The story of sofa.com is a great example of how and why the old approach to investment in retail no longer works. Inevitably, the news of its forced rescue by its main stakeholder from the clutches of its PE owner is dressed up as about adverse market conditions etc. The reality is this was a highly profitable, well differentiated retail business with genuine potential. A clue to its nature is in its name – a very strong online offer, supported by just one showroom in an off-pitch warehouse in Chelsea.
This is about a total failure by PE owners to understand the DNA of what they acquired. They simply applied old, redundant PE thinking: chuck loads of money at opening loads of stores and hey presto, you instantly multiply sales and profits. Actually, no. You take £5m of profit and turn it into £20m of losses, clearly unsustainable for a business with revenues of £29m. Beyond ruinous losses, turbo charging growth has involved totally ditching the quirky, service-driven brand that had been painstakingly developed by its founders. This is what underpinned the outstanding profits sofa.com made and made it attractive to PE in the first place.
It is ironic that the sofa.com acquired by CBPE Capital was actually in good shape to buck the market conditions that have so hit most of the store-based retailers in the furnishings sector. This is without doubt the toughest retail market anyone has ever seen. It’s not cyclical, but structural. Nevertheless, you can still make very good returns in retail. And there are investment opportunities too. But only if you really understand the market. The old way of retailing (and of growing retailers) will no longer work. Understanding the brand, the customer and the model are fundamental. Simply filling the tank with gas and igniting the throttle will end in tears.
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