With the news that House of Fraser is to close more than half its stores coming so soon after Marks & Spencer’s announcement that it would also shut 100 shops, many an article has been quick to lament the woes of the British high street, frequently blaming the demise of these institutions on consumer buying habits, and I find myself getting really annoyed.
‘Millenials seek experiences over consumerism’, they bleat. ‘It’s the rise of online behemoths like Amazon’. ‘It’s the fault of out of town hyper markets’. As far as I’m concerned, it’s none of these things, although I’ll concede these contribute to the speed of dismantling of a brand already in freefall. Quite simply, these brands are failing because they stock things that people don’t want to buy!
In a crowded marketplace, when change is the only constant, any brand which lacks a clear sense of identity combined with an understanding of its place in the market, is heading for extinction. What beggars belief is that the brands in question don’t see it coming. It’s a bit like Blockbuster failing to anticipate the rise of the digital streaming operators like Netflix, instead frantically attempting to ward off disaster at the ground level with free family packs of Maltesers with every rental. Futile.
In my experience this reactive rather than proactive approach happens when those at the top of the food chain lack any comprehension of the importance of cultural trends, the zeitgeist or even deep insight into the sector they’re attempting to lead. It’s what I’d call leadership by organagram, in other words formulating a ‘future plan’ based on something that works neatly on paper instead of basing it on real knowledge and practical in-the-trenches experience.
Today, managing any brand relies on an intimate and expert understanding of your audience and your market. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, or have drawn that net too wide, or think you’re cooler than you really are, therein lies disaster. Know thine customer, then seek to speak to them alone, gradually enlarging that pool by creating a great reputation for your point of difference. The latter being the most important. The crucial question should always be: What is my philosophy? What does my brand uniquely stand for? And then, as far as I’m concerned, the key is to resolutely stick to that, while constantly being open to changing the mode and manner of delivery of that message in anticipation of the ever-shifting cultural context in which you’re operating.
In short, give your audience what they expect, in the way that they want it, and then give them more, so that they tell more! As Alexandra Shulman, former Editor in Chief of Vogue, succinctly put it in a recent Daily Mail article about what she’d do to turnaround M&S: “M&S tries to achieve the impossible; to be all things to all people. This is never going to happen!”
And, on reading that Steve Rowe, CEO of M&S since 2016, has drafted in all manner of people to advise him, I feel he’s falling into the classic management trap of searching for complicated answers to very simple questions. Herewith then my entirely subjective analysis of the big guns in the department store sector, which if you boil it down all essentially sell the same stuff — fashion, beauty, homeware, kids stuff and technology — so a clear USP is everything.
Marks & Spencer
About ten years ago, Stuart Rose, Executive Chairman of M&S from 2004 to 2010, invited me to one of his annual Editor’s lunches in which he invites a bunch of magazine editors from a specific sector, in my case Home, to HQ. It was all very polite, held in a boardroom, yes thanks/no thanks to water/wine etc. And in the pause between main course and pud, I recall him going round the table and asking each of us to tell him what they liked, disliked and would change about M&S. When it came to my turn I said something along the lines of the following: I liked the ideal of M&S as the high street provider of quality modern basics, from food to clothing via homewares, for the average Brit. What I disliked was the fact that they resolutely failed to deliver on this mission. And what I’d change was whoever picked the palettes! Literally the colours. As more often than not, the designs, from pants to pots, were ok, simple and straightforward, but whoever determined the colourways was either blind or stupid.
Anyway, Rose, ever the consummate host, smiled broadly, thanked me for my contribution and moved swiftly on. I believe he left M&S the following year. However my comments still stand, and that’s unbelievably frustrating. Why do people not shop at M&S as much? I’ll tell you. We want to, we really do, but last winter you didn’t even stock navy leather gloves. Might seem like a small thing but it’s an indicative example of the core issue. M&S one of the best places to get a pair of plain, lined, 100% leather gloves, with prices starting at a fantastic £18. Well, that’s if you’d like a pair in vivid purple, shocking pink, black, grubby tan and quite a few other hideous colours that I’ve managed to delete from my memory bank, but not navy. Nor chocolate brown, pale pink, fir green, dove grey or any of the other colours that might have spanned classic to currently contemporary. And its a moot point that these colours might have had to be picked months in advance for production, any colourist worth their salt could have done better than they did. And as for the multipacks of pants, don’t get me started. If M&S can’t even get its knickers right, then I really don’t care that they enlisted Terence Conran to create a furniture range for them upstairs because I’ve already left the store in disgust.
House of Fraser
Name one thing that’s unique about this store? Something you could only get there, that no-one else stocks? Exactly. Zero point of difference, stuck between Debenhams and M&S where the latter stumbles on because it’s reputation precedes it, and the former is having struggles of its own, see below.
Again it’s all about asking what does it stand for? What’s its strapline? I don’t know either. In 2009 amid the fanfare of the brand returning to TV advertising, it was reported as ‘Design in Every Department’ replacing the previous ‘Styling the Nation’. But I roamed around its website for an age, I even read its corporate business statement which was peppered with phrases like “We will deliver growth by becoming a destination for Social Shopping” and “This will be combined with a focus on driving efficiency by removing barriers to shopping both online and in-store”, and I still couldn’t find one. What it does have going for it though is the ‘Designers at Debenhams‘ initiative. Here they back British designers and offer the consumer competitive entry points to some of the best names in the business from fashion to homeware: think Abigail Ahern, John Rocha, Matthew Williamson, Jasper Conran, Henry Holland and Preen. This works. This is original. This is their sales USP. In some cases the quality bar needs to raise, after all no one wants a ‘cheap’ knock-off of a designer label, we want a diffusion line at a competitive pricepoint. So I’d proffer, why not focus the mission statement around this?
Unlike the others, I’d wager that almost everyone knows this brand’s now 85-year old strapline: “Never knowingly undersold.” I don’t know anyone who’s actually taken the store up on it’s promise to refund the difference if a purchase is subsequently found cheaper elsewhere, but that’s not the point. The point is that you trust John Lewis. You trust its staff, who are all invested into the business. And you trust them to be selling decent stuff at the right prices. However, in my opinion its strength, but also weakness, lies in the word ‘decent’. You don’t necessarily think of John Lewis for anything exciting, whether new frocks or great furniture. It probably wouldn’t occur to you to shop there if that’s what you were looking for, which means its a lovely surprise if you chance upon, for example, the Modern Rarity range as I did recently, and discover that this in-house exclusive collection is largely silk, linen, wool and leather and includes dresses by Korean designer Eudon Choi. But, chances are if you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t find it, so it’s relying on the press to spread the word. You might also debate buying a great edgy dress from JL when there’s an extremely good chance you’ll bump into someone else wearing it too; without exclusivity, haute originality can sometimes backfire.
However, I don’t feel that the opportunity to be a cutting-edge retailer is either big enough, or the right fit for John Lewis. Its USP surely lies in it ring-fencing a position as the unchallenged go-to for quality beautiful basics which are pepped up by regular limited-edition ‘designer’ collaborations across fashion to furniture — in other words short runs of exclusive product that create the sort of shop-the-drop excitement that actively drives people in-store. If it keeps it simple, maintains a primary focus on the middle ground, and adds in a vamped-up approach to their already unparalleled reputation for good service, it’ll certainly hold onto its high street crown. Now if there was just a ‘Modern Rarity’ equivalent furniture collection…
Obviously not strictly on the high street per se but I’d be remiss not to include it in this round-up as in the realm of homewares it’s on a fast track to destroy the competition. Not so long ago it was easy to dismiss the Swedish super as a sort of fast furniture outlet, full of cheap, throwaway furnishings suitable only for temporary accommodation and children’s rooms. Today sustainability is top of the agenda, it regularly partners with big name designers (think HAY to Ilse Crawford, and because of its size offering their work at incredible price points) as well as initiating limited-edition collections with artisans from rural India and Africa. Couple this with great photography, a trend-aware approach (consider its recent HJARTELIG limited-edition wellbeing collection which included yoga mats and featured materials of the moment rattan, cork and linen, plus whole other ranges dedicated to indoor gardening), and the fact that its entire offer is underpinned by arguably one of the largest inventories of basic goods ever, and you have a seriously winning combination. The stores themselves are still akin to the seventh circle of hell, but frankly that’s the price you pay for not paying so much. Besides, most items can now be delivered.
Sainsbury’s and Tesco both offer solid basic ranges of cookware, albeit Tesco is set to close its Tesco Direct online store on 9 July, with the website stating that a large array of homeware will still be available in stores, but bigger items like sofas and mattresses will be no more (if you even knew they did them!). Sainsbury’s picked up quickly on the Shibori/navy fashion trend, also stocking some great ‘Bohemian/Tribal-esque’ 100% cotton fringed wall-hangings and cushions, and the squint-and-it-could-be-sort-of Astier de Villatte grey jug below. However, should you desire a black glittery toilet seat, then head straight to Asda. That said, I also discovered some fantastic 100% cotton chunky knitted ottomans online at Asda for just £39! There’s even a jute version, and a good range of colours from the rather lovely green one shown below, to a khaki charcoal, natural and a sort of rust orange. As ever, it’s all about the way you mix it up.
Anthropologie is really making a name for itself as purveyor of quirky, boho-hippy-happy, homewares, think gloriously patterned ceramics, marble accessories, great rugs, doors handles (yes, really! It has a huge selection) and coming soon, a collaboration with none other than Bethan Grey. Zara Home is also a real go-to for bedlinen, cushions, glassware, cutlery and lightweight curtains. It also benefits from a very fashion-led approach that favours fast turnarounds and great photography. Likewise H&M Home who carry a surprisingly good selection of home accessories alongside some of the best inexpensive 100% washed linen duvet sets on the high street. Urban Outfitters takes the younger, trendy, urban hipster end of the market, specialising in a laidback, slightly retro vibe. And West Elm is cornering the market with its solid wood Mid Century style furniture and superb textiles.
All in all, an array of very strong contenders each chipping away at the department stores from all different directions. In many ways I’d liken it to the impact independent magazines like Kinfolk, Cereal, Cabana, Gentlewoman and Port are having on the mainstream titles. For sure independence buys you lower overheads, no top-heavy management and thus increased ability to pivot as required. Essential. Nevertheless, the might of the department stores lies in their physical reach (online isn’t going anywhere but within bricks and mortar lies the equally important experiential factor), assuming of course that they manage to sort themselves out before they get rid of all their stores, a case of literally the strongest card in their hands being jettisoned in a shareholder panic for short term gain. For long-term success they should be opening more stores (or at least refining the ones they have), not closing them, oh wait a minute, like John Lewis, who just opened in White City Westfield, with Cheltenham coming this Autumn — market leaders for a reason, non?
And writing this reminded me of the Editor’s Letter I wrote last September… The Value Factor.