This year saw more than its fair share of big news – but what was it that really got under your skin? Drapers counts down the top five water-cooler moments of 2013.
Discounting is a perennial issue but in 2013, Drapers was contacted by retailers who were more than a little irked by the promotional activity of one particular etailer. Back in March, indies complained about My-Wardrobe’s early discounting of in-season stock, with some saying they would ditch brands that allowed the business to undercut them. The same issue arose some months later, when My-Wardrobe took the same approach with its autumn stock. So there was, perhaps, a degree of hubris when in November My-Wardrobe entered administration, following a staff restructure and relocation and the departure of many of its top staff, including its chief executive. And earlier this month it was revealed that Sarah Curran was taking her black book of luxury contacts to Shop Direct, which is hoping to compete directly with the company she first set up in 2006. Love it or loathe it, My-Wardrobe really was one of the hot topics of conversation this year.
4) Marks & Spencer
This year saw the “make or break” autumn 13 collection unveiled – Belinda Earl’s first in her role as style director and potentially Marc Bolland’s last if he didn’t get it right. The jury was broadly positive, although there were a number of ifs and buts raised – the most significant of which was whether the small volumes of units could do anything to bolster the retailer’s bottom line. A series of great campaigns, not only for autumn and the recently unveiled images for spring 14, but also a high profile celeb-filled set of ads shot by Annie Leibovitz certainly got people talking, but when it came to the figures there was little to say that hadn’t already been said a hundred times. November saw M&S report its seventh consecutive quarter of like-for-like declines in clothing, and with the retailer ending 2013 being talked about as much as it was at the start.
3) The future of the high street
This year the Great British high street received its second so-called saviour – this time in the form of former DIY Wickes boss Bill Grimsey. While much of his rhetoric was taking up with bashing his rival Mary Portas, it certainly brought the somewhat dry but critical issue of business rates to the fore. Grimsey didn’t restrict his criticism to the Queen of Shops, turning on the British Retail Consortium for being “jaw-droppingly out of touch” when they announced a change in tactics, calling on the government to cap rates at 2% rather than freeze them. While many agreed that more must be done, the Autumn Statement unveiled earlier this month suggested the BRC’s approach had paid off, saving retailers an estimated £90m on next year’s bill. But the heated debate will certainly continue into next year, with many expecting it to be the main cause of the demise of yet more retailers.
There were many administrations this year – Barratts and Republic among them – but it was the demise of family-run York indie Coggles that stands out. As one of the highest profile independents in the county, its downfall was a shock to us all, and while there was a mixed response from the industry, it was undeniably a talking point. Although many expected it to be scooped up by JD Sports Fashion or Sports Direct, it was eventually bought by The Hut Group and although things have been a little quiet since, Coggles remains a cautionary tale for any retailer who expands at too great a pace.
1) The Weather
Well yes, we’re British and yes, we always talk about the weather, but 2013 really saw it go up a pace. Snow in March? Sun in the autumn (and – more bizarrely – in the summer)? Hurricanes, floods and fog pretty much all the time? What’s a seasonally-affected business to do? In a lot of cases, the solution was to put everything into Sale and hope for the best –until we actually got some seasonal weather, and you had no more summer stock to sell. Scarves in July anyone? What has been particularly interesting though is that, rather than just sit back and complaining about it (or should I say, after that has been done), the industry pulled its socks up and came up with solutions. Short ordering and the rise of trans-seasonal product have become almost ubiquitous as retailers look to avoid overstocking on bikinis or knits at just the wrong time. Advertising has also become more flexible. Well, we are British after all. We couldn’t let a spot of rain throw us off course, could we?
The one that should have been a talking point – but wasn’t.
Nothing surprised me more about 2013 than the failure of the disasters in Bangladesh to ignite a debate about ethical practices. In April, the Rana Plaza factory in the suburbs of the country’s capital Dhaka collapsed killing 1,129 people. This was just months after the fire in the Tazreen factory, which killed 117, and serious questions were asked of the value sector and how it ensures all its employees work in a safe environment. Less than a month after the collapse, several of the UK’s biggest retailers including Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Primark had signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, pledging several million pounds each. But the reality was that consumers didn’t really care. Primark reported seeing more impact from the weather than from the disaster, despite being the retailer most associated with it.
Throughout this tragedy, however, Primark has acted to put things right, being quick to acknowledge responsibility and then putting its money where its mouth was by financially supporting everyone working at the factory, regardless of which retailer they were employed by, as well as conducting safety inspections ahead of those carried out through the Accord.
It was frustrating to see how little the British public cared about the welfare of Bangladeshi workers – but heartening that retailers acted without commercial pressure.