Helen Edwards on excuses
Helen Edwards on excuses
A view from Helen Edwards, PPA Business columnist of the year

Helen Edwards: Retailers do not 'leak consumers', they lose them to brands doing it better

Poorly performing retailers who are quick to blame their plight on the economy would do better to sharpen their focus and offerings.

Retailers choose their words carefully when announcing a lacklustre trading performance for the festive period. The aim is to link disappointing figures to the difficulties that beset the sector, rather than any failing closer to home.

'Challenging conditions' were thus cited by retailers from Argos to La Senza to explain like-for-like falls against even a snow-filled 2010.

HMV chief executive Simon Fox had a nice line in crisis management, breezily claiming to be 'encouraged' by what he called 'an improvement in the depth of the sales decline'. So the good news is that the bad news could have been worse.

The most telling term, though, was the one chosen by Dalton Philips, chief executive of Morrisons, to justify a lower-than-expected rise of 0.7%. Customers, he complained, had 'leaked' to local convenience stores.

So, they weren't actively choosing rivals because of, perhaps, superior merchandise, friendlier service or shorter queues; they were 'leaking'.

The word is a clue to both the defensiveness and arrogance of the retail mindset: the sense that shoppers are theirs by right, and it's somehow just bad luck if some find fulfilment elsewhere.

The challenges on the high street are real enough, but the imagination to fight back is lacking. Physical retailers may be assailed by high rental and labour costs, but these are merely the flip-side of their latent strengths: the power to turn shopping into an exciting, immediate experience and the infectious enthusiasm of passionate, knowledgeable staff.

Both of these, however, depend on a single quality that is at the heart of all strong brands: clarity. Look at our most troubled retailers, and you see that it is conspicuous by its absence.

What is HMV all about? If it is now technology, as its leadership insists, why the tawdry merchandise that hems you in for the length of the checkout queue? Will people really choose to spend £749.99 on a sleek new laptop with a retailer that wants to flog them a cuddly toy and a Ribena on the way out?

Confusion reigns at La Senza, where the writing is on the wall in more ways than one. Glance up as you enter the store and you see a mural with pink, girly type that purrs, 'Love me ... try me ... undress ... mmm', before working itself up to an explosive finale: 'more, more, more upstairs'.

Downstairs, meanwhile, is a prominent display of cosy slippers and woolly-hat-and-sock sets decorated with cartoon animal faces. Wear any of these outer garments and it won't matter how skimpy the silk and satin you're wearing underneath; no one is going to get that far. Memo to La Senza's new owner: try a little focus, and stock less, less, less.

Blacks, meanwhile, is supposed to be about the great outdoors. So why does it smell like a garage and come staffed by limp souls who look like they've never walked up a hill in their lives?

There are retail brands that are, indeed, brands: beacons of consistency, imagination and belief. John Lewis, with its great editing and sheer niceness, and Apple, with its clean lines and wandering, sell-it-to-you-now technophiles, are the obvious examples.

For too many once-great names, though, from Mothercare to Thorntons, there is a gaping hole where 'brand' should be. Until that is mended, customers will continue not merely to leak, but to cascade.

- Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.


Christmas has been a torrid time for the retailers, battling it out in the face of depressed consumer confidence, rising wage bills, rent increases and predictions of 'no growth' in 2012. Yet some have fared better than others.

The bad

  • - HMV - A drop of 8.2% in like-for-like sales in the run-up to Christmas added salt to this wounded retail chain; HMV is already facing pre-tax losses of £45.7m, for the half-year to 29 October, and debts of £160m.
  • - Blacks - All the outdoor leisure chain's 290 stores were bought out of administration for £20m by JD Sports earlier this month.
  • - La Senza - After a dismal festive trading period, the lingerie chain entered administration; a rescue package from Kuwaiti retail group Alshaya will save 60 of the 141 UK branches, but 1400 jobs will still go.

The good

  • - John Lewis - The current beacon of the retail industry defied consumer gloom to post like-for-like sales of £596m in the five weeks up to year-end, up 9.3% on the previous year.
  • - Debenhams - After a record pre-Christmas week, the department store's share price jumped by 10% in the 18 weeks to 7 January.
  • - The Co-operative Group - The month up to Christmas was buoyant for the consumer-owned chain, with like-for-like sales up 3.1%.