Fashion giant Arcadia’s struggle to secure its future is another reminder that in today’s hard-fought environment, retailers must battle more than ever to remain relevant.
Who would have thought in 2002, when Sir Philip Green bought the stable of fashion brands for £850m, that he would end up seeking a CVA and buying back a stake in flagship fascia Topshop – valued at about £350m when he sold it – for a nominal 76p?
Although he has been here before with BHS, Green is not on his own, of course. Venerable names such as Toys R Us and Woolworths have gone entirely, House of Fraser plunged into administration, and Debenhams and Monsoon Accessorize are, like Arcadia, pursuing CVAs.
“Any loss of relevance that hits sales by even a few percentage points can be fatal”
While their travails frequently reflect financial structure, they have also been brought low because they are not perceived to be relevant enough. They have not changed at the same speed as shoppers and have lost out to more fleet-of-foot retailers.
In a world where crushing costs squeeze retailers’ margins until the pips squeak, any loss of relevance that hits sales by even a few percentage points can be fatal.
Staying relevant is becoming harder than ever, though. When the legendary founder of Dixons, Lord Kalms, stood down from running the electricals group, his longstanding lieutenant Mark Souhami told me that one of Kalms’ great strengths was knowing not just what consumers wanted now, but what they might want in the future.
Today, retailers need to know not just what consumers might want – which may increasingly be services or experiences – but how they might want it delivered, when and where.
They need to know both at an increasingly personalised, individual level, and in a broader context of societal shifts and changing attitudes.
“The best retailers are alert to change and are able not just to reflect it but anticipate it”
Two big IPOs in the US illustrate the extent and rapid speed of change.
There’s talk, at the time of writing, that Uber’s listing could be the biggest since Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba’s. It could be valued at more than $80bn (£61.1bn).
It’s a long time since Uber, only 10 years old, was a millennial version of a taxi service. Its Uber Eats business, which delivers food from restaurants to customers’ homes, was cited just last week in Sainsbury’s results as representative of the trend to eat out-of-home, which is “impacting grocery spending”.
And shares in ‘plant-based meat’ specialist Beyond Meat surged 163% on the first day of trading last week, valuing it at almost $4bn (£3.1bn). The stock market debut of the vegan burger business, also founded in 2009, was one of the best performing in almost two decades, indicative of changing eating habits.
A new type of CVA
Such businesses are representative of bigger trends shaping retail.
Uber Eats, for instance, keys in well with the fact that almost a third of British adults eat alone “most or all of the time” – that’s according to the Sainsbury’s Living Well Index, put together by Oxford Economics and the National Centre for Social Research.
As well as living alone, one of the other big changes must surely be home ownership – an ambition a younger generation fears can never be realised. How many retail changes might that precipitate in years to come?
The best retailers are alert to change – and, equally, what remains the same – and are able not just to reflect it but anticipate it.
While only a pilot scheme currently, it’s a good example of an attempt to meet individual needs and reflect societal shifts and an effort to enhance relevance on all fronts.
Perhaps it is time for a new style of CVA – a ‘consumer value attributes’ test – to be conducted frequently to inform that never-ending quest to stay relevant.
It was put well in a famous quote by Harry Selfridge, which can’t be repeated too often: “People will sit up and take notice of you if you will sit up and take notice of what makes them sit up and take notice.”