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The spirit of Dickie Dirts still infects the online world

It’s a very long time since I thought of Nigel Wright and his pioneering discount operation Dickie Dirts.

In the early 1980s, at the beginning of my career on Drapers Record, Wright was a notorious figure in the business because he had hit on the idea of parallel importing (buying product in one country and importing it to another to sell without the brand owner’s permission) major jeans brands, especially Levi’s, and piling ‘em high and selling ‘em cheap in a former cinema in Fulham. Basic was not the word for his presentation style, but the consumers loved it.

As well as annoying the denim majors and their stockists with his embarrassingly low prices, the far-sighted Wright also opened his establishment from 9am to 11pm seven days a week, violating the rule of no trading on Sunday (younger readers may be surprised to learn that such a regulation once existed). His view was that the law was an ass and anyway the fines he paid were nothing compared with the money he took from Sabbath day shoppers.

In retrospect, Dickie Dirts was rather influential in changing the way retailers traded. It was also a precursor to the modern discount/value sector that so changed the way Britain shops. My unreliable memory tells me that eventually Wright found the going tough as the jeans boys tightened up their supply chains and bigger rivals such as Cromwells Madhouse (remember them?) moved into discounting and parallel importing. Does anyone know what happened to Mr Wright?

What prompted this unexpected trip down memory lane was the angry reaction from premium independents to the discounting antics of My-Wardrobe.com, the site for upmarket womenswear. Although the site itself maintains a deluxe feel - a clutch by Marc by Marc Jacobs at £310 and a Bruuns Bazaar sweater at £179 are the first things I saw on it this week - the business is regularly offering, its critics allege, a 25% discount on new season stock. This offer comes via email to those that have signed up for My-Wardrobe’s alerts. “You have been selected to receive an exclusive 25% off our new season collections,” it reads.

As we report, such behaviour so early in an autumn season has enraged other stockists. “This operation is behaving so badly with its constant discounting and hurting responsible retailers badly,” Julian Blades, director of Jules B in Newcastle, wrote to me. He was critical of the practice this spring also, when My-Wardrobe chief executive David Worby explained to Drapers that such offers were used strategically to assist in customer acquisition. Well that’s as may be, but it still looks like discounting to me and I can see why premium independents feel so aggrieved.

Critics of the policy might bear in mind that before he did a couple of years running ecommerce at Harrods, from where he joined My-Wardrobe, Worby worked for about a decade at Debenhams, the arch-discounter of the high street. So he presumably knows the benefits - and risks - of offering regular price cuts to drive traffic and sales.

The interesting angle in all this is what the brands that supply My-Wardrobe think of the 25%-off strategy. They include prestigious names such as Acne, Joseph, Burberry Brit, Red Valentino, McQ and Vivienne Westwood Anglomania as well as lesser lights like Preen and Marios Schwab. The reaction of the big three London department stores would also be interesting to highlight, but many parties seem reluctant to discuss the matter on the record with Drapers. I suspect they are being more forthcoming in talking to the brand owners.

The issue of pure-play etailers discounting early is now endemic across all levels of the market. When sales slow, pretty much the only response the online player can make is to start putting red banners on the site. This problem - and it is a problem - is not going to go away and at Drapers we’d be fascinated to hear your views, for and against the practice.
Finally, many thanks for the encouraging and sympathetic comments I’ve received since I mentioned last week my titanic struggle with the parking authorities in Derby. My appeal was rejected so now I have to decide whether to pay the £25 fine or waste some more of my life continuing the fight. Hey ho.

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