The words 'Tax Free' is music to any shopper's ears. Many brands and retailers, in tourist hot spots, were looking towards 2021 with optimism. With the UK finally severing ties with the European Union, there was an expected boon for duty free shopping. High spending visitors from the EU would join the rest of the world in being able to claim back VAT from many goods purchased. While they still will be able to, HM Treasury has announced changes to Tax Free Shopping, and they are proving to be deeply unpopular within the retail industry.
So, what’s changing? From January 2021, VAT refunds for overseas visitors in British shops will be removed. Overseas visitors will still be able to buy items VAT-free in store and have them sent direct to their overseas addresses, while the costly system of claiming VAT refunds on items they take home in their luggage will be ended. HM Treasury is also ending tax-free sales in airports of goods such as electronics and clothing for passengers travelling to non-EU countries, following concerns that the tax concession is not always passed on to consumers in the airport. In some instances these tax-free goods are brought back into the country by UK residents, putting high street retailers at a disadvantage.
HM Treasury is clearly expecting duty free shopping to be busier and is therefore no longer willing to incur the expense of running a scheme that ultimately costs them even more money. Tourists with a permanent residence in a non-EU country have been able to claim their VAT back on goods over £30 on production of their receipts. Many department stores and airports installed lounges where shoppers could claim back the value added tax on production of proof of identity and a completed tax form.
Currently, you can get a VAT 407 form from the retailer when buying your purchase They might ask for proof that you’re eligible, for example your passport. You show the goods, the completed form and your receipts to customs at the point when you leave the UK or EU. Customs will approve your form if everything is in order. You then take the approved form to get paid.
Companies, such as Global Blue or ChangeGroup, partner with stores worldwide, and offer a service for tourists to claim back the tax. The refund paid is the VAT minus the company's 'service fee'. Many people have complained about these high fees and hidden costs like service fees, currency conversion fees, payment fees etc.
According to Visit Britain, international tourists spent £6bn on shopping in the UK in 2018. Of those transactions, £3.5bn were registered as tax free sales, although VAT was only reclaimed on £2.5bn. From January 2021, visitors will be able to buy the same goods, but will no longer be able to take them away with them there and then if they want to claim back the VAT. They will have to be sent or couriered by the retailer to their home address, wherever they live in the world. Retailers are worried that this new system will put many tourists off buying. Being able to take your purchase away instantly is one of the joys of shopping. It also means that many will be liable for import duties or taxes in their home countries rather than smuggle it through in their luggage. Some countries have very high import taxes negating the VAT saving. For example, in China, the ‘Table of Tax Rates on Personal Luggage of Passengers and Personal Postal Parcels Arriving in China” is 50% for watches and timepieces valued over 10,000 yuan (About £1150). Under 10,000 the rate is 30%.
Walpole, an organisation representing 270 of the UK's finest brands, has sent a letter to the UK Chancellor this month and has joined forces with New West End Company along with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Association of International Retail (AIR), to express their deep concern and shock over the decision.
It said “it is extremely concerned by the decision’s inevitable impact, not only in London and other key UK shopping destinations for affluent international visitors, but also on the sector’s nationwide manufacturing hubs, where otherwise sustainable skilled employment will be affected by a further contraction in sales.
Right - ChangeGroup at Bicester Village
“The Covid-19 crisis has already dramatically reduced numbers of international visitors to Britain, and other European cities, and the removal of tax-free shopping for anyone visiting the UK will leave Britain at a profound competitive disadvantage post-Brexit.”
Walpole CEO, Helen Brocklebank, said “International visitors are fundamental to the UK luxury sector’s recovery. Right now, the Government needs to be doing all it can to underline the allure of UK PLC and accelerating efforts to encourage affluent visitors to return to our shores rather than actively discouraging them with rulings like this. Globally famous brands like Burberry, Johnstons of Elgin, Harrods, Glenfiddich whisky and Hendrick’s Gin created a ‘jewel in the crown’ sector that was growing at nearly 10% each year before the pandemic, worth £48 billion to the UK economy. £4.5 billion in sales was generated by international visitors alone. Paris ranks as number one destination for luxury shoppers, closely followed by London. We will have no chance of retaining that position or becoming number one unless this decision is reversed.”
The important thing to note is that the government has not removed tax-free shopping, it is just making it harder for people to avoid import duties and avoid tax in their own jurisdiction.
The UK has already lost vast amounts of tourist spending and anything that looks like it could diminish it further is being met with shock and negativity. The UK will become the only European country not to offer VAT-free shopping for international visitors, but it is hard to argue a case without admitting that many tourists take part in tax avoidance. HM Treasury is expecting a higher number of tax claims when EU tourists join those outside of the EU in being able to claim and doesn’t want to shoulder the increased costs of administering this scheme.
In the new scheme, the VAT will be taken off by the retailer at the till. This new scheme requires added logistics, which adds extra costs for the retailer or seller.
One of the big questions will be, who will pay for carriage to the purchaser’s destination? Plus, installing a trusted form of delivery, in what could be very expensive goods, and making sure they arrive where and when they are supposed to arrive and making the consumer comfortable with that. It will surely have added insurance costs.
As for the change in ending tax-free sales in airports of goods such as electronics and clothing for passengers travelling to non-EU countries, the once bright spot of retail, pre-COVID, the airport, will no longer be as attractive to fashion retailers who can’t promote these duty-free savings. Airports have, over recent years, become shopping centres with runways and this will surely dent sales.
The retail industry could offer to pay the costs of running the tax refund system. It could add a surcharge to each purchase where the VAT is reclaimed. Unfortunately, due to the drop in tourists numbers, it will be harder to compare the effects of this new scheme with the old and whether this is reducing spending overall. When tourists are explained the new scheme, will they decide to buy elsewhere? Pay for the goods and have them shipped to get the VAT back? Or, simply swallow the full retail price?
September is fashion’s month. Once bulging fashion magazine issues - remember those?! - the start of fashion’s most important selling season, and, of course, fashion weeks makes September the most important month of the year for the, estimated, global $1.5 trillion fashion industry.
Above - Louis Vuitton's COVID LV Shield hitting stores in October
Fashion week is the canary in the mine and the biggest to suffer from the pandemic. Events which combine travel and vast numbers of people aren’t going to work right now, and, therefore, puts the traditional idea of fashion weeks into a strange predicament. While many fashion councils are trying to push ‘business as usual’, it is far from it.
New York has started, but few would have realised. Designers sitting out New York Fashion Week, this season, include Marc Jacobs - its biggest draw - plus Ralph Lauren, The Row, Pyer Moss, Michael Kors, Telfar, Oscar de la Renta and Brandon Maxwell. Those still taking part can have a socially distanced crowd of just 30 people, while, before, traditional shows ranged into the multiple of 100s. London's fashion week runs from 17th September - Tuesday 22nd September 2020 with the same strict controls.
Fashion weeks is the fashion business in an event and drives focus and attention from outside its bubble to retail and the idea of purchasing something ‘new’ to consumers. They are also extremely old fashioned and had less and less relevance way before COVID 19.
While the majority of fashion shows are pointless, a few images, brands, designers will emerge that stick and steer the fashion industry into that direction for the next six months. It’s also a coming together of people and a temperature test of the industry. But, they have become bloated and drawn out exercises in wasting time and money when fashion can no longer afford either. Limos driving groups of pampered people all over town for 10 mins feels dated and indulgent.
The major of women’s fashion weeks - New York, London, Milan & Paris - managed to scrape through COVID in February and March at the beginning of the year. This will be the first test of how major fashion weeks will run with a global pandemic hanging over it. Some brands, like Louis Vuitton and YSL, have done separate shows over the past few months, but nothing like previous years.
Left - LFW's Digital Schedule home page
This season, the London Fashion Week the schedule has been split into three sections and includes brands showing digitally, physically or both - ‘phygital’. The gender neutral showcase will run from Thursday 17th to Tuesday 22nd September 2020 and include both digital activations on www.londonfashionweek.co.uk and physical events, adhering to government guidelines on social distancing. The schedule will host over 80 designers including 40 womenswear, 15 menswear, 20 menswear & womenswear and 5 accessories brands. There will be a total of 50 digital only activations, 21 physical and digital, 7 physical only and 3 designers who will activate through a physical evening event only.
The LFW digital platform, launched in June for the men’s calendar, will continue to serve as the Official Digital Hub and will be freely accessible to everyone, industry professionals and global fashion consumers alike. The British Fashion Council says. “LFW is one of the few international events to still be going ahead in London, proving the industry’s resilience, creativity, and innovation in difficult times. Now more than ever, the BFC acknowledges the necessity to look at the future of LFW and the opportunity to drive change, collaborate and innovate in ways that will establish long-term benefits, develop new sustainable business models and boost the industry’s economic and social power. The British Fashion Industry faces enormous challenges due to the impact of COVID-19 and the BFC keeps on calling on Government to support a sector which in 2019 contributed £35 billion to the UK economy and employs over 890,000 people (Oxford Economics, 2020).”
Having a traditional ‘schedule’ for barely 28 shows seems old fashioned. As fashion blogger @bryanboy tweeted to his 502.4K Twitter followers regarding NYFW, this week, “It’s really annoying how designers still get an individual time slot for what essentially is a release for a pre-taped short film. No one cares!! Just do a date and release it on the morning or afternoon of that day and it doesn’t matter if it overlaps with other designers”.
Right - Burberry Horseferry check face mask coming soon
It’s the equivalent of waiting in all day for an e-mail. Nobody has time for this, especially when it feels like most of this stuff won’t be ordered or bought anyway. Maybe just have a single release date, hub for content and publicise that?
The most anticipated London show is Burberry’s. Rumoured to be Riccardo Tisci’s last, it will be held outdoors. Burberry will use Twitch’s ‘Squad Stream' function, which allows users to view multiple perspectives of the show at a time and chat with fellow viewers using the service’s chat window. It will be live-streamed without an audience.
LFW designer Emilio De La Morena is presenting an exhibition rather than a traditional catwalk show. Called ‘Troubles SS’21’, it is an assimilation of fashion, film, and sculpture into a “consolidation of the designers professional and personal journey in conjunction to the global pandemic”.
Fashion’s optimistic hope has been that this pandemic will blow over and we’ll get back to the normal fashion week circus asap. Fashion weeks work in the future and were hoping that by the time the 2021 collections come out this will all feel like a bad dream, but, it’s also realistic to think otherwise. Fashion is fickle, when the pandemic is over any product will instantly feel dated and obsolete. It is difficult to know how much time and money to invest in it.
Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, saying that not enough COVID-19 vaccines will be available to inoculate the global population until at least the end of 2024. According to Poonawalla, pharmaceutical companies are not increasing production capacity quickly enough to vaccinate everyone faster. “It’s going to take four to five years until everyone gets the vaccine on this planet,” Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of the Serum Institute of India, said.
Some brands are incorporating PPE protection into their collections. Louis Vuitton has designed a coronavirus face shield which can also be flipped up and used as a sun visor. The LV Shield will be available to purchase from 30th October 2020 in selected Louis Vuitton stores worldwide for around £700. Burberry face masks are coming soon on the brand’s website, strange they haven't released these faster, and are donating 20% from the selling price of each face mask to the Burberry Foundation COVID-19 Community Fund operated by The Burberry Foundation to support communities impacted by the pandemic globally.
Fashion weeks as an idea is still important, it just needs to reinvent itself for life post-pandemic. Mega brands can still blow millions on a pointless extravaganza, but for smaller designers and brands it can be their slim opportunity to be scouted and brought to attention. It also reaffirms the importance of seeing, feeling and experiencing fashion, but with many influencers shunning fashion week and with the amount of traditional magazine press dwindling, who is it for exactly?
We do need to see. Digital is all a bit unreal. We may as well be dressing avatars. You also have a better memory of items in real, it’s the equivalent of a school trip, they’re fully rounded and you can picture yourself wearing it. But, is it that worth £100,000s to brands? Fashion week is a preview and is also important for brands to know what to make and order. We’ve tried ‘See now, buy now’ and now’s the time for digital presentations. Is the future for fashion weeks somewhere in-between? Or does that just take us back to square one?!
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An optimist will look at COVID 19 as a opportunity. From the current crisis in fashion and retail will come the chance to snap up valuable brands at distressed prices. But, what makes a brand truly valuable?
Left - 1950s Teddy Boy in his classic Crombie coat
It usually starts with the name and whether it has any longevity, goodwill or future.
If that name has entered everyday lexicon then it is a very rare and valuable asset indeed. Joining the likes of Sellotape and Hoover, it rarely happens in fashion when a brand becomes the generic term, but Crombie is one such brand.
Meaning a formally tailored, three-quarters length covert coat with a contrasting velvet collar, the Crombie coat had recently become associated with the likes of Nigel Farage and Del Boy and a kind of dated city boy look.
J&J Crombie Ltd. was founded by John Crombie and his son James in Aberdeen in 1805, making it one of Britain's oldest brands. Starting as a fabric manufacturer, Crombie moved into making coats to supply armies in America and the UK during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Crombie lists Cary Grant, Winston Churchill, King George VI, Dwight D Eisenhower and John F Kennedy as distinguished wearers. From 1995 to 2004, Crombie also held the Royal Warrant as a supplier to the Prince of Wales.
A modern classic, a Crombie coat was retailing for around £900, but that is now on hold.
The brand’s home page currently reads, “In light of current world events, we have now fully suspended our retail, wholesale and supporting administrative operations until further notice. We will continue to monitor the global situation and hope to resume operations in the fullness of time. We’d like to thank our many clients for their custom and patronage and wish everyone a safe and healthy summer.”
Right - 1980s Car Dealer Arthur Daley in his Crombie
The brand has been up for sale for a while. It was formally announced in March 2020, when owner, Alan Lewis, 82, through his investment company, Hartley Investment Trust, told Drapers, “We are willing to divest non-core assets such as Crombie, which we believe would be of particular interest to a focused fashion business with the infrastructure to efficiently scale up this brand internationally, or to a retail chain looking to bolster its portfolio of unique intellectual properties.
“Crombie’s worldwide trademarks allow for expansion and diversification into a wide range of product categories, including cosmetics and accessories.”
Crombie has one store located at 48 Conduit Street in London which it sold in Nov. 2019 to a private Chinese buyer for £9.9 million with the intention of Hartley Investment Trust still occupying the building. Crombie’s turnover to the year ending March 2019 was £523,000, with a loss before tax of nearly £300,000, this was an improvement on 2018 when it was nearly £400,000 on a turnover of £430,000.
Hartley Investment Trust has interests in banking, property, energy, leisure and retail. Lancashire-born Alan J Lewis, CBE, a former Conservative Party Vice-Chairman told the Yorkshire Post in 2012, “I came here (Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire) and took over Illingworth Morris which was a public company, which was in trouble and owed the banks about £50m with 6,000 people employed and I turned it around from a substantial loss to a substantial profit and shares went from 13p to 186p.
“We concentrated on ensuring that we invested in the high margin business, low volume, rather than high volume, low margin business, so really concentrating on the quality end and the creative end of the business, and that made an awful lot of money.”
In the 1980s, the group was one of the world’s biggest wool textiles manufacturers handling almost half the wool imported into the UK. The Illingworth Morris group included up-market knitwear maker Hawico, worsted spinning operations Daniel Illingworth, suiting makers Huddersfield Fine Worsteds, chemical business Westbrook Lanolin, Woolcombers, Winterbotham Strachan & Playne (the world’s leading supplier of cloth for tennis balls and billiards tables), and Crombie.
Left - Three out of the four Beatles are wearing Tommy Nutter suits on the Abbey Road cover
Mr Lewis took the company private, making vast profits and a net lender to the money market – heralding the formation of Hartley’s investment banking division, Hartley Investment Trust, in 1983.
Hartley divested many of the brands with the implosion of the UK’s textile industry, turning many of the old textile mills into residential property and business centres, but retained the ownership of Crombie.
Another important brand Lewis owns is the iconic tailor, Tommy Nutter. In 2014, after a four year high court battle, Lewis agreed to buy the rights to ‘Nutters of Savile Row’ which left him free to use the Tommy Nutter brand.
The year before, David Mason's 'Nutters Holdings' won the right from the UK's Intellectual Property Office for the Tommy Nutter trademark to be revoked from J&J Crombie due to non-use. Mr Lewis was ordered to pay costs of more than £3,000. However, he appealed against the decision, arguing that he had kept the name in use. A spokesman for Mr Lewis said at the time, "Crombie owns the Tommy Nutter brand, and every season a range of Tommy Nutter branded clothing is available in Crombie stores in the UK."
Previously, Mr Lewis had been in talks to sell ‘Tommy Nutter’, a brand he had started with Tommy Nutter in the early 1980s when he had parted ways with business partner Edward Sexton and ‘Nutters of Savile Row’, to a subsidiary of Fung Capital - the private investment arm of the billionaire Fung family of Hong Kong. The deal never materialised.
Tommy Nutter produced a variety of legendary designs under his own name - including Jack Nicholson's Joker costumes for the 1989 Batman movie - while Crombie supplied him with the cloth. He died in 1992.
What we have here, if sold together, are two of Britain’s greatest sleeping menswear brands. One traditional, loaded in history, the other, a pioneer and icon of tailored fashion, but both heaving in icons from statesman to superstars. Confucius once said, “The gem cannot be polished without friction” and, while it would take substantial investment to bring these menswear two brands back, they have a natural sparkle and value most brands don't.
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This week sees the start of the new academic year and the return of the majority of schools in the UK. Vast numbers of the nation’s school children have not seen a classroom since March and thus the need for new school uniform became negligible. But, after almost six months away, retailers will have seen a huge spike for new school uniform and all the accoutrements that go with the ‘Back To School’ marketing push.
Left - Mendip Craft Youth Black Leather - £46
According to research by Mintel the back to school market was worth £1.16 billion in 2018. This was an increase of 36% on the previous year, when it was worth £855 million, making back to school spending the third biggest retail spending event after Christmas and Black Friday. Parents told Mintel they spent an average of £134 on school uniforms and shoes in 2018, a 6% increase compared to the average of £127 spent in 2017. Collectively, Brits spent a total of £510 million on school uniforms in 2018, up from £395 million in 2017. GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, estimated UK shoppers were set to spend £1.7bn on back to school items in 2019, with the market forecast to grow by 1.5%. This is only slightly outperforming the annual rise in the number of pupils due to population growth.
One of the biggest back to school beneficiary brands was Clarks, who for many years was the go-to source for children’s school shoes.
But, it’s been a tough few years at this still family-owned, British high-street institution, which has seen revenues and profits falling. The latest accounts show turnover to February 2019 was £790million, down 4% from 2018 at £820.4 million. The breakdown of this was UK and ROI contributing £561.1million, Asia Pacific £135.2million, Europe £96.5million and the Americas just £0.5million.
An operating loss of £48.7million was reported, up from £3.7million the previous year.
The brand reported a ‘poor’ performance and cited it was struggling in part due to the weakness in sterling which made its goods sourced from the far east more expensive when paid in US dollars. All of this was all pre-COVID.
Right - Clarks was founded in 1825 by brothers Cyrus and James Clark in Street, Somerset
Founded in 1825 by brothers Cyrus and James Clark in Street, Somerset, where it still has its headquarters, the company has over 1,000 branded stores and franchises around the world and also sells through third-party distribution in 35 countries. The Clarks family still retains 80% of the company spread amongst more than 400 family members. The world number one in ‘everyday footwear’, Clarks sells more than 50 million pairs of shoes every year.
In February 2018, Lance Clark, the head of the Clarks shoe family, largest shareholder and inventor of the firm's iconic Wallabee shoe died aged 81. He was managing director of the family shoe company until 1994. The Clarks CEO at the time, Mike Shearwood, described Mr Clark as 'an immense character' who played 'a very significant role' in the company. He said, “We have lost an immense character who will be forever prominent in our company's history.”
Lance Clark was a leader and his extensive experience gave the company direction and many credit him for the amazing growth of Clarks in the late 20th and early 21st century.
The same year, June, Shearwood was dismissed under a cloud after being accused of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ including sexist, racist and homophobic comments.
In October 2019, he lost his case for unfair dismissal after taking Clarks to an employment tribunal. Clarks said Mr Shearwood's conduct was the reason he was made to resign, and an employment panel agreed. Allegations were made by the 56-year-old against chairman Tom O'Neil, whom he claimed adjusted the minutes of board meetings.
After much fanfare, in January 2019, Clarks announced a it was closing its new manufacturing facility in Street after failing to meet manufacturing and cost targets. The state-of-the-art factory was originally scheduled to open in 2017 with Clarks hoping to make 300,000 pairs of made-in-England desert boots a year at the facility, and create up to 80 jobs. However, the opening was delayed and the factory only started production in summer 2018.
In recent news, Clarks made the decision not to reopen a ”meaningful" number of its 347 UK store estate once the government-mandated lockdown ended. As part of the “normal review” the retailer decided not to renew the leases on a small number of stores as they expired in May 2020. An exact number and locations weren’t announced. It had already closed 56 stores in 2018/19. In May 2020, Clarks announced 900 roles were going globally with 108 of those redundancies at its HQ in Street, Somerset.
Left - Scooter Speed Kid Black Leather - £48
Clarks is now under the leadership of Chief Executive Giorgio Presca, who joined in March 2019, six months after Mike Shearwood stepped down. Presca has more than 20 years' of experience in managing and developing global premium brands, previously leading Golden Goose Deluxe Brand, and was chief executive at Italian footwear brand Geox between 2012-2016, which is more relevant to Clarks’ market. Presca has also worked at Diesel, VF Corp, Citizens of Humanity, Levi Strauss & Co. and Lotto.
The vast majority of parents wouldn’t have bought any school shoes between March and August this year. That would mean a huge demand in one go for new school shoes. Currently, online, Clarks’ children’s shoes - boys and girls - range in price from £36-£58. This is often more than what parents would spend on shoes for themselves. They are willing to pay more for a pair they feel with last.
When you consider young children’s clothing and shoes don’t include any VAT - everything under the maximum size an average child will be on their 14th birthday - then the margins are big.
Clarks has had a difficult few years and has become somewhat rudderless with a lack of direction and leadership. The expensive factory debacle and the distraction of Shearwood’s tribunal would have had an effect. Clarks doesn’t include a breakdown of its children’s shoes within its figures, but it is no doubt considerable. Over 70% of Clarks’ turnover is from the UK and ROI and much of this will be the school market. With not much recent innovation in its adult ranges, the children’s shoe sector will be incredibly important to them and this will be make or break time. Without this back to school boost Clarks could be in serious trouble and they’ll be praying they all stay there wearing out those new shoes.
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The department store sector is at a crossroads. It’s do or die time, and a race to right these historical businesses before the whole thing capsizes.
Left - The John Lewis in Birmingham is closing after only 5 years
John Lewis was always seen as a steady ship amongst the losers, like Debenhams and House of Fraser, made unseaworthy with oodles of private equity debt.
But, even John Lewis, the famous cooperative, is suffering in this retail storm. Is it time to batten down the hatches and lose its price matching promise? What can the John Lewis Partnership do to sail through?
John Lewis’ ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ promise is a left over from a bygone time, much like its ‘Clearance’. Group chair, Sharon White, told the Sunday Times, last Sunday, she expected the price pledge to go. The famous promise to match rivals' prices has become harder to defend as competition from online retailers has become ever tougher and eaten into margins. The slogan is nearly 100 years old having been in place since 1925. "The proposition is important because it signifies being fair to society. We're reviewing it to improve it,” she said.
Pre-COVID, the John Lewis Partnership - John Lewis and its supermarket Waitrose - full year trading update for the 52 weeks ending January 25th showed operating profits dropped by 23 per cent year-on-year to £123 million, while pre-tax profit suffered a 25 per cent year-on-year decline to £146 million. Meanwhile, revenues declined 1.6 per cent year-on-year to £10.15 billion.
While core operating profit at Waitrose grew by £10 million to £213 million, it slumped by £75 million to £40 million reflecting weak sales in home and electricals, investment in technology and higher staff costs.
The staff bonus - the profits split between its employees - was two per cent. The lowest amount since 1953 when staff received nothing.
Right - John Lewis' shiny Birmingham store was opened to great fanfare in 2015
Profits were falling at John Lewis’ department stores before COVID 19, and while sales at Waitrose would have increased, it is doubtful it would have made up the difference. So, what’s gone wrong at John Lewis?
Over Expansion - Many people might think John Lewis’ huge retail estate was a legacy leftover from a previous era, but it is worth noting nearly half, 24 of their 50 John Lewis shops, were opened after 2000. They weren’t a traditional legacy retailer and haven’t been afraid to close stores over the years. The Knight & Lee department store in Southsea closed in 2019 after more than 150 years, and was the first to be closed since 2006. John Lewis has announced the closure of a further eight stores including its shiny flagship in Birmingham, above New Street Station, opened only five years ago. This year between 60% and 70% of John Lewis's sales are expected to be online, compared to 40% last year, making a large number of stores harder to justify.
Waitrose has been lightly trimming its 338 store estate announcing the closure of 17 stores since June 2018 and a further three Waitrose stores are to go, at Helensburgh in Scotland, Four Oaks in the West Midlands, and Waterlooville near Portsmouth, later this year.
The company has said they were exploring whether excess shop estate could be used for new mixed-use affordable housing. White said she is talking to developers and investors about partnering to build flats, many of them affordable, on top of existing shops, starting in west London.
John Lewis has announced selling more Waitrose food in their department stores which would make good use of excess space and fill the in-town convenience many other food retailers offer as long as the opening hours are extended.
Lack of Convenience - As people shunned town centres and shopped local, Waitrose & Partners lack of convenience stores has become more prominent. Out of its 338 shops, across the UK, just 65 are "little Waitrose" convenience shops. In comparison, Tesco operates 153 Metro stores and more than 1,700 Express outlets. Sainsbury's Convenience Stores Limited (trading as Sainsbury's Local) is a chain of 770 convenience shops operated by the UK's second largest supermarket chain Sainsbury’s.
Waitrose has a 5.1% share of the food market, making it the eighth-largest retailer of groceries in the UK. These convenience stores can charge more for their restricted selection of products and would make Waitrose, perceived as more expensive by many, more competitive on pricing.
White told John Lewis staff, "We are looking at how we make our products available through other routes, reflecting the fact that Waitrose has a smaller presence in the convenience market than other supermarkets.”
Waitrose needs to extend its opening hours. Many close at 9pm which feels early in today’s competitive supermarket landscape.
Too Much Focus On Fashion - White told the Sunday Times the chain needed "more inspiration, surprise, fun" and that it would compete by "curating" items in store better. John Lewis would focus less on women's fashion and get rid of travel and spa services. Instead it would offer more financial, home and garden products.
John Lewis made a big push into the fickle and highly competitive world of fashion a few years ago, and, while it was the correct place for expansion at the time, it has taken focus away from its core home and electricals. During lockdown people have re-evaluated their homes and want to spend the money they would have spent on holidays and fashion on their surroundings.
It is worth noting that online electrical retailer AO saw annual revenues of £1.05 billion to March 2020, up 15.9% on a year earlier. AO’s customer base grew last year to nearly 6.5 million customers in the UK. This, along with many other online retailers, must have eaten into John Lewis’ traditional hold on the white goods market.
Waitrose/Ocado Loyalty Battle - September sees Waitrose’ 20 years relationship with online delivery service Ocado come to an end. The tie-up generated 6% of Waitrose’s sales. They are being replaced by Marks & Spencer.
Ocado has already said it has no spare capacity for new customers and it will be interesting how many stay loyal to either brand.
Waitrose has two online distribution centres - Coulsdon and Edmonton in London - to service their online orders and has an opportunity to poach customers from Ocado.
Ocado says it will stock 6,000 M&S products, compared with the 4,000 it sells as part of its supply deal with Waitrose. The alternatives would be the “same price or lower, and of the same quality or better” than the Waitrose ones, Ocado said.
Can Waitrose compete with the robotic efficiency of Ocado? Waitrose had enlisted Today Development Partners, a technology business run by Ocado co-founder Jonathan Faiman, to help grow its online operation without Ocado. However, the deal ended after just four months and it subsequently emerged Faiman, who left the online business in 2009, was being sued by Ocado.
Online orders are always restricted by the number of vans, drivers and delivery slots. A Waitrose tie-up with Amazon Fresh has been rumoured to help with these online growth ambitions. It is predicted sales online with John Lewis to become a 60 per cent and Waitrose to rise to over 20 per cent.
Waitrose has too many disparate websites selling flowers and gardening products, and should push these all into one site and delivery option. It should also link John Lewis and Waitrose more.
Too Expensive? - Walk into a John Lewis or Waitrose and it feels like everybody shopping there has white hair. While the Boomers are an affluent demographic, the brands are perceived as being too expensive and aren’t engaging with younger or those who are more price conscious. It is particularly noticeable at Christmas with small gifts coming in much more expensive than competitors or what consumers are willing to pay. It needs to broaden its pricing with more prices at the lower end. It also needs to offer more exclusive products and give people a reason to pay more. It needs to think of places like TK Maxx as competitors.
Can Rental Replace Sales? - The company said it was considering creating a way for rental of its products and re-sale of used items. While everybody is going rental crazy, can John Lewis renting white goods and sofas make up sales or will it just cannibalise existing sales and be an expensive distraction?
Announced in August 2020, the items will be rented via a third-party site, Fat Llama, with the service available initially just in London but set to roll out nationally if successful. People can choose between 50 different items from the retailer’s range. Prices start at £17 a month for a desk or chair rented for 12 months, and rise for larger goods on shorter contracts.
John Lewis has said "fair value" would still be central to its ethos but "in a more modernised form” and it hopes to have a new slogan to replace “Never Knowingly Undersold” in place by October.
In January 2020, John Lewis stopped publishing its weekly sales figures, it was seen as a bellwether for the whole retail sector.
Department stores are suffering the most at the moment. Many of these issues were pre-COVID 19, but, like all retailers, it would have speeded up the need for change. John Lewis is a special example of a retailer which, luckily, hasn’t been saddled with a debt mountain. They have the opportunity to be the last national department store standing in the UK and could reap the benefits of high-street competitors disappearing, but that doesn’t change the challenges from online.
It sounds like John Lewis is moving in the right direction and making the right noises, but this cautious retailer needs to make some hard decisions. John Lewis is a retailer people would miss, they need to remind people of that. It just needs focussed adjustment rather than radical amputation.
Has the fear truly gone when there is nothing to miss out on? The anxiety inducing reason to exist for FOMO, or the fear of missing out, disappeared thanks to COVID 19. Poof!
In lockdown, nobody was doing anything, going anyway or seeing anything that you need worry yourself about missing out on. What a relief! *exhales* It was a great leveller.
Fashion has been one of the main pushers of FOMO. Hinged on social media, the fulcrum was this idea that everybody was having a better time than you and you needed all this stuff to go with it. The positive side of it suited marketers.
FOMO was the reason you often left the house, the reason you justified needing something that you really didn’t and then pushing the continued momentum on of FOMOing others through your social media channels. LOOK AT ME...
COVID 19 has been one giant reset button, and while people will document their lives, which inevitably will induce some type of FOMO, it won’t have the intensity or the choreography as before. The obsessions with far flung places and life filters was waning anyway. Influencers all looked the same and seemed to do the same things. “I shop therefore I am” became very different when all you were allowed to buy was food and medicine.
I don’t buy into this idea that the world will be radically different. The world is elastic and will spring back into some shape that was recognisable from before. What has changed drastically is the economy. This will be the catalyst. A great recession that will take years to get over and, when out the other side, things will look different. It will be crass to be too show-offish, too material, too extravagant, too pricey - will we see designer logos minimised? - in lean times. It will bookend the 21st century’s teen decade and be a full stop to the look-what-I’ve-got culture which dominated much of the past decade.
It’s the art equivalent of installing escalators into museums and turning them into shopping centres. It was such a visual decade with nothing to be repeated. Disposable. The luxury brands will morph, like they always do, and ones who can repackage this new environment will profit, again, like always. This isn’t wishful thinking, like less pollution and people thinking greener about what they buy, it is a reaction to an action, which, when many people will be unemployed or struggling to make ends meet, FOMO is the last thing they'll need in their lives. This digital window will look dated and tease-like to many. It will be a turnoff.
FOMO is often seen as a fun positive, like seeing what your friends are doing etc., humans are naturally nosy, and used in advertising as a trendy term, but it’s a fine line and this anxiety, "a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing”, - defined by Wikipedia - can spiral into pressure and a feeling of inadequacy. It was fast and people’s lives have slowed. Money was often the cause of things speeding up. People have appreciated more time and witnessed the little things in nature during these past few months like they’ve never had time to do in recent memory.
Life was a reason to generate ‘content’ before and this content overload just kept getting more demanding. Images can go back to being memories and records rather than a competitive hustle. We had JOMO, joy of missing out, before, as a reaction to FOMO, but I think we’ll be happy sitting somewhere between the two.
How redundant is the handbag if you don’t leave the house? Same goes for shoes. This sounds like a surrealist-type manifesto of some ancient and useless items of dress or culture, yet perfectly sums up how quickly something can go from essential to unused. Fashion has always had a intertwined relationship with ‘want’ and ‘need’, they coexist; one propels the other, and, the other way around, it justifies it.
We’ve suddenly lost a lot of the need and therefore the want has waned. For many, clothing is a need only option and, apart from a new pair of joggers or PJs, all those prom outfits, wedding outfits, birthday outfits and all the other fashion treats that keeps the wheels of fashion turning have lost all momentum and become a missed sale.
The latest figures from the IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index, which tracks the online sales performance of over 200 retailers, saw online retail sales growth was down -2.2% year-on-year in the first week of the Government’s lockdown guidance, but the clothing sector saw growth plummeting -26.7% year-on-year, and -22% week-on-week. Those result were even more stark across footwear, with growth tumbling -38.2% year-on-year, and -22.9% week-on-week.
Online sales too will grind to a halt with some large retailers closing their websites.
But, there has been an online boom, it's just that it doesn't include fashion. Adobe Analytics analysed data from trillions of visits to retail websites and from millions of product SKUs, finding that online grocery purchases are leading the eCommerce boom. Among the most popular items in people's internet shopping carts: Health products, gym equipment, toilet paper and canned foods. Online orders for fitness equipment like kettlebells, dumbbells and treadmills a saw 55% boost.
People too have begun spending money on board games, puzzles and video games. Notebooks are flying off the shelves and Mike Norris, chief exec at Computacenter - one of Europe's largest resellers said he has been signing "500, 1,000 or 2,000 laptop deals" with business customers that are equipping employees for remote working. He noted similar spikes in sales of monitors, virtual private network services and wireless LANs.
Fashion may not be fully redundant, just yet, temporarily and creatively furloughed, you could say, but with so many things cancelled in the future, even months after lockdown finishes, fingers crossed, those occasion spending needs will take even longer to turn into wants.
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Recently, a government advisor, Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the modelling programme at Imperial College London's MRC centre for global infectious disease analysis, estimated that up to two thirds of people who die from coronavirus in the next nine months are likely to have died this year from other causes. He said that many of those deaths were likely to be old and seriously ill people who would have died from other conditions before the end of the year. What COVID-19 is doing, sadly, is speeding up the end of life and it’s the same for brands and retailers.
Some retailers have started to fall into administration, pointing the finger of blame at the COVID-19 coronavirus. The majority of these brands and retailers were sickly patients to start with. Brands like Beales, Laura Ashley, Carluccio's and BrightHouse were on wobbly ground way before this devastating virus was on the horizon. The coronavirus has just cut short the inevitable. Bournemouth based department store Beales closed earlier than scheduled and left unsecured creditors £17.6m out of pocket.
Left - The Beales flagship store in Bournemouth
Other patients at risk are brands like shopping centre group Intu, struggling under a £4.5bn debt mountain, and who failed to secure new funding before the crisis hit. They’ve also been hit by stores holding back their rent payments recently. Frasers, owner of Jack Wills, has been cutting off vast limbs of its retail network to save their critically ill patient, Cath Kidston is looking for a buyer to save the business and up to 800 jobs and New Look has requested a three-month rent holiday from landlords. H&M has threatened landlords with walking away from 300-plus store leases if sales fail to match pre-coronavirus levels once the pandemic passes. How others like Debenhams and the Arcadia come out of this pandemic is anybody’s guess.
Right - Laura Ashley has fallen into administration
The patient metaphor has one big and important point; the third of previously healthy people who could potentially die. This is where the government efforts to help businesses should be focussed. Those businesses who were previously healthy, but, due to unforeseen circumstances, have been thrown into jeopardy should be given the largest help. Whether it’s down to the sector they are in or the way they sell, these previously healthy retailers should be given the ventilator of loans and payment holidays to give them life.
The longer this crisis goes on the larger that third will become. It is survival of the ones who were the fittest going into all of this.
Read more from TheChicGeek Archive - Comment Fashion For Clean Air
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The Board of Directors of the Fédération de la haute couture et de la Mode has said that Paris Fashion Week Menswear, set to take place from June 23 to June 28 and the Haute Couture Week scheduled from July 5 to July 9, will not take place. Alternatives are in the works.
Menswear usually starts in London with LFWM in early June, and then onto the most important menswear trade show, Pitti Uomo. The Pitti Uomo organisers had hoped to keep their 98th edition on track for mid-June, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely with the announcement above.
Left - Florence's Pitti Uomo 98 has now been moved to Sept. 2nd-4th
It’s not just about the trade show for the SS21 season, it’s about the exhibitors who have to complete designs and samples in order to have something to show at the fair and make it worth their while. As time keeps leaking, it looks harder and harder to be able to make that up and pull something together. This begs the question whether fashion will skip a season?
While they’ll still be product designed, made and sold in Spring 2021, it will be a reduced offering with a more narrowed scope.
I predict the men’s shows will move to Sept/Oct, when the women’s usually show, and the women’s will be slightly smaller. It will mean they will need to turn all that product around in a couple of months or stagger it more into the new SS21 season. (Don’t mention ‘drops’!).
It will be interesting to see the gaps in schedules and on the trade show floors of brands who have disappeared. It’s a long time to go without cashflow. If you don't make anything you're also not selling anything. The Cruise collections from the big designers were already cancelled. I think they’ll just repeat the core pieces from the previous collection to carry on through.
In terms of retail, the SS20 collections were well delivered. There was disruption in China, but most retailers would have had their deliveries in full. I suspect many orders from the Paris AW20 shows in February would have been cancelled or reduced hugely.
Retailers will try to cancel as much as possible - Read - ChicGeek Comment COVID 19 Cancel Everything - and worry about having something to sell when the time comes. Many big, luxury department stores work on a concession basis, so the brands will have to deal with the problems with product and what to sell themselves. It will be brands who can easily turn production on and off who will benefit. The smaller brands who often fit around these production timetables, when times are quieter, will suffer.
Retailers are currently looking at the peak of the SS20 season and have lots of stock on their hands. No holidays means a lot of spring/summer sales lost.
But, the longer this goes on, the more you can skip. It would probably make it less bitty and then designer retailers can coast it with the product they've got until the new AW20 season drops in July and August. The high summer collections will have already been scrapped and they'll go straight to production on AW20 when the factories in Italy and France finally reopen. The Cruise 21 collections will be squashed into SS21. The samples, to be shown at the Oct/Sept fashion weeks, for SS21 will have to fit around this.
But, this all goes back to cashflow and means they will have to slim down, particularly with manpower, between now and then if no money is coming in, which has always been the problem with the fashion wholesale model. Some retailers may offer to pay on friendlier terms, it's in their interest too, and, many luxury brands will have to be more understanding and supportive of their suppliers and producers.
Will fashion skip a season? It can't afford to.
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Between the ‘loungewear’ emails and the ‘we-give-a-shit-please-buy-something’ emails, some brands have been hoping to offset some of the losses of physical retail with online. Online has the potential to be many brands’ life support machines; keeping some form of cash flow ticking over and the lights on.
Left - Net-a-Porter has closed its American website & warehouse
Dixons Carphone has said sales surged by more than 70% as Britons rushed to buy laptops, games consoles and freezers to cope with the coronavirus outbreak. Online sales in the UK and Ireland surged 72% in the three weeks to 21 March.
“There will be some recovery through online operations but overall the loss of sales will adversely impact our full-year profitability and cash position,” it said. The group said as a result it would still miss out on about £400m of sales between now and the end of its financial year in April.
Fashion has a lot less ‘need’ and as such will be harder hit. Fashion brands have huge amounts of stock sitting in stores, not going anywhere anytime soon. These shops have now become in-town warehouses, but they still need manning and this has become a problem for some brands. Many consumers seem to think that online and offline is separated, robotically picked and magically appears on their doorstep.
The family owned department store chain, Fenwicks said in a statement: "Our people, both employees and customers alike, are at the heart of our business... Therefore, we have taken the decision to temporarily close our website as well as our stores, to ensure the safety of our teams and customers.” Fenwicks only went online in 2017 and pick the items from in-store stock.
Schuh, the footwear retailer, too has closed its website. Chief executive Colin Temple said: “At this point in time, the UK government guidelines include that online retail should ‘still open’ and ‘is encouraged’ along with advice that if staff cannot reasonably work from home, they should continue to go into work.
“However, with the Schuh head office and DC operations based in Scotland and Scottish Government advice conflicting with UK government advice, Schuh management have made the decision to close their website, in addition to their stores that already closed from the evening of Sunday 22 March.”
He added: “A number of DC staff continue to indicate that they want to work within the warehouse to support the Schuh online business, along with other departmental employees offering their support also. However, Schuh management have confirmed that the website and stores will remain closed until there is updated UK and Scottish government advice.”
No doubt demand has fallen overall with many people tightening their expenditure and only buying what they need. But, what about the exclusively online retailers? Most surprising is Net-a-Porter/Mr Porter has closed its American business. Customers visiting the US site are now met with a message that reads: “In line with local government guidelines, and for the health and safety of our community, we have temporarily closed our warehouse. We hope you are all staying safe and look forward to welcoming you back soon.”
This is a nightmare for fashion brands selling products with a shelf life. The discounts have already started, and they’re big, Liberty of London went straight in with 50% off. Some retailers are doing okay at online, but even the best figures won’t replace physical retail, representing a 20/80 split between online and offline. To shift all this stock they will need to discount heavy, eating into profit margins, and consumers, used to a never-ending supply of ‘Just In’ will have to adjust to a new shopping landscape with less choice.
Update - Next, River Island & Moss Bros have announced their websites will close.
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