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News and Views on Sunday 29 November

Posted on Nov 29, 2020. by NTI

News, views and opinions from the NTI Newsroom every day, for those in our glorious profession.

Having pulled the shortest paper straw out of Richard’s closed fist late yesterday afternoon it became Billy’s turn to lead the NTI newsroom team this Sunday morning, 29 November. 

“Green, Green, Ashley, Green, Cowgill, Ashley, Green, Green, Ashley, Cowgill ... there’s nothing new to write about,” he moaned, as he scoured the online news media and a couple of dowdy Sunday papers. “Everyone has heard it all before.”

With the death reported of the Sith lord, Darth Vader, this morning (the actor who played the role, David Prowse, has died aged 85) there is a vacancy for a new Lord of the Retail Universe. Is it to be gym-pumped Hut Group tycoon, Matt Moulding, or could the role still be filled by any of the three above-mentioned, each of whom look as if they have been continuously inflated by an electric-lilo-foot-pump for the last 15 years?

Billy was on the phone to Richard at 6.30 this morning.

”What do I do? We have already reported the last throes of Arcadia and the intervention of Big Pete at Debenhams. Is it enough to make a meal of the fact that Cowgill is now having second thoughts about the purchase of Death-hams” (as he likes to call them) “because they rely heavily upon stock from the Arcadia group?”

”You have called Richard Bloomfield. Please leave a message,” came Rich’s unhelpful reply.

There are legs in the story that Moulding, a 48 year old gym-obsessed online retail tycoon from Manchester, created a ‘golden share’ in the Hut Group which, he claims, could create 10,000 new retail jobs as it aims to guarantee to keep the company British for the next three years (a fact he could have explained a little better in the Initial Public Offering).

In their own way Messrs Green, Cowgill and Ashley are also ‘jim-obsessed’; but their obsession is of the Beam variety, not cardio and pull-ups.

The fact is that the retail virus that has swept through vulnerable and faded brands, such as Warehouse, Oasis, Principles and is now infecting Arcadia, Moss Bros and Edinburgh Woollen Mills, as well as having Debenhams on a ventilator in ICU, has already accounted for more than 125,000 retail jobs this year, with the closure of thousands of stores, as the property-based retail model that held sway for decades unravels, blaming the pandemic (the sunshine, the moonlight and the good times).

When BHS and Woolworths imploded in the noughties, there was no virus to point a skeletal finger at in blame. Just faded high street institutions that were badly managed and didn’t offer things people wanted to buy. Pumped up empire retail builders seem increasingly like dinosaurs looking skywards at a giant meteoric shadow falling on their fiefdoms which gets ever and inevitably closer. With Boohoo and the Hut Group each hiring non-executive directors to sit on their boards to deal with corporate governance issues, the guard has already changed, we are just arguing over the uniforms.

Green was equally famous for his bullying and champagne cork popping, but unlike brands such as H&M and Zara he failed to explore international expansion, or to look any further than his Monte Carlo home and super-yacht, and will soon just be like the bad smell that hangs around the dishwasher when you forget to start it up after an evening curry.

If these faded former retail giants have even a modicum of self-reflection will they ponder for a second on the opportunity missed by the explosion of online retail? Even before the numbers for US-imported ‘Black Friday’ online sales are published (and with ‘Lockdown 2’ the number one hit at the box office this November, online sales were up 58% in the second week of November compared with the same period last year) it was predicted that sales could double this weekend in comparison. How can self-projected fashion moguls miss such a massive opportunity? 

The same questions are being asked next door on the high street, in restaurants where shoppers used to visit to ponder their purchases over a chilled glass of Pinot. The stars in the ascendancy in this part of the universe are Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eat. Dishoom, the Indian restaurant chain whose owner previously loudly voiced his disaffection for delivery food, has done a smart volte-face. The company has opened six delivery-only ‘dark’ kitchens in London and another in Brighton.

The tendrils of Covid-19 have exacted a heavy toll on the UK’s 24,400 restaurants, which have either been forced to close, or operate under stringent restrictions for most of the year. Those who scoffed at ‘delivery services’ have found themselves not being able to cover overheads, and whilst this may not be the future for profit-making restaurants, 2020 has become the year for survival. Just get by and assess your business model once the vaccinations kick in.

The high commissions demanded by the delivery app providers have caused restaurateurs to squeal, but they are missing the point. Just ask adventurers forced to drink their own urine in order to survive in a desert. That is never a long-term plan, it is a strategy for survival. Smart pubs and restaurants will stop baying for blood from a Government who has to do something (anything) to keep Covid deaths down as we await a new-inoculated dawn, and will buy time to plan for the new world and entice people who will always want to eat ‘somewhere nice’ back onto their premises.

Who are the cockroaches in this particular period of nuclear fallout? Uber Eats reported a 150 per cent jump in UK deliveries year-on-year in the three months to September. The group’s service now covers 75 per cent of the UK population, up from 50 per cent at the start of the year. Just Eat, the UK market leader by order volumes, said it processed 17 million transactions in October, up from 10 million in January 2019.

The ‘new world’ isn’t coming, this year’s struggles have it set up in head quarters, its feet under the desk and it is already ordering curtains. Some of the ‘old world’ have just failed to notice.

Happy Sunday.

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