles are tight, and the product juxtapositions frankly bizarre.  And the severed hands hanging from the ceiling are downright creepy.

Things improve on what Westfield calls the Ground Floor, and JLP calls First (women’s fashion, accessories and beauty), and things are as they should be here and on First/Second (furnishings and fabrics).  The top floor is strong, with the best toy offer we’d seen all day – at last, someone carrying all the brands, facing the plush towards the customer, and keeping the offer clear.  But the top floor also contains a big fat compromise of a space, which may explain why the bottom floor is such a dogs’ dinner.  A huge London 2012 shop sells every imaginable take on Olympic mascots and logos, complete with a viewing gallery offering a sensational panorama of the Olympic park.  This must take up over a quarter of the total retail space on the floor, so you have to conclude that several categories will exit the lowest level and move to the top in due course – but not until autumn 2012.

An aside – isn’t it about time we stopped treating the 1960s as the pinnacle of British grooviness?  Routemaster buses, Concordes and original Minis barely exist in modern London, and are surely irrelevant to our image of a 21st century cosmopolitan capital city.  At least red phones boxes and beefeaters still exist, but we need better, more modern icons.

Back to the shops, but before we leave John Lewis (after a reliable lunch at The Place To Eat) I should note that customer service was as exemplary as ever.  There’s nothing unfixable about this store, but it wasn’t delivering the experience we’d come to expect.

What makes John Lewis more profoundly disappointing is the quality of Marks & Spencer.  M&S has created a proper department store in a free-standing building that provides a sense of occasion on every level.  I haven’t seen the prototype fit at Kensington High Street, but this was a classy, well laid-out and very shoppable offer.  Menswear (complete with a tailor running up alterations, and much clearer definition for brands like Blue Harbour) was simply the best I’ve ever seen in an M&S; home and furnishing were strong, and a delightful top-floor cafe offered treats that the customer could also buy from the Foodhall.  I’ve written recently about the challenging legacy of old stores that M&S has to deal with; by contrast, in a brand new space, they are creating some of the best retailing in the UK.

Clinton’s has made a bold attempt to update its image.  The orange and purple trialled in St Albans is much in evidence, but some of the shopfitting was cheap, and the juxtaposition between a funkier feel and some of the granny-targeted merchandise was jarring.  Service was excellent, though; Clinton has too many shops, many of them desperately old and tired, but there’s a place afor a mid-market gift/card chain, and one hopes that the new management team can move the business forward.

Timothy Melgund at Paperchase has often asserted he runs a fashion brand, rather than a stationery shop, and the new store is on the prime fashion pitch, beautifully presented and ideally sized.  Cards can be generic things, and Clinton/Scribbler/WHS are subject to constant price comparisons with the supermarkets; Paperchase overlays some quality and product uniqueness, and lifts itself well clear of the fray.

A few years ago, a vast HMV would have taken dominant space in a new mall like Westfield.  Not any more – a smaller unit on a side aisle has to suffice.  The CD/DVD offer is what it is, slowly and inexorably declining (though it doesn’t look as though anyone has told the buyers – stock density is extreme); games appear to have been circumscribed, and the technology offer – pitched to save the business – hasn’t noticeably moved on from the Islington protoptype.  This was very disappointing; Apple, Currys/PC World Black, and the upper end phone stores were displaying better tech on better fixtures, with dangly cables under control, and staff to explain and sell.  HMV offers MP3 players, boomboxes (archaic term, sorry) and accessories, but it’s hard to see for whom this store would be first choice for this product.  Execution of these ranges will have to be more stimulating if they’re to offer any real hope to HMV.

Next time I visit Westfield, I look forward to seeing more stores trading – there are still a lot of “under constructions” and “to-be-lets”.  I’ll rope in a teenage daughter and we’ll take a proper look at fashion.  However, I also wanted to understand where the customers were coming from.  Great play has been made of Stratford’s connectedness – two tube lines, Overground, DLR, national rail and direct links to the Continent, plus an adjacent bus station.  You can reach Westfield directly from any of these, but plenty of people are entering on foot from “old” Stratford.

Old Stratford compares very badly to Westfield and the Olympic Park, reminding the visitor of how deprived parts of our capital can be.  A one-way system encircles the old Stratford shopping centre, so that most foot traffic passes through a dingy mall and across knackered highways to reach Westfield.  Display boards promote upcoming public realm improvements (clouds on sticks!), but it is hard to see how this sort of surface flim-flam can improve the residential and commercial environment.

Stratford’s old mall is big, dating back to 1970s planning models that brought whole town centres under one roof (think Camberley, Eastleigh).  The interior is dark and crowded, stinks of cheap disinfectant, and is full of the crowds you can see on the bridge above, pushing their way through and past the old shopping experience and on to Westfield.

Massive regeneration will surely help the area, creating jobs and housing.  A masterplan was signed off by Newham Council at the end of last year – just five years after the successful Olympic bid.  Serious thought needs to be given to local shopping provision – presumably the duplicate chains in the old scheme will be seeking to exit, leaving market stalls and pound shops behind them.  A decent, modern supermarket would be a good start, but at present, the contrast between Westfield and its immediate surroundings is too stark.  The number of shoppers in Westfield suggests long-term success (though, as I indicated in Part One, the Olympics need to come and go before retailers will have an objective picture of their performance).  To the south, Canary Wharf’s wealth has largely failed to trickle out to its immediate surroundings, beyond the gated apartments and highways.  A scheme like Bluewater – turn left off the M25 and head for the quarry – has little integration with Dartford and Gravesend.  Westfield and Stratford City, on the other hand, are in the heart of the deprived East End, and can – must – do better.

Photos:  Telegraph, Design Week, Mail/Getty


		

Is worthiness still worth anything? – Habitat falls

It has been a bumper week for administrators, and a dismal week for retailers.

On Tuesday, Life & Style, which emerged from the ashes of Ethel Austin, called in RSM Tenon, who immediately closed 22 stores, and is now in the traditional “talks with a number of parties” process.

On Thursday, Homeform, which owns the Moben, Dolphin and Sharps brands, failed in a particularly swift and ugly manner.

And today, the Habitat UK  IP/brand, three London stores and the website have been acquired by Home Retail Group (Argos/Homebase).  Habitat the chain is dead, and it’s hard to name a potential buyer for any package of in-town/big box furniture stores .  As the Prime Minister’s special retail envoy tweeted: “Quelle horreur. One of our last brilliant British retailers Habitat has gone into administration. Part being bought by Homebase! OMG!”

The weekend papers will be full of it, because Habitat is a defining brand for the baby boomers.  Created by Terence Conran to sell the furniture and homewares that stodgier chains wouldn’t stock, it was as much a part of the swinging sixties as Quant or Bailey; and like them, it survived the decade and settled down, remaining essential for as long as Conran was involved.  Ikea probably killed it twice – first, as steamroller competition, selling clean Scandinavian design at knock-down prices, and then as a semi-detached brand in Kamprad family ownership.  You can read the obituaries tomorrow.

I got to thinking about “worthiness” in retail.  There may be a better word for this (“worthy” has overtones of Presbyterian dourness), but I’m thinking of retailers – often driven by a singular vision – who seek to create a successful business through building a better world.  Conran has always been utterly committed to good design, and it’s a pity that he has had to settle at the top end of the market (although without his evangelism, Ikea may never have taken off and we’d still be buying furniture from Maples).

Plenty of retailers do good works – they will contribute to environmental causes, and support education, sport or the arts.  But it seems that few now seek to improve the world and lift their customers’ understanding through everyday commerce.

Mothercare introduced good design to the nursery, and treated expectant and new mothers as human beings, helping to change society’s approach to babies and young children.  Early Learning had a wholesome, Scandinavian flavour summed up by the company’s name and a belief in the interdependence of learning and play.  Both brands are now under the Mothercare umbrella, of course, and are successfully trading across the world, but inevitably that 60s/70s new-world zest has faded.

Of course, I have to mention bookshops – Tim Waterstone wanted to get literary fiction into the hands of every reader, and imprints like Picador, Black Swan and 4th Estate flourished as a result.  Borders actively increased the size of the children’s book market – our children’s specialists had a missionary zeal.  And Ottakars created shops as locally focused as any chain could ever be.

And in terms of a broader good, think of Sainsbury’s long commitment to good architecture and design, or Marks & Spencer’s concentration on British suppliers.  Both are strong, socially conscious retailers, but those elements have now faded from their corporate characters.

All of these companies existed to do business – their objective was to turn a profit and secure their future growth.  The “worthy” benefits helped to define their brands, and position them in customers’ consciousness.  However, consumer priorities change.  Price – and specifically, the ability to easily make price comparisons – has forced all retailers to compete more robustly on value and availability, and – to some extent – damn the fripperies.  Worthiness no longer works for big mass-market chains.

Except in one towering case, of course.  John Lewis Partnership, middle England’s favourite department stores and supermarkets, are as honestly, committedly worthy as any of the companies I’ve cited above.  Perhaps John Lewis’s move to centre stage has whipped out the worthy carpet from under other retailer’s feet, but they are the good guys against whom everyone else is measured – they are strong commercially, and their unique ownership structure underlines their “wholesomeness”.  Retail Week has published its annual Power List, and for the first time it doesn’t have a Tesco boss at #1 – JLP’s Charlie Mayfield is now on pole.

And for all those Habitat customers, who want the best for their kitchens and lounges, who want something more than Ikea… there’s only one place to go now:

Photos: Habitat – http://www.edu.lolc.co.uk; Mothercare – advertisingarchives.captureweb.co.uk; Sainsbury – modernarchitecturelondon.com; John Lewis – Estates Gazette

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