Tag Archives: market matters

In retail today we take many things for granted and forget someone had to invent them.  Machine-readable barcodes – the basis of stock control and EPOS – were the brainchild of Alan Haberman in the 1970’s but 40 years before then the late Sylvan Goldman, owner of ‘Humpty Dumpty’ grocery stores in Oklahoma invented the ‘greatest ever development in the history of merchandising’ – the shopping trolley.

Until the 1930’s grocery stores had always been ‘serve-over’

The USA has always been a consumer-driven society eager to embrace new ideas. Until the 1930’s grocery stores had always been ‘serve-over’ and the issuing of self-serve baskets to reduce staff costs was relatively new. Goldman had a lightbulb moment when he realised self-serve sales could be doubled with ‘Trolley-carriers’ to overcome the weight of a basket.

Shopping trolleys were a flop when introduced in 1937.

In a later TV interview Goldman recorded how Shoppers resisted the idea. Women said: ‘I’ve pushed enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push any more’ whilst Men said ‘Are you saying I’m a wimp? Do you think I can’t carry a pesky little basket?’ – or something like that. Shopping trolleys were a flop when he introduced them in 1937.

The design evolved from two loose baskets in a folding, wheeled frame

But he had the strength of his convictions. He spent a small fortune on newspaper and radio advertising to make them fashionable and hired attractive young girls to walk around pushing his new invention. Staff were trained to spot people struggling with baskets and to place them in his wheeled carrier frame – which also carried a second basket so they could carry on shopping. The design evolved from two loose baskets in a folding, wheeled frame into todays single large-capacity fixed basket in a stackable frame. And trolleys in the USA are BIG – about half as big again as those in the UK.

Goldman also experimented with less-successful techniques

Goldman also experimented with less-successful techniques.He tried to emulate Henry Ford and attached baskets to a track along which customers shuffled collecting produce as they went. But that was a stinker. When anyone stopped to read a product label everyone else stopped. Oh well, back to the drawing board….

Goldman tried to understand Shopper psychology, kept experimenting and wasn’t frightened of change

The point is that Goldman tried to understand Shopper psychology, kept experimenting and wasn’t frightened of change. He persisted and soon overcame Shoppers’ reluctance and patent his idea before dying as a very wealthy man indeed. The Yanks are good at innovation.

Todays big retailers are still looking for a lightbulb moment but I’m sorry to say few Markets match them

Todays big retailers are still looking for a lightbulb moment but I’m sorry to say few Markets match them. Take product lighting for instance. A whole industry has evolved around product lighting – different wavelengths and different focusses for different products: meat, fish, vegetables, fabrics and jewellery. And it works – well-designed lighting increases sales by about 25%. A Draper no longer needs to take a Customer outside to show them his sample – specialist lighting brings daylight into the stall. Nowadays product-specific lighting is cheaper than ever. The exposed fluorescent tubes of many Markets should be history.

Unintended ‘impulse purchases’ are driven by lighting and presentation

Research has confirmed a well-lit and laid-out shop convinces Shoppers to buy 50% more than they intended when they walked in. Unintended ‘impulse purchases’ are driven by lighting and presentation and Supermarkets ensure the most alluring sensations – flowers and produce – stand at the front in a ‘decompression’ zone to relax Shoppers as they arrive. The basics – dairy produce and bakery – are positioned at the back to draw shoppers past the shelves and many US stores employ friendly ‘greeters’ to open the door and say Hello. It may sound a bit naff to us Brits but one of the most successful Stallholders I know does the same. He simply stands out in front of his stall in a nice fresh uniform and says Hello to Dan and Doris. They love him.

ASB on private premises is a civil not a criminal offence

A friend recently introduced me to a Superstore manager relaxing in our local after a hard day at the checkout. He complained about the early-morning task of evicting rough sleepers from shopping trolley shelters in his carpark. In bad weather they are a cosy alternative to a draughty doorway with the added bonus of skip diving for food in his waste bins. I was sympathetic. Market Hall entrances seem to attract similar ASB (anti-social behaviour) despite deterrents such as ‘Mosquito’ ultrasonic transmitters (audible only to under-25’s) and ceiling-mounted sprinkler bars which discharge after closing hours. I’m told both are reasonably effective and a lot cheaper than a security guard. But as a Landlord don’t expect any help from PC 49. ASB on private premises is a civil not a criminal offence and when Landlords do take action they can expect complaints about infringing peoples human rights. Hmmmm…..

Shopping trolleys are more germ-laden than well-used public conveniences

My Superstore manager’s problem is staff morale – confrontations and clearing cardboard and other errrr…remains left behind in smelly corners. To cap it all his Company Health & Safety Manager now quoted research confirming shopping trolleys are more germ-laden than well-used public conveniences. Research commissioned by the ‘bag-for-life’ company Reusethisbag and a separate study by the University Hospital of Marburg, Germany (no less) suggests trolleys host several hundred times more E Coli and Salmonella than a well-used WC. Think about that the next time you see a child chewing on the trolley handle. Cash machines and self-service fridge doors have the same problem. And you don’t want to know about the grab handles in a London Underground carriage.

There are Companies which rock up with a highly-visible ‘trolleywash’ unit, sterilise the trolleys and sanitise the shelters at the same time

But of course someone in the USA quickly spotted the business opportunity. There are Companies which rock up with a highly-visible ‘trolleywash’ unit, sterilise the trolleys and sanitise the shelters at the same time. Customers love ‘em. It’s one less thing they’d never thought about and now it’s one less thing to worry about.  My Supermarket friend suggested this to HQ but was told the cost would come out of his bonus. Instead he slips a few bob to his Carpark Carwash blokes and they do it for him instead. Good thinking.

 

car wash

‘Market Matters’ – September 2018

Buying companies as a going concern is fun. Sometimes. Despite purchasers’ best efforts when sniffing around accounts, staff contracts, order book, supply contracts and other ‘due diligence’ they inevitably spend a couple of years digging up buried bodies:‘ Oh sorry, didn’t you know the HQ is built over an old mineshaft? Well tough luck – the legal concept of ‘caveat emptor’ applies. In other words ‘buyer beware’ or ‘tough luck – you should have asked the locals’.  

One of the biggest liabilities for a purchaser is often staff pensions.

One of the biggest liabilities for a purchaser is often staff pensions. Hence the unholy row when Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia Group sold BHS for £1 complete with a large hole in it’s staff pension fund. Then BHS went bust. Valuation theory says the price paid by a purchaser reflects the liabilities it has assumed and the seller is home and dry now someone else is carrying the can. That’s the theory, but life is more complicated than that.

Mike Ashley is arguably the best corporate retailer of his generation

The Chinese have a saying: ‘The best time to collect firewood is after a storm’ i.e. timing is everything. Mike Ashley, billionaire owner of Sports Direct is an expert at timing. He bought the 59-store House of Fraser chain for £90m hours after it went into receivership thus avoiding liability for the staff pension fund and £70m of unpaid bills owed to suppliers. This was his latest strategic bet at buying financially-distressed retailers. Since he founded Sports Direct in 1982 he’s never been able to resist a bargain. He bought heritage brands Karrimor, Lonsdale and Everlast to promote as own-label merchandise then sold-on Dunlop to the Japanese for a tidy profit.  Mike Ashley is arguably the best corporate retailer of his generation – a successor to Ralph Halpern of Burtons and Sir Philip Green of Arcadia.

 Mike hasn’t got a gong (yet)

Just like them he is famously combative. He refused to appear in front of a Parliamentary inquiry to answer questions about working practices at his distribution warehouses. After arm-twisting with threats of gaol in the Tower of London he did appear but unlike Philip Green he didn’t call for the resignation of Frank Field MP, Chairman of the ‘biased’ Work and Pensions select committee. As Mike hasn’t got a gong (yet) there was no kickback from the Commons Forfeiture Committee to have his knighthood annulled.

Frank Field MP is one of the most experienced and widely-respected members of Parliament

Frank Field MP is one of the most experienced and widely-respected members of Parliament and doesn’t want another public inquiry punch-up. He politely suggested this is an opportunity for the new House of Fraser owner to cover himself in glory. ‘Mike Ashley should take responsibility for the pension scheme’said Mr Field. ‘It is in surplus and…he would be smelling of roses compared to his rivals on the High Street.’ That was one way to offer unwanted advice and twist the knife in Sir Philip at the same time – despite Philip’s voluntary donation of £360m to the BHS pension scheme. Sir Vince Cable, LibDem leader and former business secretary was worried the Government Pension Protection Scheme will have to fund another bail-out.He proposed administrators be made to report on large deals e.g. House of Fraser to MPs. ‘The danger is an agreement which is reached is unfair to one or other parties. It could be the unsecured creditors like the suppliers, or it could be the taxman, or in this case there are worries that it’s unfair to the pensioners’. Quite so – but what reporting to MP’s would achieve is unclear.

‘The new Harrods of the High Street’

Many High Street Landlords had been terrified at the thought of business rates on empty properties and lost rent with H of F closing down. They breathed a collective sigh of relief at the buy-out then cracked open another Bollinger when Mike announced he would create ‘the new Harrods of the High Street’. Ashley certainly has the financial muscle to do so but has left staff and suppliers wondering if it will be at their cost. Wholesale suppliers only get paid after goods are delivered and there is – allegedly – £70m owing to them and sales floor concession-holders are only paid after goods are bought by customers. Albert Arkwright, nice but rather dim leader of Mudford-on-Sea Council said: ‘Phew that’s a relief – for a moment I thought our Mudford store might be for the chop…’

Other troubled retailers are worrying about a potential takeover

Other troubled retailers are worrying about a potential takeover, particularly those in whom Ashley holds a stake e.g. Debenhams. He has a 29% holding in the chain and their credit rating was downgraded last month when credit insurer Euler Hermes reportedly reduced cover at concerns over inability to pay bills in full and on time. Debs are holding redundancy talks with staff whilst Chief Exec. Sergio Bucher attempts to secure £10m of cost savings this financial year and double that each year in the future.

Mary Portas, business commentator and so-called ‘Queen of Shops’ has relaunched her retail consultancy service

Meanwhile Mary Portas, business commentator and so-called ‘Queen of Shops’ has relaunched her retail consultancy service by affirming her belief in SME’s (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises) at ‘Business Spotlight’ sessions sponsored byNatWest Bank.

‘British means well-designed and well-made. China is desperate to achieve that recognition but ‘made in China’ just doesn’t cut it’.

La Portas suggested a new breed of boss is emerging; one who is more fun, more thoughtful and freer of the old hierarchies which hold back innovation. And they’re not worried about Brexit because there is ‘huge equity and power in the British brand. British means well-designed and well-made. China is desperate to achieve that recognition but ‘made in China’ just doesn’t cut it’. But she also said the Government should be doing much more to help small businesses export their goods and servicesShe also encouraged Local Authorities to support the ‘tide of innovative and creative new enterprise’ by building cheaper operating spaces in towns and cities. ‘I wish the Government would support them by building bricks and mortar spaces’ she said. Maybe she had overlooked Market Halls.

‘Any brand that connects with women in a deep and meaningful way is going to win’ 

Mary suggested British businesses are strong innovators in food, wellbeing, health and beauty.‘Anything that makes us feel and look better’ she said. More should be be done to sell to the female half of the population. ‘Any brand that connects with women in a deep and meaningful way is going to win’ she opined. Future businesses will be more inventive, more principled and less restricted than those of today. ‘I just wish I could be around in 50 years’ time to see it all happen’ she said.

Mary who…?’

When asked to comment, Mike Ashley reportedly said:‘Mary who…?’

‘Market Matters’ – August 2018

Consider the UK’s High Streets. Hard on the heels of House of Fraser’s announcement of dozens of closures and the rumours about Debenhams you could almost forget how long they’ve been a bad news story. It was back in 2012 the penny finally dropped they were in trouble and it couldn’t be blamed on the 2008 banking collapse or the previous Labour government. Grant Shapps MP, the keen young DCLG Housing and Local Government minister launched the ‘Portas pilot towns’ competition backed by David Cameron and Mary Portas banging on about Markets as the saviour of High Streets. But what happened then? Not much. The money and policy initiatives fizzled out as attention shifted to Brexit and Cameron and Shapps disappeared faster than a Blockbuster store.

The traditional heart of a town survives despite the oversupply of ‘Bricks ‘n Mortar’ retail and Landlords bleeding to death on empty rates.

And yet somehow the High Street still staggers along. The traditional heart of a town survives despite the oversupply of ‘Bricks ‘n Mortar’ retail and Landlords bleeding to death on empty rates. Here are a few Losers, Movers and Bruisers we’ve seen over the last few years….

The Losers:

Woolworths: Founded in 1909, 830 UK stores in 1995 then administration in 2008. What happened?

Our Price: Crashed out of Vinyl, DVD’s and Cassettes in 2004 thanks to online streaming. At about the same time Radio Rentals (remember them?) finally threw in the towel, followed by Blockbuster Video in 2013.

British Home Stores: Closed it’s 160 stores in 2016 amidst allegations that owner Philip Green starved it and the staff pension fund of investment. Well over half the former BHS stores still remain empty today.

Poundland: Owned by South African retail giant Steinhoff with 700 stores, many being former Woolworths units. Currently involved in a major accounting scandal – rather like Tesco 18 months ago.

New Look, Carpetright, Monsoon and Mothercare: planned closures announced.

The Movers:

Marks & Spencer: 280 stores in 1997 and now over 1,000 – shifted from fashions and clothing to luxury foods at edge of town locations.

Argos: 380 stores in 1996, now some 850 mainly at edge of town and retail park locations. Bought by Sainsbury and central to the Asda merger because of their excellent distribution network.

Currys/PC World/Carphone Warehouse: Merged then downsized and bailed out of the High Street to retail parks where they’re doing OK. Mind you Carphone Warehouse on the High Street is having a rough time with 100 closures expected.

Boots Chemists: More than doubled their town centre outlets from 1,000 in 1995 to 2,500 today by adding another 1,500 edge of towners.

The Bruisers:

Charity shops: over 11,000 in the UK at the last count. Welcomed with open arms by High Street Landlords desperate to avoid empty rates liability.

Coffee shops: Costa now have 2,200 stores across the UK. Don’t mention Starbucks, Vat and Corporation tax in the same sentence.

BooHoo: Doing very nicely online thank you amongst 16-30 year-olds thanks to no business rates and ‘Bricks ‘n Mortar’ overheadsA fine example of how to target a specific consumer group and their lifestyle.  

Mergers, consolidation, moving online and relocating to the edge of town is THE pattern

What this shows is just how little sentiment there is amongst the big boys. Mergers, consolidation, moving online and relocating to the edge of town is THE pattern. According to the Centre for Retail Research the number of online retail sales as a proportion of total retail sales has risen from 2.5% in 2004 to 22% in 2018. That is a simply staggering growth rate and any retailer who ignores the trend is dead in the water.

So who will replace multiples on the High Street?

So who will replace multiples on the High Street? The Centre for Retail Research says don’t despair – it will become a social centre. It will shift from commerce to leisure with more space given over to restaurants, ‘artisan’ foodstores, health & beauty and ‘lifestyle’ outlets. Less errr…’glamorous’ locations such as Mudford-on-Sea will have to make do with Charity shops, bookmakers and vape stores. ‘Lifestyle’ retailers such as Joules and Ted Baker are doing well, but only in top 100 towns. Future casualties will to be shoes, household goods, furniture, textiles and music/games. Those offers are increasingly replaced with Amazon collection boxes.

E-commerce is like one of those creepy robot lawnmowers

The CRR also highlighted the rise in ‘Showroom’ and ‘Concept’ stores. These are sparsely-staffed display units which allow Customers a hands-on experience but retain the cost advantage of selling online. E-commerce is like one of those creepy robot lawnmowers – it works for you 24/7 whatever the weather and if you’re a home producer selling on Ebay or Etsy gives you a physical showcase for your products.

Dyson have just launched an Oxford Street demonstration store where you can test drive their vacuum cleaners and hairdryers, helped by charming young men who can’t do enough for their lady customers – or for the men either come to think of it. Note the cunning combination of hairstylist and vacuum cleaner salesperson. Wow.      

You can’t underestimate how activity stimulates confidence

To attract leisure-users and investment High Streets need to differentiate– offer something which makes them more attractive than the High Street in the next town. The easy fix is to spend zillions on repaving and relighting but to my mind it is better to spend it encouraging small businesses. More rent and rates caps, pop-up shops in empty units, Town Council and landlord partnerships, events and Markets. You can’t underestimate how activity stimulates confidence. There are some towns where an energetic and innovative B.I.D or Town Centre Partnership is really making a difference.

Don’t feel you need to spend zillions on retail demand surveys

And finally, if you are a B.I.D. don’t feel you need to spend zillions on retail demand surveys. Henry Ford, the mastermind behind mass-produced automobiles was once asked what he thought about Customer research. He replied: “If I’d asked the public what they wanted they’d have said faster horses….’

 

Blockbuster

Boohoo

Epsom Ladies day, 1stJune was extra scary this year. The usual scrummage of hats and high heels at the bars turned nasty when the Visa credit card system crashed. A lot of ladies were less than impressed and bar staff had to be rescued by security.

It came as an unwelcome wake-up call for many retailers

The problem was Europewide according to Visa which blamed a hardware failure rather than a Russian cyber-attack. The problem was not the Ladies or the Merchant accounts but a Visa computer which fell over and could not send back authorisations. Visa had it sorted by Saturday lunchtime but it came as an unwelcome wake-up call for many retailers. The vast majority of high-value sales are electronic, either in-store or online but few seemed to have an in-store backup plan, apart from cash. Forlorn staff standing outside a store waving ‘Cash only’ placards does not inspire Consumer loyalty. Long delays built up at the Severn Bridge toll and the London Congestion Charge system ground to a halt. It all came as a unpleasant surprise and warning of just how vulnerable Consumers are in a cashless society. My enterprising garage owner rose to the challenge. He dug around in his storeroom and emerged with a big smile and a ‘Click Clack’card voucher machine.

Markets are – somewhat reluctantly – embracing EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer)

Markets are – somewhat reluctantly – embracing EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer) i.e. credit and debit cards but they have a long way to go to match mainstream retailers. Visa failure meant queues quickly built up at ATM’s, some of which also failed so if you already take plastic or plan to do so (recommended) this may be the time to consider a backup plan for your hardwired terminal. I was surprised so few High Street retailers could offer an alternative. I-Zettle, Square, Google Pay, Paypal or Apple Pay are all options instead of cash. They could be worth investigating – there are plenty of options at increasingly-competitive rates. Some also incorporate the £30 contactless service.

Where have all the Bank branches gone?

A second problem faced retailers on Monday morning – how to pay the cash into their bank account. Where have all the Bank branches gone? The British Bankers Association says log-ins for online banking have grown to about 9.6 million per day whilst ‘over the counter’ transactions have fallen by 6% in the last year. More than 600 bank branches closed in the UK last year with many small towns in rural areas losing all their banks. Commuter towns have also been affected. Customers are more likely to use branch banking near their place of work whilst at work.

High Street Bank branches have shrunk from about 11,000 to 8,000 over the last 10 years and more closures are expected. Newcomer Metrobank has bucked the trend by opening 40 branches with a further 60 expected by 2020 but they are in conurbations.

Loss of Bank branches is particular problem for rural communities

Loss of Bank branches is particular problem for rural communities as many host a large proportion of home businesses. Basic banking is still available at 11,500 Post Office branches but they’re also downsizing as Postal services move online. To assist, the much-troubled Royal Bank of Scotland has introduced a ‘Bank on Wheels’ for rural areas with some success and ATM manufacturers are developing unattended ‘lobby service’ Mini-banks.

Markets need to widen their services

The Charity Age UK has pointed out how older customers reluctant or unable to go online are suffering. The Federation of Small Businesses is also campaigning on behalf of small businesses and In response HMG has promised additional prior consultation by the end of this year but the writing is on the wall. Small wonder then that Supermarkets have been offering EFT, checkout ‘cashback’, ATM’s and Sub Post Office concessions for years. How many Markets do the same? Markets need to widen their services..

TSB lost some 12,500 customers as a result of an IT systems crash in April

Visa was not the only one with online problems. At least it was not suffering the ‘online assault’ described by TSB Chief Exec. Paul Pester to the Parliamentary Treasury Select Committee. He confirmed TSB had lost some 12,500 customers as a result of an IT systems crash in April. During that month it attempted to transfer 1.3 BILLION customer records from TSB’s previous parent company, Lloyds to it’s new Spanish owners Sabadell. But TSB was ‘overwhelmed’ by fraud attacks during this ‘system migration’ which generated 10,600 fraud alerts, 2,200 attempts at cyberfraud and up to 1,300 TSB customers suffering actual financial loss. Mr Pester and TSB Chairman Richard Meddings could not apologise enough to the 94,000 customers who had lodged complaints. MP’s on the Committee could be seen shifting uneasily in their seats and thanking their lucky stars they didn’t have to clear up the mess.

Sainsbury’s announced it is trialling a new ‘relaxed checkout lane’ in its store at Prestwick for people who suffer from dementia

Meanwhile Sainsburys continue to grab headlines following their proposed Asda merger news. The Supermarket announced it is trialling a new ‘relaxed checkout lane’ in its store at Prestwick for people who suffer from dementia. It’s being run in conjunction with charity ‘Alzheimer’s Scotland’ and bosses hope it can be rolled out across the country. Staff have received extra training to help sufferers and the checkout lane has been de-cluttered, but now with images which represent coins and their value.

Very commendable I’m sure but actually old news. Market stalls have been offering enhanced service to disabled Shoppers for years.

 

 

Christmas trading results confirmed the inexorable move to online plus another problem for struggling retailers – the gulf between ‘bricks ‘n mortar’ retailers who sell online and the ONLY online retailers like AO. Marc Bolland, boss of M&S did the decent thing and threw himself onto his sword when sales crashed 5.8% and the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets all warned of falling like-for-like sales despite improved online performance.

The big winners seem to be the ONLY Online retailers like AO who don’t have any Bricks ‘n Mortar presence

But card issuers like Visa and MasterCard confirmed turnover was UP by 2% – so the difference must have gone somewhere if not into the Big Four’s websites. The two usual suspects are German – Aldi and Lidl – but their sales turnover is still far too small to represent the difference. The big winners seem to be the ONLY Online retailers like AO who don’t have any bricks ‘n mortar presence. They reported a staggering 31% increase in sales – better even than Aldi could achieved. Admittedly much of this was in white goods rather than groceries but it still hurt the big boys efforts to diversify from groceries and household into durables. Changed shopping habits have now impacted on supermarkets just like they on markets when they introduced self-service.

The markets industry still remains predominantly cash-only and ignores the websites and plastic which fuelled the switch.

But if you’re a small retailer don’t take too much pleasure from watching ‘the biter bit’ until you’ve done your own reality check. The markets industry still remains predominantly cash-only and ignores the websites and plastic which fuelled the switch.

With over 80% of groceries and household goods sold by four companies the move online (and to those Germans) has left the big four with some very expensive property liabilities. They’ve been shelving projects and offloading poor performers sites as fast as possible but are left with the dilemma of who will buy them. The obvious purchasers are suffering as much as they are and anyway a vendor will inevitably slap a restrictive covenant on the title to prevent a competitor using it for retail. The clever money is now in redeveloping supermarket sites for housing – very much in line with government policy. The UK is OVER-provided with supermarkets but UNDER-provided with houses. Say Goodbye! to Asda and Hello! to Acacia Avenue.

Big retailers are seeking other ways to diversify and maintain profits whilst reducing their property costs

Small wonder then that big retailers are seeking other ways to diversify and maintain profits whilst reducing their property costs. Tesco tried with their new ‘Fresh ‘n Easy’ chain in the USA (which was a disaster) and still try to fill underused UK space with Harris & Hoole coffeeshops. Not that it’s had much effect – the H&H promos show suntanned South California beach babes with perfect teeth, not Tracey from the Mudford-on-Sea checkout.

Buying Argos and slotting their stores into Sainsbury units could save a lot of operational costs for both

One would-be diversifier is Mike Coupe, the dynamic new CEO of Sainsbury. He’s has been sniffing around the Home Retail Group, owners of Argos (and until recently Homebase DIY) to fill underused space in his stores. His rationale is that Argos has excellent home deliveries, a complementary offer and ‘mature’ property portfolio which would be cheap to offload. Buying Argos and slotting their stores into Sainsbury units could save a lot of operational costs for both and provide Argos ‘Click and Collect’ in Sainsbury convenience stores. Well that’s the theory anyway, but the secret is out. Home Retail shareholders are playing hard to get and have just sold off Homebase DIY to the Aussie retail group Wesfarmers to boost the share price. Mike will have to pay a lot more than he wants and seems to have cold feet. Watch this space.

After ‘Black Friday’ we had ‘Cyber-Saturday’ and now ‘Blue Monday’

And finally: the latest stupid-sounding name which no-one really understands. After ‘Black Friday’ we had ‘Cyber-Saturday’ and now ‘Blue Monday’ – the third Monday in January. This is – allegedly – the most depressing day of the year. Travel agents use it push February Citybreaks for WizzAir which sound like a steal with four romantic nights for two in Riga for £200 – flights, half-board and transfers included. Why Latvia in February? It’s perishing cold but their markets are housed in former Zeppelin airship hangars. It all seems slightly more funky than Mudford.

Unfortunately the name lives on but can be ignored by everyone in the Markets industry

‘Blue Monday’ was invented by the TV channel Sky Travel back in 2005 to drum up interest in their holiday offers but didn’t work too well. It’s owners, BSkyB closed them down after 5 years due to ‘intense internet competition’ which sounds familiar. Unfortunately the name lives on but can be ignored by everyone in the markets industry.

We already know about the kipper season – which, of course is NOT a stupid name.

RigaMarket

 

Hope you had a good Christmas. Try not to think about the kipper season.

Preliminary sales results from the big boys have been poor at best. The ‘Big Four’ supermarkets have been fighting off the Germans – Aldi and Lidl – so margins remained wafer-thin. The high street fashion retailers were hammered by unseasonably warm weather and Black Friday never really took off. Biggies like H&M and Next started their sales early (which is a bit worrying given the low rate of inflation and rising disposable incomes). Drastic discounting did not draw in the crowds as expected so when the full Christmas sales results are announced it will be interesting to see the proportion which transferred to online or simply disappeared to online competition. Amazon and Google announced amazing turnover figures for Black Friday with durables, white goods and presents only a click away. Shoppers were still seen browsing High Street shops up to Christmas Eve but more for price-comparison with online and/or to sniff out last-minute bargains. Conversion to sales seems to have been poor with many shoppers preferring to sit in front of their PC with a pile of mince pies.

Lower High Street footfall means lower Market turnover

You might have hoped this would not affect your market but I’m sorry to say that doesn’t appear to be the case. Stallholders do not have the sky-high rents and rates of a ‘bricks ‘n mortar’ high street retailer so are still able to offer real bargains BUT they remain overwhelmingly reliant on footfall. Lower high street footfall means lower market turnover which seems to have affected seasonal Christmas markets as much as weekday general markets. Meat, poultry and fruit & veg. seems to have stood up reasonably well but European traders who came to the UK in search of a strong currency and better sales turnover went home disappointed. Sales turnover on Christmas markets seems to have fallen by at least a quarter.

Those with a decent online presence have definitely held their ground

So who were the real winners? Those with a decent online presence have definitely held their ground. Those selling craft and luxury goods only have done well. My friend trained as saddlemaker in Walsall but threw in that towel to make wallets, belts, dog collars and handbags and only sells online. His sales through Etsy, Ebay, Facebook and website are better then ever. He’s not cheap but works on the theory that no girl can ever be too thin or own too many handbags or pairs of shoes. He took a big gamble and doubled his stock from July but had a cracking good Christmas since. His secrets are low overheads, adding value by product skills and selling online 24/7.

Thank heavens the markets industry is so innovative and resilient

So where does this leave the markets industry? The impact of online retailing and home delivery by DHL is as profound as the introduction of self-service supermarkets was to the corner shop. Thank heavens the markets industry is so innovative and resilient. Sadly, the Chancelllor’s Autumn statement didn’t contain any real goodies for small businesses to reinvest in and develop themselves. But it did confirm your market authority’s worst fears – a further 29% in spending cuts over the next 5 years. The easy cuts have been made already so you can anticipate services like care for the elderly taking priority. Loss-making ‘discretionary’ services like markets are in line for disposal in line with the ‘Big Society’ agenda promoted by David Cameron.

It would be interesting to know how many stallholders have half-embraced online retailing

It would be interesting to know how many Stallholders have HALF-embraced online retailing, but not the right half. Be honest with yourself and admit whether you’ve gone online because you’re too busy selling and don’t have time to sit in the carpark queue at Bluewater (6 hours) or Silverburn (3 hours). Maybe next year you should plan ahead and go online then treat yourself with a post-Christmas weekend holiday in Eastern Europe. Many of their Christmas markets stay open until the Orthodox Christmas on 6th January.

A Christmas when you don’t have to work – whoopee!

 

The Chancellor’s July budget from the all-new, all-Conservative government was disappointing for small businesses. George Osborne described it as ‘a budget for working people’ but not many were impressed. There were no new incentives for entrepreneurs or start-ups and the only rabbit he produced out of his hat was the ‘National living wage’ set at £7.20/hour from April 2016. But this was for over-25’s only with under-25’s still stuck with the lower ‘National minimum wage’. This was retained for under-25’s to ensure they can ‘secure work and gain experience’ i.e. not be priced out of the labour market. Despite this the independent Office for Budget Responsibility predicted job losses, particularly in the agricultural sector so in response George cut Corporation tax from 20% to 19% (from 2017) and increased the National Insurance ‘employment allowance’ which waives contributions from small businesses to the tune of £3,000 per annum.

Small businesses are deeply unimpressed

Research confirms small businesses are deeply unimpressed. Those in the retail sector consider this no substitute for the more, errrr…informal wage arrangements often seen in the Markets industry. They would far have preferred an increase to the Vat threshold – a very real disincentive to making the leap into Vat-registration.

The budget also contained proposals to review the old Chestnut of Sunday trading legislation

The budget also contained proposals to review the old Chestnut of Sunday trading legislation. Osborne suggested decision-making might be devolved to local Councils to support ‘bricks and mortar’ retailing versus it’s online competition. The arguments for and against are well-rehearsed – increased costs over 7-days without increased takings etc – but unfortunately his glamorous blonde colleague and Minister for Small Business, Anna Soubry MP (Con. Broxtowe, Notts.) forgot her job title before going public with the proposals. She should have consulted with a few more small business representatives before suggesting critics such as ‘Keep Sunday Special’ are “…harking back to a world that probably didn’t exist. Sunday was the most miserable day of the week”. She should, for instance have talked to the Federation of Retail Newsagents or Association of Convenience Stores. They rejected Osborne’s proposals, suggesting less than one in ten customers wanted changes. Other critics included ‘The Sun’ newspaper which – after ditching Page three’s ‘News in Briefs’ – let columnist Rod Liddle loose to sum it up nicely as ‘a wonderful excuse for me to buy yet more crap’.

Nor were the proposals well-received by two of the ‘Big four’ supermarkets. Tesco and Sainsbury own lots of Convenience store outlets which can stay open already, so don’t fancy opening expensive Supermarkets as well. Asda and Morrison though don’t have the same High Street presence so were enthusiastic. This proposal is now out for consultation so if you’d like to share your views about trading 7-days per week I’m sure Anna would like to hear from you. She can be emailed at: anna.soubry.mp@parliament.uk

What the report really highlights is a total lack of regulation in this important area

At about the same time the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) confirmed it had found evidence supermarkets are misleading customers with price promotions – but the pricing guidelines mean the problem is more of a cockup than a conspiracy. This came after a 3-month enquiry triggered by a ‘Super complaint’ lodged by the Consumer Association magazine ’Which?’ The CMA confirmed although there was evidence of misleading pricing on the 40% of grocery sales on promotion at any one time, the problem is not widespread. Supermarkets generally take compliance with pricing seriously and the problems identified by ‘Which?’ are caused more by lack of clarity in the pricing guidelines. The CMA made some weak recommendations about price comparison data and ‘Was/Now’ promotions, where by law the period on offer of an ‘Is now’ price cannot exceed the period of the higher ‘Was then’ price. The industry-funded and entirely voluntary Retail Ombudsman suggested pricing guidelines need updating because “The problem is the current rules are merely guidelines, which present retailers with a lot of wriggle room. What the report really highlights is a total lack of regulation in this important area”. This sounds rather like the problems of food labelling and the impossibility of legislating for every possibility.

Meanwhile in the dysfunctional world of Euroland ..

Meanwhile in the dysfunctional world of Euroland the Germans played a game of blink – and lost. The unblinking Greek Prime Minister Aleksis Tsipras called the EMU’s bluff and after three (or was it four?) sets of ‘final negotiations’ agreed to some watered-down austerity measures in return for a bail-out of the Greek Euro. The Bundesbank smiled at the breakthrough through gritted teeth as the UK blocked it’s £1 billion contribution to the Euro Stabilisation Fund and City of London bankers stuck two fingers up at their rivals in Frankfurt. The Euro dropped to 72p from 97p in 2008 and although sterling is not yet back to it’s pre-financial crisis exchange rate, it is going the right way. Which is nice.

The German Chancellor reportedly arrived in Athens for the last round of emergency talks to be greeted by an officious Greek immigration officer armed with a clipboard and a list of questions: “Name?” he asked:“Angela Merkel” she replied. “Nationality?” he asked. “German” she replied. “Occupation?” he asked. “Nein – not yet” she snapped. ”First ve haf to talk……”

 

In April this year the shiny new CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) emerged from a union of the former Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission. People are watching it closely: Initial shock revelations include someone has been price-fixing galvanised steel water tanks and online review websites are not trustworthy. Well there’s a surprise. Whether or not the CMA gets around to reviewing something worthwhile such as supermarket tactics to bankrupt independent retailing remains to be seen.

Review websites often ‘lose’ poor feedback in return for sponsorship

According to the CMA some 25 million shoppers use review websites such as Amazon and TripAdvisor to ‘inform’ their purchases but many of the reviews are rigged. Review websites often ‘lose’ poor feedback in return for sponsorship, whilst manufacturers offer rewards for favourable reviews and post criticism of competitors. None of this comes as a surprise to anyone over 8 years old but encourages genuine shoppers to post outrageous comments about some products. I recommend Amazon’s eye-wateringly funny review of ‘Veet for Men Hair Removal Gel Cream’ at www.amazon.co.uk/Veet-Men-Hair-Removal-Cream/dp/B000KKNQBK 

Someone who does believe in frankness and honesty is the (Canadian) Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney

Someone who does believe in frankness and honesty is the (Canadian) Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. Last month he gave a highly critical after-dinner speech to city bankers to coincide with publication of the ‘Fair and Effective Markets’ review by HM Treasury. His speech left the audience squirming uncomfortably on their well-padded behinds as they remembered how the (now disbanded) Financial Services Authority failed to reign them in prior to the financial crisis. Carney was not averse to a bit of self-criticism either, describing how the Bank of England allowed the crisis to develop. The Bank’s contribution fell short…and neither identified the scale of risks in the system nor spotted gaps in the regulatory architecture’ he said. Arcane governance had blurred accountability and more would now be done to strengthen control. He added: ‘and that includes 10 years in Wormwood Scrubs for any of you guys with your hand in the till’ - or something like that. Former Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King, former FSA boss Hector Sants and former Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown chose not to comment.

The Treasury review proposes extending criminal sanctions from investment bankers to foreign exchange traders

Chancellor George Osborne also spoke at the dinner. He publicly supported Carney with: ‘The public rightly asks: Why is it after so many scandals so few individuals face punishment in the courts? Individuals who fraudulently manipulate markets and commit financial crime should be treated like the criminals they are.’ The Treasury review proposes extending criminal sanctions from investment bankers to foreign exchange traders plus harsher penalties, something shareholders in RBS and Lloyds would doubtless like applied to reckless executives. City of London Lord Mayor, Alan Yarrow said upholding professional standards should be the norm. ‘It’s like a supermarket with no security cameras – if someone takes something without paying, it’s still theft. There is no escape. People should uphold professional standards irrespective of whether the regulators are there or not.’ Well, actions speak louder than words Alan. We’re waiting.  

Pickles made few friends amongst local councils whilst spearheading local government spending cuts

Meanwhile, having won a clear majority in the general election the Prime Minister reshuffled his cabinet without needing to consult his coalition partners. Eric Pickles, plain-speaking head of the Department of Communities and Local Government was promoted to the House of Lords with a Knighthood and an ‘anti-corruption role’ which sounds a bit South American.  To replace him David Cameron promoted Greg Clark (47) to become Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Described as a ‘soggy left’ Conservative from Middlesborough, the former Financial Secretary to the Treasury has a hard act to follow. Pickles made few friends amongst local councils whilst spearheading local government spending cuts and the 2011 Localism Act which gave community groups the right to take over council-provided services. His enthusiasm for the ‘Big Society’ agenda bolstered a reputation as a vocal critic of local government, particularly after the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham and local governments’ ineffectual response to the 2014 floods. Greg Clark faces an equally tough time at the DCLG as he now has to implement a second round of even deeper cuts to reduce the governments spending deficit. 

Canadian lobsters are now in the front line thanks to Smartphone technology

And finally: Another Canadian product has also been in the news – Lobsters. In the struggle to attract consumer spending Canadian lobsters are now in the front line thanks to Smartphone technology. Shoppers in Newfoundland can now use smartphones to scan live lobsters in fishmongers tanks to discover where their seafood is from and who caught it and when.

Tracing food back to source is not a new idea but using QR code tags to provide customers with this level of detail is

The traceable lobster program is part of thisfish.info, an initiative of Ecotrust Canada, an environmental charity. Each lobster caught by a participating member is tagged with a unique QR code which customers scan for information about the catch – when and where it was caught and by what method, plus a biography of the fisherman. Tracing food back to source is not a new idea but using QR code tags to provide customers with this level of detail is. Some Newfoundland restaurants have been serving QR-coded seafood for a couple of years and boosting sales by linking into wider consumer trends. A spokesperson said: ‘Customers love a glimpse into the lifestyle of the person who provided their supper that night. Where they live, how old they are and how long they’ve been fishing. Consumers are focusing more on where their food comes from, if it is sustainable and healthy and whether the people who catch it are paid fairly’.

No lobsters were available for comment.

 

Supermarkets suffer the same problems as market traders – but on a grander scale. This includes underestimating how long it takes to generate turnover and profit sufficient to cover borrowings. We’ve all seen the enthusiastic but inexperienced start-up who lasts 6 months before the savings run out and he does a midnight flit leaving unpaid rent and suppliers behind. ‘Turnover is for egotists but profits are for realists’ is a classic saying – and a classic argument for cheaper bank loans and more tax breaks. Hopefully George Osborne will consider both now he doesn’t need to worry about re-election.

It took Aldi 25 years to generate enough turnover to become the UK’s sixth largest retailer

It took Aldi 25 years to generate enough turnover to become the UK’s sixth largest retailer. This was confirmed by first-quarter figures showing they’ve secured 5.3% of the retail grocery sector. That puts them ahead of Waitrose (a mere 5.1%) but still a long way short of Tesco at 28%. But every little helps.

What a pity they’re German, not British

At the same time Aldi announced ambitious expansion plans with another nine London stores in 2015 and a nationwide target of 1,000 by 2022. Contrast this with Tesco who ditched 40 + planned openings in the UK plus more abroad before posting a £6.4billion pre-tax loss. The fact that Aldi is both foreign and privately-owned simply rubs salt into the wound. It is not subject to corporate shareholder pressure for increased profits, year-on-year so could take it’s time to understand an overseas market. What a pity they’re German, not British.

It cost Tesco £1.2billion in write-offs when they pulled out in 2013

Asda retained their second place at 17% whilst Sainsbury held on at 16% but is suffering the same fall-out from overseas expansion that characterised Tesco under former Chief Executive Phillip Clarke. Tesco thought the best way to maintain turnover profits was overseas so launched their all-new ‘Fresh ’n Easy’ brand in blue collar USA. But they underestimated just how ‘mature’ US consumers are and that car workers in Detroit don’t understand self-service checkouts. It cost Tesco £1.2billion in write-offs when they pulled out in 2013.

Sainsbury’s venture into the unsophisticated retail economy of Egypt went dramatically wrong

Maybe Sainsbury’s new CEO, Mike Coupe should have considered this last year when he took over from long-standing predecessor Justin King. Sainsbury’s venture into the unsophisticated retail economy of Egypt went dramatically wrong when the Egyptian Courts charged JK with some (admittedly very dubious) allegations of embezzlement. Unfortunately Sainsbury had got into bed with a local developer who then went bust which cost them a modest £111million in write-offs after 18 months. But the ex-partner continued to pursue Sainsbury for alleged embezzlement so when Mike took over he travelled to Egypt to appeal against a guilty verdict. He very sensibly caught the return flight before the outcome of his appeal was announced which was just as well because he was sentenced to two years in Cairo Clink in his absence. There’ll be no more Egyptian sightseeing holidays for Mike unless he wants to do it in handcuffs.

This is not what one expects from a FTSE100 Company

The amazing thing is that investors learnt about this from the media, not from a Shareholder announcement. This is not what one expects from a FTSE100 Company and must rank alongside JK’s 2007 denial of Sainsbury colluding with suppliers to rig dairy product prices. Until two months later that is, when he announced a £26million out of court settlement with The Office of Fair Trading to avoid prosecution. Hmmm…….

Taking your eye off your home turf and forgetting what you do well may be a big mistake.

It seems the bigger you get the more confident you are that size alone will enable you to do a better job than the locals, even if you choose the right partner. Taking your eye off your home turf and forgetting what you do well may be a big mistake. Tom Jones (yes, THAT Tom Jones) was top of the bill in Las Vegas for 40 years before being offered a lucrative partnership in a new Hotel development. He’s no fool when it comes to business and turned it down, saying: ‘What do I know about running Hotels – I’m just a boy from the Valleys who can sing a bit’ which was not unusual.

The ‘Big Four’ Supermarkets are now faced with an inquiry by the Competition and Markets Authority

The fallout of all this is going to get worse says Begbies Traynor, the corporate insolvency practitioners. They suggest 1,400 wholesalers face imminent collapse as price wars escalate and buyers cut out the middlemen and deal direct with producers. After all, someone has to pay for the ‘£1 deals’. More worryingly they predict a bleaker picture still when Aldi and Lidl capture up to 20% of market share as predicted. They point out that: ‘The majority of Aldi and Lidl’s packaged stock is own-brand sourced from overseas, so struggling UK suppliers could find themselves squeezed even further’ – particularly if Sterling continues to strengthen whilst the Euro goes South. To add to Sainsbury problems the ‘Big Four’ Supermarkets are now faced with an inquiry by the Competition and Markets Authority (successor to the OFT and Competition Commission). This was triggered by a so-called ‘super complaint’ lodged by ‘Which?’ magazine alleging they systematically mislead shoppers by reducing pack sizes without reducing prices and make seasonal offers where the ‘previous higher price’ only applied out of season etc etc. I can’t help thinking this will only restate the bleeding obvious and result in a few adjustments to the Pricing guidelines and Groceries code of practice.

Mind you, a bit of adjudication in favour of shorter payment periods for suppliers would be welcome. Tell me about it.