As this year comes to a close and a new one approaches, Drapers recaps the twists and turns in the retail industry over the past 12 months
As retailers reflected on the all-important festive trading period, a tale of two Christmases on the high street emerged: a lucky few recorded soaring sales but others were left disappointed. Joules, Next, Fat Face and Jigsaw were celebrating a successful festive season after all four reported a rise in sales compared with the previous Christmas, and independents were feeling optimistic on the back of a buoyant peak season. Less jubilant were Debenhams and Mothercare, which both issued profit warnings after a spell of tough trading.
New Look was another high street chain hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons in January. A list of nearly 50 of the young fashion retailer’s stores said to be up for disposal or lease renegotiations began to circle around landlords. The list included stores on London’s Oxford Street.
Marks & Spencer also revealed plans to shrink its bricks-and-mortar store estate in January, announcing that it would close six stores (in Birkenhead, Bournemouth, Durham, Fforestfach, London’s Putney and Redditch) by the spring.
The month ended on an unhappy note for womenswear retailer East, which entered administration for the second time in the less than three years.
A wave of people moves heralded the start of February. House of Fraser shook up its executive team, promoting retail director Gary Slattery to executive director for retail and transformation and Gary Monk to executive director for operations. Later in the month, executive director for buying and design Maria Hollins left the department store and was replaced by Fenwick’s David Walker-Smith.
New Look’s UK and Republic of Ireland managing director Danny Barrasso and Svan Gaede, managing director of international, were both off to pastures new as they left the business. It was also revealed that Anita Barr, group fashion buying director at Harvey Nichols, had left the luxury retailer.
Elsewhere, Arcadia Group boss Sir Philip Green dismissed reports that he was in discussions to sell off at least part of his clothing empire to Chinese textile group Shandong Ruyi. Meanwhile, footwear independents were struck a blow after Nike-owned sneaker brand Converse axed wholesale accounts in a change to its distribution strategy.
March brought with it one of the year’s biggest stories: New Look was reducing its UK store estate and slashing rent costs through a company voluntary arrangement (CVA). The retailer announced it was seeking to close 60 out of 593 stores in the UK (later upped to 85 stores) and that potential job losses would tally close to 1,000. Industry experts warned the move did not go far enough to cut costs at the struggling retailer.
The start of the month also heralded another people move, this time in the premium sector: Jigsaw chief executive Peter Ruis left the business after five years in the role.
There was good news for social-media obsessed shoppers in March. Picture-sharing platform Instagram unveiled its much-anticipated shopping update, allowing UK businesses to sell products via posts for the first time. In other tech news, German etailer Zalando provided a possible glimpse into the future of retail when it announced that it would replace close to 250 marketing and communication roles with algorithms and artificial intelligence.
At the end of the month, M&S welcomed former Burton managing director Wes Taylor as its new menswear director and confirmed that Jill Stanton would join the retailer as womenswear and kidswear director.
April proved a turbulent month for Mothercare. Chief executive Mark Newton-Jones was ousted as CEO at the beginning of the month (before being rehired in May) and rumours – later proved correct – swirled of a possible CVA.
The start of spring also marked the deadline for gender pay gap reporting, which required all UK businesses with more than 250 employees to divulge the difference between the amounts their male and female employees earn. Lingerie retailer Boux Avenue reported the industry’s largest gap – women in the business were paid on average 75.4% less than male staff.
A mid-month heatwave following a prolonged cold snap sent sales soaring on the high street. Womenswear bosses told Drapers some much-needed sunshine had driven sales, increased footfall and boosted conversion rates.
However, one business not benefiting from the warmer weather was department store Debenhams. CEO Sergio Bucher was forced to admit the retailer’s clothing offer ”wasn’t good enough” in its first half, resulting in tumbling sales. Profit before tax plummeted by 84.6% at the department store in the 26 weeks to 3 March.
M&S announced it would close 100 stores over the next four years as it moves more of the business online and downsizes its UK store portfolio. Another of the year’s key stories broke at the beginning of the month, when it was revealed that House of Fraser would follow New Look’s lead and launch a CVA the following month. The retailer said reducing its store portfolio would provide it with an ”effective platform for further growth”.
It was a difficult month for Arcadia. Sales and profits had dropped in what it described as a ”disappointing” year for the business. The group experienced a 42% drop in group operating profit – before goodwill, amortisation and exceptional items – to £124.1m for the year to 26 August 2017. And there was worse news still for Jacques Vert, Precis, Dash and Eastex owner Calvetron Brands, which appointed administrators for the second time in less than a year, putting 1,408 jobs at risk.
In better health was fast fashion retailer Zara. It opened a new-look digital concept store at Westfield Stratford City. Twice the size of the previous Zara store, it is home to digital technology including interactive mirrors, and is designed to integrate the online and offline shopping experience.
Finally, Givenchy’s artistic director and British designer Clare Waight Keller hit the spotlight when Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, chose a bateau-necked gown from the French fashion house for her wedding with Prince Harry.
Ms. meghan markle in givenchy haute couture by clare waight keller (1)
The summer months started on an unhappy note following the news that designer Kate Spade had been found dead in her New York apartment. Industry figures paid their respects to the designer, pointing to her long influence over the accessories market.
CVAs remained a hot topic in the retail industry. Mothercare creditors approved its CVA at the start of the month and House of Fraser creditors also gave the green light for the department store’s plans to close 31 stores as June drew to a close. Frustrated landlords expressed their anger at the controversial process, arguing that property owners face greater financial loss during a CVA but their voting rights are equal to other creditors.
In people moves, Clarks chief executive Mike Shearwood resigned following an internal investigation into his conduct at the footwear retailer. Elsewhere, House of Fraser axed its four merchandising directors and placed a significant proportion of its buying and merchandising teams into consultations, while River Island appointed Fiona Lambert as managing director for new business development.
A summer heatwave saw the UK bask in soaring temperatures throughout July. Retailers celebrated as customers rushed to stock up on summer staples to see them through the warmer months. One person unable to enjoy the summer weather, however, was prime minister Theresa May, who presented her proposals to leave the European Union customs union and create a “facilitated customs agreement”. Fashion retailers and suppliers voiced their fears that the industry could face rising costs and uncertainty if the UK failed to secure a favourable free trade agreement with the EU.
World Cup fever swept the nation in July, resulting in England manager Gareth Southgate becoming an unlikely fashion hero. Waistcoats underwent a surge in popularity thanks to Southgate, who donned an M&S waistcoat for all his team’s matches in the tournament. Retailers, including M&S and Topman, reported rising sales of the once neglected item. Previously passé product?
Former Jigsaw chief executive Peter Ruis surfaced in a new role when he joined Anthropologie in the newly created role of managing director of international.
The month concluded with some more sad goodbyes for the fashion industry. Retail veteran and former executive chairman of House of Fraser, Don McCarthy, died after a long battle with cancer. The well-respected retail leader worked at many high street chains during his career, including Stead & Simpson, Kurt Geiger, Shoe Studio Group, Principles and Warehouse. Much-loved former Net-a-Porter chief executive Mark Sebba also died following a sudden heart attack.
House of Fraser hit the headlines with a bang in August. The embattled department store appointed administrators after talks with investors failed to reach a deal to save the retailer. It was bought out of administration hours later in a pre-pack deal for £90m by Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct. Several House of Fraser suppliers hit out at the news, fearing that they would be left to pick up the bill.
Fellow retail tycoon Philip Day was also jostling to take over the department store, leading a consortium of suppliers in a rival bid to buy HoF for £100m that was rejected. The Edinburgh Woollen Mill owner did, however, successfully add Calvetron Brands to his portfolio in August.
As the month went on, a report from House of Fraser administrators revealed that the retailer’s unsecured creditors were owed around £484m. A spat between new owner Ashley and warehouse operator XPO Logistics resulted in House of Fraser’s website going offline and distribution centres in Wellingborough and Milton Keynes closing.
There was also bad news for Jack Wills founder Peter Williams, who left the business he founded in 1999 aged just 24, following an alleged disagreement with private equity owners Blue Gem.
The House of Fraser saga rumbled on as summer gave way to autumn. All of the retailer’s house brands, which included Linea, Biba and Issa, were axed as the retailer reshaped its strategy under Sports Direct. Mike Ashley, meanwhile, was busy calling for HoF’s former directors to face an Insolvency Service inquiry, claiming they ‘misled’ suppliers and warehouse operators.
Online giant Asos chose September to unveil its new ‘coming of age’ brand Collusion, which it said has been shaped by, and for, an audience looking for something different. The gender-fluid and affordable brand is based around collaboration, inclusivity and experimentation.
Fast fashion etailer Boohoo Group appointed Primark chief operating officer John Lyttle as its chief executive as part of a top-level reshuffle mid-month. Along with that, incumbent joint CEO Mahmud Kamani was to become chief executive chairman, while fellow joint CEO Carol Kane would take the title of executive director.
There was another big people move at the end of September, when it was announced that Fat Face chief executive Anthony Thompson would step down from his role in January 2019. Thompson joined the retailer in 2010 and his career has also included several senior roles at M&S and a stint as the managing director of George at Asda.
There were yet more high-profile casualties on the high street in October. “Softening demand for occasionwear” hit Coast, which was bought by fellow womenswear brand Karen Millen through a pre-pack administration. Although the deal rescued Coast’s concession, online business and franchise stores, 24 standalone stores and international concessions closed, which was thought to impact 300 jobs.
October also brought the news that Debenhams planned to axe 50 underperforming stores over the next five years in a bid to turn around its ailing fortunes.
Chancellor Philip Hammond threw independents a lifeline in his Autumn Budget. Recognising that smaller retailers were floundering with the weight of fixed costs, including business rates, he announced the government will cut rates for businesses with a rateable value of less than £51,000 for two years from April 2019. In other independent news, premium menswear specialist End opened its first London store.
It was also another big month for people moves. Oasis and Warehouse Group promoted chief operating officer Hash Ladha to chief executive as Liz Evans prepared to step down amid the news she would join Fat Face as CEO next year, while Mike Ashley made his presence known at House of Fraser, sacking the entire senior management team. Chief executive Alex Williamson was among those shown the door.
And finally, at the end of October, Arcadia owner Sir Philip Green was unmasked in parliament as the UK businessman facing allegations of bullying, racism and sexual harassment.
The John Lewis partnership, owner of John Lewis and Waitrose, began searching for a successor to longstanding chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield at the start of November. Mayfield, who has been in the role since 2007, announced his intentions to step down in 2020.
Discounting extravaganza Black Friday was the big event circled in many retailer’s November calendars. Premium retailer Jigsaw reneged on its former policy promising not to discount in season and launched a 20% off Black Friday Sale. Other offers included 20% off across the whole site at Asos, up to 50% off at Topshop and 30% off at Whistles. Debenhams offered boots at half price, along with 40% off knitwear and 30% of women’s dresses. House of Fraser continued with its existing discounts of up to 60% across selected women’s, men’s and children’s wear.
black friday sales
In the course of the month, some high street suppliers chose to stop working with Debenhams over fears of missed payments following cuts to its credit insurance. Two London-based suppliers walked away from the business, Drapers revealed.
Tensions between landlords and Mike Ashley showed no signs of easing as the start of the festive season approached. At the end of November, it was reported that Ashley had decided to close all of his Sports Direct stores located in Intu-owned shopping centres after he failed to agree a deal with Intu to keep open House of Fraser stores in Nottingham, Norwich, Lakeside in Essex and Gateshead’s Metrocentre.
Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley appeared in front of MPs at a parliamentary committee hearing, calling for a 20% internet sales tax to save the high street.
The end of the year also brought the news that River Island is gearing up to launch a new womenswear brand next spring. It is believed the brand will target women aged 40 and above, and will feature classic, staple pieces at an affordable price point.