A Primark store in London, the UK. Picture: BLOOMBERG/HOLLIE ADAMS
A Primark store in London, the UK. Picture: BLOOMBERG/HOLLIE ADAMS

London — British shops are being battered as the shift to e-commerce, intense competition and the fallout from Brexit cause catastrophic levels of store closures and job cuts.

The country offers a case study in the troubles facing retail worldwide, and the collapse this week of the UK arm of baby-products chain Mothercare is just the latest example. With fast-growing online rivals such as Boohoo and Amazon.com drawing shoppers, traditional chains were already struggling before a weaker pound began squeezing living standards and crimping sales further.

Still, there are bright spots. Here are a few UK retailers who’ve managed to thrive during the apocalypse. We asked top executives to explain their success:

Next

The 155-year-old clothing chain is that rare breed: a bricks-and-mortar brand that has successfully transitioned to e-commerce. Next’s online business had sales of almost £2bn (nearly R38bn) in 2018, and the company’s shares have surged 67% in 2019.

The online business started in 1999 with a £7,000 investment in the website, which at the time was just a screen where customers plugged in item numbers from the catalogue. That head start on the web was key to Next’s growth, CEO Simon Wolfson said.

The CEO also pointed to incremental measures such as opening combined clothing and home stores, and selling third-party brands like Levi’s and Gucci. In 2019, Next installed Amazon lockers in hundreds of locations for customers to pick up deliveries, hoping they would browse while inside. Next has a 15-year plan to reduce rents and stores gradually to drive profit, rather than resorting to the drastic measures that have forced other chains to fire thousands.

“The thing about retail is, it isn’t a business where you need to take big decisions,” Wolfson said in a September interview. “You take small decisions, try things and then maximise the opportunities they present.”

Primark

Owned by Associated British Foods, the discount clothing chain defies the theory that retailers must shift to e-commerce to succeed. Primark doesn’t sell online because it doesn’t charge enough for its clothing to justify the cost, according to AB Foods finance director John Bason. So far, it hasn’t needed to: Primark has reported eight consecutive years of profit growth.

Primark is one of the few UK retailers still opening stores. That includes a huge 14,860m2 Primark spread over five floors, which opened in 2019 in Birmingham, England.

A primary advantage is knowing the customer well. Store managers select products on their computers each morning and determine how much they need for the next day. It’s the same model that Inditex SA’s Zara chain follows and allows for a nimbler response to trends.

“We encourage customer intimacy,” Bason said. “Having an eye for the hottest trends is vital in the buying department, and that is encouraged.”

Hotel Chocolat

Making shopping an experience lies at the core of Hotel Chocolat Group’s strategy. The chocolate seller began with an online business in the 1990s, then decided to open stores in 2003 to try to get closer to customers. Hotel Chocolat has reported at least double-digit growth in revenue and profit since going public in 2016, and the shares have jumped 69% this year.

More than two-thirds of sales now come from stores. Hotel Chocolat focuses on product innovation and events to lure shoppers, such as the evening chocolate masterclasses, or “lock-ins”, offered at 60 different sites.

Co-founder and CEO Angus Thirlwell said his risky decision to buy a cocoa plantation on the island of St Lucia made a difference by lending an authenticity to the brand. The plantation’s Boucan hotel has helped introduce US guests to Hotel Chocolat by offering chocolate facials and chocolate-infused food.

“There’s a lot of brands that are just content to sit back on their laurels and not really aim to excite and entertain the customer, and we’re very aware that we’re in the entertainment business,” Thirlwell said. “We have to put on a show and make them feel different after they’ve entered a Hotel Chocolat.”

Greggs

Since opening its first shop in 1951, Greggs has stayed true to its mission: to make cheap pastries. It’s been growing steadily, but business boomed this year after the bakery chain launched a vegan sausage roll that became a hit on social media. First-half sales rose almost 15%, and Greggs shares have climbed 41% in 2019.

Like online-delivery services, Greggs is benefiting from changing eating habits as time-pressed Britons cook less and grab food on the go. Greggs has been transforming itself for the last six years into a takeout business focused on airports, train stations and business areas after previously relying on the high street — the British term for the main shopping district. It’s also partnered with Just Eat and Deliveroo, and extended a “click and collect” pilot to seven UK cities.

“There’s all sorts of reasons we do very well, not least of which because of value for money,” CEO Roger Whiteside said.

Joules

Joules Group peddles British country chic. Think Wellington boots and waterproof jackets. The company started 30 years ago, when founder Tom Joule began selling clothing from a stand at a country show in Leicestershire. He then set out to fill a gap in the market for classic British pieces with a bit of sartorial whimsy, such as a mismatched button or printed lining.

Today Joules has 125 stores across the UK and Ireland and has added housewares to the mix. It opened seven shops and closed only one in the fiscal year ended in May, and reported a gain of 17% in revenue and 19% in pretax profit.

Joules has focused on market towns and coastal vacation hot spots such as Cornwall and has branched out into travel stores at London rail hubs. It aims to keep store leases as short as possible, so it can relocate easily if necessary, CFO Marc Dench said.

The retailer has benefited from limiting spending on its shops, “and probably, most importantly, making sure our stores are where our customers are”, he said.

Bloomberg