Peter Williams: Sports Direct and Boohoo give me retail déjà vu

Williams, Peter cropped

The trouble with getting old, like me, is that you see history repeating itself.

What is somewhat surprising, though, is when that happens in the corporate world. Two recent transactions caught my eye in this regard – Sports Direct buying Jack Wills and Boohoo acquiring the online business of the Karen Millen and Coast brands.

There was an era in the 1990s when quoted retail groups such as Sears, the Burton Group and Kingfisher were treated by corporate analysts and investors with disdain bordering on contempt.

In the case of Sears, which owned Selfridges, Freemans, Miss Selfridge, Wallis, Warehouse, Olympus, numerous shoe brands and even William Hill, the refrain from the City went along the lines of: ‘If I want to invest in a department store, or a mail-order company, or a womenswear chain, or a sportswear retailer, or a chain of shoe shops, or a bookmaker, I’ll make that decision. I don’t need a Sears head office and its overhead to do that for me, as they don’t add any value.’

Consequently, all these long-established retail groups, which were mainly created through acquisitions, were eventually broken up or sold to private companies – the stock market’s view had prevailed.

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