“Good management, bad business.” If Trevor Bish-Jones had a pound for every time someone said that about his time at Woolworths, his pay-off would pale into insignificance.
For a retailer of its size – it’s valued at less than Findel, Ted Baker or Laura Ashley – Woolworths attracts an extraordinary level of interest. The pugnacious Bish-Jones, a man who lives and breathes retail, recognised the heritage of the business and didn’t shy away from its problems.
The appalling state of its stores and increasingly eccentric offer has encouraged the widespread perception that Woolies has had its day. In fact, Bish-Jones did a good job of developing the wholesale business, while trying to take retail forward by developing a value range and multichannel offer. But the different parts of the business had taken divergent courses and the inevitable tension between running a fast-growing wholesale business alongside what has become a retail dinosaur meant something was going to have to give.
Bish-Jones kept the wolf from the door, but we are no nearer knowing what the future is for the 800-odd stores. The dilemma for his successor is that, in its present form, it doesn’t have one.
In the national media’s relentless quest to catch retailers out on factory standards, Primark has always been the most-wanted scalp. That’s because, to many people, its prices seem too good to be true.
In truth, Primark is no more exposed than any other fashion retailer. Its swift action when confronted with allegations about conditions in three factories it sourced from in India shows that, like almost every major UK fashion retailer, it is serious about this issue.
Walking away from factories where abuses are found should only be a last resort, because the loss of a big contract has a negative effect on workers. But when deception and child labour are involved, the retailer has no option.
Retail Week’s Source for Good campaign last year showed that retailers are improving standards of living and quality of life in the developing world. There is no room for complacency. But our industry can be proud of its role in improving the lives of some of the world’s poorest people.