Sports Direct may benefit from undercutting Firetrap stockists in the short term, but it is the industry at large that loses out writes Caroline Parry.
If there ever was any trust between the indie sector and Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct – which one doubts – then its u-turn on keeping Firetrap as a wholesale-only brand should put paid to it for good.
Remaining JJB Sports employees take note.
While indie stockists have been left feeling angry, frustrated and disappointed by Sports Direct’s decision to sell Firetrap in-store and online at less than wholesale prices – despite Firetrap’s insistence that this is exactly what would not happen – they mostly just feel lied to. More disappointingly, it appears Firetrap itself was also in the dark.
“We’ve been completely misled,” one stockist told me this week, while another spoke of the need for “a degree of trust” that is essential in business, and yet lacking here.
“We are surprised but it was not entirely unexpected,” a third adds.
The comments go on in a similar vein.
Ashley has a long-standing reputation for taking a brutal approach to brand management: snapping up struggling brands with a little remaining equity – enough to bother selling them at cut price through Sports Direct – and then stripping out the value and making the product more cheaply through its own suppliers. It is there for all to see.
It is a model paying dividends for Sports Direct. The brands division saw revenue climb by 15.5% to £48.8m over its first quarter to July 29. While many don’t like this ruthless approach, it doesn’t make it wrong.
What is sad, however, is that it is not the only route that Sports Direct could have gone down. While Firetrap had struggled in past seasons, several stockists have noted how strong the autumn 12 collection is. Another said that while it was his lowest price brand, it was by far the best seller in two of his stores. All stockists talk of the hole that will be left in their brand mix as there is nothing else in this price-range that can plug the gap.
At the time of the acquisition, some observers were optimistic that Ashley might see the value of retaining Firetrap’s higher-end positioning by investing in the team, the product and the marketing. He does, after all, have a premium fashion division housing indie min-chains Cruise and Van Mildert. And, even if the brand was not right for those stores, it has young fashion chain USC, where it could have sat happily as a full price brand.
But it would appear that was never on the cards and as Sports Direct takes control of the JJB Sports brand, which it claims it will retain, one can only wonder for how long.