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Retail has always been a highly dynamic industry, intensely competitive and fighting for a share of the wider consumer spending pot. This is an industry used to dealing with a constant diet of change. However, the change we are seeing today is far more profound than anything the past has thrown up. We are now seeing by far the most challenging period in retail history. A reshaping of the industry’s structure and economics is unfolding, and most of the real change is yet to happen.

Richardtalksretail is focused on analysing this change, anticipating the implications, and mapping how the key players across the various sectors are dealing with it. The regular Blogs in this public section of the site are a taster of the much more detailed analysis and forecasts in the premium section, reserved for subscribers.

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What you get

Discounting for silly season

Talk has always been cheap but never so widely available at such threadbare prices. Black Friday kicks off the silly season of meaningless reports about how successful it has been,  desperately trying to divert attention from what is by definition, an act of industry-wide self-harm.

Clearly, consumers only have a certain amount of money and that spend forward several weeks at a discount remains destructive. What to sell remains an issue. Either you clear mainstream stock or you buy specially – either way you will both dilute your margins and your brand equity. Whatever the claims, special buys are of inferior quality.

Then there are returns. Everyone quoting this year’s sales hike will quote gross ie before returns because they will not yet know. And when they quote year-on-year figures, are last year’s figures gross or net? And have they forecast this year’s returns, and if so on what basis?

The potential damage of Black Friday is being mitigated to a degree by a) extending the period and b) managing down more tightly the volume of offer discounted. But both are sticking plasters that provide limited protection. Once Black Friday ends it will merely be swapped for the next promo as we run into Christmas, discounting all the way, followed by the Christmas Trading Statement season.

Again, we will hear of sales records broken and best evers, press releases featuring sales of (insert product of choice) spanning the earth three times and with a few very notable exceptions, will actually tell us little. These Statements have always been open to abuse but today, with online so significant, they are deeply misleading. They never ever include returns. Retailers with significant, and growing, online sales will necessarily be reporting inflated numbers. And naturally, the topic of margins will not feature at all.

Talk is getting increasingly cheap. My advice is, don’t buy it.

M&S, FTSE and deconstructing decline

The fallout of M&S from the FTSE is clearly very symbolic, although the writing on the wall has been getting larger for decades. This business was once a true world leader, not just in retailing but in the merits in paternalistic business management. It set standards others could only dream of. But that was long ago and the decline since has been slow and painful, spanning a succession of leadership teams all of which promised much, spent lots but delivered little. The current team is no different. When a business places more importance on lowering costs than driving sales the alarm bells should be ringing.

The issues of Marks go way beyond getting some fashions wrong or not buying enough jeans. They are systemic – a loss of culture and the values that held it together. This is all about allowing the brand and what it means to simply get lost. The idea of M&S being a family food shop has led to its acquisition of 50% of Ocado – the tail wagging the dog and likely to lead to the dilution of its core food offering as it seeks to integrate the two. The idea that M&S needs to attract young (or younger) clothing shoppers is similarly ill conceived. Shoppers never want to shop in their Mother’s or Grandmother’s stores. Its core customer is now in her early 60s and it is imperative M&S defends its core business before thinking about any layers beyond.

Clothing has been the biggest issue and its decline has been inevitable and totally predictable. For years, the company has sought to alleviate margin pressure by cost cutting. Successive culls of highly skilled, knowledgeable staff led to progressively sub-contracting to third parties the core skills that made M&S the state-of-the-art retailer it once was. Moreover, systematic pressure sent up the supply chain to its suppliers has led to a progressive diminution of product quality. Try finding any natural fibre on the womenswear floor today. Its core customers are not interested in lower prices if it means inferior, irrelevant product.

Marks and Spencer’s decline has been slow and painful. Some might say it really began when Sir Rick Greenbury set his heart on making £1 billion profit, an ambition that was duly delivered in 1997 but at a heavy price, including subsequently his own position. He helped introduce a level of politics in the business that was very unhealthy. His anointed successor was Peter Salsbury – a very able retailer who was not really suited to be CEO – lasted less than two years and was succeeded by the company’s first external appointment as Executive Chairman, Luc Vandervelde, a Belgian retailer secured at great cost for a large transfer fee in February 2000.

Marks’ performance had deteriorated steadily since the £1 billion profits bubble. Together with CEO Roger Holmes, another external appointment, a range of initiatives did restore performance to a degree but there was one symbolic decision which in my view ranks at least alongside today’s fall from the FTSE. Vandervelde and Holmes sold the monolithic Michael House Baker Street head office for £115m. By the time the deal actually completed, Stuart Rose had taken over but the sale of such an immensely valuable asset for such a giveaway price was, I think, disposing of much more than just bricks and mortar.

Archie Norman has certainly injected a leaner, more fleet of foot style of business at M&S. He has also separated food and clothing to a larger than ever extent, a possibly portentous move. Being more agile and moving faster is positive but only if it’s in the right direction. It’s not.

 

M&S & Selfridges – chalk and cheese

The M&S flagship at Marble Arch and Selfridges are neighbours on Oxford Street. I can remember when going from one to the other was an object lesson in good and bad retailing. One store didn’t just represent the leading edge thinking of UK retailing but was at the top of the industry globally. That good and bad remains as stark, but the two companies have swapped places.

M&S has lost its way badly. Much of what made it really special has been allowed to erode and today, has all but disappeared. Food remains a good business, a leading innovator with dynamic ranging. However, management aspires to be the family supermarket it actually has never been. The (in my opinion ill-judged) deal with Ocado will add loads of product, most of which is of markedly lower quality and which in any case most stores do not have the space to accommodate. Clothing lacks style, isn’t sure who it is aimed at and finding any natural fibres in garments is increasingly difficult. Cutting costs has translated to a progressive decline in fabric and general product quality.

Selfridges is the polar opposite. One or two steps inside the door and you can feel the buzz. There is a constant energy around the store. Footfall these days is many times that of M&S Marble Arch. Of course, the nature of the store attracts lots of “window shoppers” but nevertheless, the numbers translate to vastly superior sales densities. And Selfridges never rests on its laurels. The store has a constant stream of new ideas, new offerings, new departments and brands, meaning it remains fresh and maintains that vibe of excitement.

In business copying is a waste of time. M&S cannot be Selfridges, any more than Debenhams, HoF and John Lewis further up the street can. Nevertheless, retailing is an industry where pretty much everyone’s trading secrets are there to see on the sales floor. You can learn from the winners and incorporate elements of their thinking into your own.

UK retailing has become far too corporate for this trading market. When pleasing shareholders is deemed to be more important than pleasing customers the alarm bells should start ringing. The M&S leadership team has vastly overrated the importance of lowering prices. Their customers are far more interested in relevant, quality product. The business will continue to decline for as long as they have these fundamental factors the wrong way around. And Selfridges goes from strength to strength, investing more and more into progressively improving its core.

Retail needs to be more entrepreneurial

We have all grown up in an era of upward-only economic growth. The rate has varied and we have had the odd short-lived recession. But in the consumer economy, growth has been almost guaranteed for generations. For most of this period consumers’ spending power outpaced capacity growth. Today, many of the fundamentals have reversed. This is the background to where we are today and helps to explain the widespread turmoil we are seeing.

Whatever the increasingly unbelievable official data might say, we are in a retail recession. Strategies that have generated reliable growth in the past, are often now nooses gradually tightening around retail necks. Every retail sector is oversupplied, with too many stores, units are too big, and ranges far too wide and deep. All this was designed to attract a widening customer base. And for generations of growing demand, growth was relatively easy. Naturally, some businesses grew more than others but even quite mediocre retailers were able to report modestly positive numbers.

This is all now in the past. Against the background of massive online growth, physical space has continued to expand. With deep uncertainty and Brexit looming, demand is increasingly softening. Market forces are exposing the fundamental weaknesses of many retail businesses.

The industry has become increasingly corporate. Smaller, niche brands developed by entrepreneurs were grown to a size where they attracted attention and usually floated or sold, sometimes to trade buyers but more often to PE Houses. The overwhelming majority of teams at the top of our industry have skill sets that are more managerial and less entrepreneurial. And in a trading market where the depth and rate of change is accelerating all the time, this is a critical point. Successfully dealing with change on this scale is foreign to the vast majority of today’s leadership teams. And this in turn is why the overwhelming bulk of our industry narrative today is around cost cutting.

The biggest issue for most retailers today is not around their costs being too high. It is that their propositions are not good enough. They lack focus and have lost sight of who their core customer is. The fat I mentioned before is killing them, slowly and painfully. Retail is a high fixed cost business. Cutting costs relatively fast almost always involved cutting people. My view is that most of the remedies currently being employed in “rescues” are very short term at best. Most actually diminish a retailer’s ability to generate sales growth. In today’s retail/accounting vocabulary, the word restructuring only applies to the cost line. CVAs never make the company a better retailer. Restructuring must apply to the top line to have a real chance of success.

There are no silver bullets and in fact there is only one way a retail business can secure its future. Sell more product. And doing this in a sustainable way requires a clear, focused and relevant proposition. I think this is the essence of entrepreneurialism. Understanding your market, what it wants, and investing in delivering exactly that at a price that represents value and allows you to make a competitively defendable return.

This requires true leadership. Very few retailers out there today are investing in their top lines. Stakeholders need to understand the new reality. Historic returns are exactly that – history! The quality of leadership is vastly more important than in the past. And leaders need to have the courage and vision to critique their offers and invest in making them better. Invest in customer service, don’t cut it. Focus much on your core customers and much less on the others. Be more entrepreneurial.

** I support retailers and stakeholders with strategic advice. If you think I can help, drop me a line – richard@richardtalksretail.co.uk

CVAs, distress and the slippery slope

Yesterday it was Monsoon. The day before, Office is apparently also considering a CVA. In recent weeks Arcadia “successfully” persuaded its landlords to keep the life support machines on for longer. Philip Green then told landlords via the Today programme that Arcadia hadn’t been anywhere near close to going under. However, this does sound close to him telling them they have been legged over. How many of them already knew this is a moot point. What is clear however, is that a successful CVA vote is in no way a vote of confidence in whichever retailer we may be talking about. It reflects the plummeting confidence landlords have in their own offering – retail property is no longer the licence to print money it once was. Supply greatly exceeds demand.

For retailers, this distress we are seeing is just the beginning. Indeed, CVAs, pre-packs and other lifelines are ensuring the turmoil will last longer and be more damaging. Stakeholders are demonstrating an extraordinary appetite for denial. One of the striking aspects of this current narrative of distress and restructuring is that it only ever applies to costs. Too many  retailers believe that if they lower their costs, everything will be fine. It won’t.

Preventing market forces exerting natural selection is like ignoring the root causes of an illness and simply treating the symptoms. Will lower rents make Arcadia’s brands better able to reverse market share declines? Will they allow Monsoon to move away from its highly stylised branding and create a totally different, relevant handwriting? Without focusing on the key problems – weak propositions, weak brands with too many options – they are certain to get worse. The clock is ticking.

We are seeing unprecedented turmoil across the industry. So far, the reaction has been mostly panic, with little coherent thinking. The success record of CVAs is awful. I see no sign of that changing at all.

** We support retailers and stakeholders with strategic advice. If you think we can help, drop me a line – richard@richardtalksretail.co.uk

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