A Nation of Shopkeepers

So via Tim Worstall I hear that House of Fraser is in financial trouble. I can’t say I’m overly surprised. Back in early 2015 I ordered a long winter overcoat from House of Fraser online, and a short time later I received a parcel containing a short summer blazer. In their defence, the colour wasn’t far off. I contacted their customer service desk and they said I’d need to send the item back, from France. Now they covered the costs, but I still had to repackage the box as best I could, carry it to La Poste in my spare time, stand in a queue, fill out forms, and send them the receipt: hardly what I expected to find myself doing after shopping online. For my troubles they gave me a £10 voucher which could only be used online, i.e. I’d have to go to a store. And rather than send me the correct item they told me I had to order it afresh, only by that time the sales had ended and I found another coat elsewhere. Now I don’t know how representative my experience was of someone trying to buy something from House of Fraser, but I got the impression I was dealing with a bunch of incompetents.

I’ve had similar experiences with British retail in the past. Back when I was in university in the late ’90s it was hard to find shoes in my size: I have big feet and most shops didn’t stock the larger sizes in those days, so I usually had to order them. This didn’t bother me so much; what bothered me is the salespeople didn’t know what they were on about. I’ve long been a big fan of the footwear manufacturer Merrell (I have no less than four pairs even now), and they have always made their shoes in half-size increments. So I’d go into a shop and ask to order size 11 1/2 and I’d be told “sorry, they don’t make them in half sizes”. Well, yes they do because I rang them up and checked: what you mean is, for reasons I can’t fathom, you don’t bother selling them. In other words, I’ve come into your shoe shop to buy a popular brand of shoe and you are incapable of even ordering me a pair which will fit. Hurrah for British retail!

Then there was Marks & Spencer who spent that same period bleating about collapsing sales and profits warnings. I used to always buy Marks & Spencer trousers and one day I went in to buy a pair for a new job. “Sorry, we’re out of stock,” was the reply. Only the warehouse was also out of stock so it was impossible to order them. I asked what I should do, having walked into this large clothing store to buy a pair of trousers. The bloke behind the counter gave me a sickly look and said, “Maybe you could come back in a few weeks?” I didn’t, I went somewhere else and never bought trousers from Marks & Spencer again.

A lot of people are quick to blame the demise of Britain’s high-street brands on external forces – the internet, parking charges, high business rates – and there is no doubt they make a contribution. But I have a sneaky feeling a lot of it is down to these companies – or at least the people working in them – simply being rubbish at retail. If House of Fraser can’t even manage to check the right item has gone in the box before it’s shipped to France, they deserve to go bust, frankly.

(Incidentally, retail in France is equally painful)


23 thoughts on “A Nation of Shopkeepers

  1. I’ve generally found that retailers who have physical shops are among the worst online sellers. They seem to just see it as an inconvenient add-on they reluctantly have to provide. It starts with a terrible website where it’s difficult to find, let alone order anything.
    Of course online-only sellers have to be better than that as they don’t have physical sales to subsidize them. If their website is awful they just go out of business.

  2. JS,

    Indeed, but why does anyone think that a management team that was brought up on bricks and mortar retailing should be capable to build an internet retailing business?

    The Board should have treated it as two separate business that use the same brand and to some goods and brought is a second management team. In the interests of their shareholders they should have encouraged competition between them.

  3. I buy polyester trousers because I cycle pretty much everywhere, and anything nicer wears out in a week or two. Why, having found something I like, would I want to change, so I always buy the same ones from C&A. As I hate shopping I generally do this 5 or more pairs at a time. Only, just-in-time logistics now means no shop ever has more than one pair per size per style, and often has zero.

    I am sure that a substantial minority of men shop this way, and catering to them would be highly lucrative, but we are forced to shop like women. Fortunately C&A run a competent online shop.

  4. “I used to always buy Marks & Spencer trousers”

    Have you now upgraded to a higher fashion scene?

  5. I tried to buy a cravat on the high street a few weeks ago, to no avail. M&S said they only sold them online, not in the shop. At Moss Bros I was told they only rent them, they don’t sell them.
    “Can I rent one then?”
    “Umm, uhh, when do you want it?” “Today.”
    “Umm, uhh, I don’t know if we can do that.”

    I ordered one off Amazon there and then, for half the price of the Moss Bros rental.

  6. How can one ascertain whether one hates British high street clothes retailer and their online cousins, or whether one simply hates shopping for clothes altogether? I remain perplexed by those who find any form of clothes shopping a joyous and life-enriching experience.

    If I went to a country with “good” clothes shopping potential, would I enjoy myself a bit more? How so?

  7. Despite all the rumpus about online retailers destroying the high street, I agree with our host. Shopping in a store has always been a miserable experience. No stock, or only one. Like others commenting here, if I’ve found something tolerable, I’ll buy half a dozen.
    But there used to be no choice, customer took what was on offer and was expected to be grateful ( Cue “The Cheeseshop”…)

    And then….
    Amazon, despite their success, is really just an old fashioned catalogue mail-order business. They just put the catalogue online and replaced a long phone call/letter to order with an online form.

    Just bling really, the business model is unchanged. It’s mail order. What they got right, and still do, is fulfillment. They have stock, and they deliver it. Correctly (most of the time!).
    For this they are criticised, and our douchebag of a Chancellor wants a special tax on them.

    Their latest angle is to apply what they get right (fulfillment) to anyone else’s business via Marketplace, and quite justifiably are stonking the sector.

    It isn’t a hard concept: have the products the customer wants, and manage to get it to the customer. Rocket science it would seem, to the high street incumbents.
    Signs of hope though: I have encountered shops that have woken up and are fightingh back, and doing very well at it, even selling books. The trick is to regard the customer as your paycheck provider and not as a nuisance.

    Think of it as evolution in action.

  8. @MBE,

    Definitely don’t come to Germany for clothes shopping. “German fashion” is an oxymoron, as much as “rap music” and “bad sex”.

  9. Bloke in North Dorset: there’s a downside there: a customer walks into the shop and expects the shop staff to be able to help with the online shopping. They can’t, and the customer leaves in a huff, with the brand for both sides of the business suffering as a result.

    Gracious host:

    I have a sneaky feeling a lot of it is down to these companies – or at least the people working in them – simply being rubbish at retail.

    I’ve worked a lot in retail (not UK but it’s all the same) since the early 2000’s and can attest this is accurate. Perhaps shop staff used to be better back in the day – I don’t know – but one thing I’ve found is that retail tends to be a temporary thing for most young people, and those who are still working in retail later in life are very often quite weird.

    This goes triply so for the management. The agita of retail management is wildly incommensurate with the extra pay, so anybody with any sense just stays on the shop floor; thus the job tends to attract people with personality problems.

    And above the branch level, retail companies are plagued by the same kinds of bad management every other industry suffers from: officiousness, self-generating paperwork, incompetence, the occasional faddish nonsense that they’ve bought off some consultancy.

    It doesn’t seem to occur to them to find experienced shop-floor talent who aren’t mental, give them some management training and offer them a decent salary.

    Retail isn’t rocket science:

    1. Stock available
    2. Decent price
    3. Good customer service

    If you’re failing at retail, chances are you’re not doing one of those three.

    Anyway, I went off on a tangent. My point was, maybe the paucity of shopkeeping talent has something to do with the way semi-intelligent people are funnelled through university and into some pointless office job. Take into account their student debts and they probably aren’t even making more money than if they’d stayed in retail.

  10. @Matthew McConnagay

    At higher management levels I suspect there’s a bit more to it than that – if you want to have physical stores then where you locate them, what size you go for, where you stand on “acceptable” levels of rent/rates, and how you design the store are all things you could go badly wrong on. I had a friend who found a nice cheap place to set up her fashion clothes store, but since it was far from all the other clothes stores then people who were going clothes-shopping didn’t come to her unless they made a specific trip. She thought she’d shielded herself from competition by heading for the part of town away from the other clothes stores, but by the time she realised her mistake it was too late.

    And then when it comes to “stock available” there’s still the issue of which stock, how to present/display it, and the price-point you’re going for.

    I’ve never been tempted to go into retail because I haven’t the foggiest how to answer those questions, let alone get your key points 1-2-3 up and running smoothly and consistently.

  11. I have not yet purchased any clothing online as I prefer to try it on before I buy. I have three preferred shopping locations where I buy all my clothing and some gear for my boys.

    There is a run down and tired mall in Doha next to the Marriott that I get Balmain clothing and Beverly Hills Polo gear for the lads at about 40% of retail price. You name it I have bought it from there from suitcase, suits to ties. I was there a few weeks ago tried on a few Balmain business shirts, selected the style that fitted the best and bought five of them in different colours. Then went into Beverly Hills Polo next door got two polos for the lads (selection confirmed by them in real time by WhatsApp) with braiding that heavy you would need a wheelbarrow to carry them and a winter zipper for me. The good thing about that mall is that after the strenuous shopping effort you can nip in and get a good feed of lobster with malt whisky in the adjoining Marriott.

    Similarly there is shop in Sandton Mall in Joburg where I buy mostly cotton trousers, was there recently, picked a style and bought three, the seller adjusted the length to the mandatory 1″ above the sole interface at the heel, happy days.

    Off to the Direct Factory Outlet (DFO) at Brisbane Airport in a moment with the wife to get some shoes.

    So thats my three shopping venues.

  12. Spoke to soon.

    Missus wouldn’t come as she was concerned about me leaving the slow cooking pork belly and rack of lamb smoking on the weber, whilst we were gone. So I went on my own and could not find a pair of Italian all leather brown wing tipped brogues anywhere and came back empty handed.

    I haven’t been doing well for shoes recently. I used to get them from a Nigerian guy in Brunswick St, Melbourne, he imported them direct from Italy. He couldn’t afford the rent and shut up shop, I got three pairs before he quit about seven years ago. Then I found an outlet in Joburg, they have since stopped selling shoes. I do get my shoes repaired but I still wear them out quickly.

  13. “1. Stock available
    2. Decent price
    3. Good customer service”

    So this is why “come in and take what we have or leave it” places like TK Maxx, Primark, Zara etc. are doing OK? They’re doing part 1 wrong but everyone expects that before they even set foot inside.

    For women anyway, who are happy to shop that way.

  14. “how you design the store”

    Big electrical retailer near me, has just redesigned. The first thing you used to see when you went in was a locked display cabinet of SLR cameras costing thousands. Now you see their rack of €3.99 sale DVDs/Blu-rays.

    Excellent psychology!

  15. BiG – not an expert on clothes retail (or any other kind of retail) (or anything else) by any means but I was going to add earlier: big-box retailers follow similar rules to Amazon: they’re competing on price first, stock second, and customer service dead last.

    Everybody already knows the service is going to be bad at a big store. We’ve already been conditioned not to expect it. And as for stock, we also know to expect a smaller range than might be expected at Amazon or a specialty store. What we do expect from big chain stores is (1) low prices and (b) stock in store of what items they do carry.

    Smaller stores can’t compete on price, and they probably don’t have a big warehouse out back with enormous reserves of stock. If they want to do well, they’ll focus on customer service.

    As for your nearby retailer: my feeling is that the psychological angle was their previous layout. Big expensive items at the front of the store is a way to make everything else inside seem cheaper. I suspect that they just have a lot of DVDs that they need to shift, since everybody’s got Netflix now. The local record store/electronics retailer round my way is phasing out the DVDs and CDs and so on, moving more into homewares. I presume it’s for exactly that reason.


    As for designing the store: people with experience, if they’re smart, will pick up how best to lay the place out. It’s part of the job, after all. It’s called “merchandising”. (Is that common knowledge?) There’s considerable scope for experimentation with the layout at the store manager level and even below, so after time you do pick up how it works.

    That’s not to say that there’s no place in upper-management of retail companies for people to come in from outside, just that they frequently get it wrong.

  16. Matthew,

    Thing is, Germans buy almost always on price alone. Quality isn’t of interest, unless it’s a real niche product like an dSLR (I own two, but then I’m crazy – since the smartphone most people will never own one from now on).

    Couple of recent experiences of the famously excellent German customer service:

    In a high-end department store, looking at kitchen knives:
    “This brand makes some with curved blades, I rather like those.”
    “Oh but no real chef would use the ones with the curved blades.”

    In an opticians:
    “Have you got a prescription from an eye doctor?”
    “If you get a prescription you can save 25 euros on the lenses”
    “How long will I have to wait to see an eye doctor”
    “The guy upstairs will see new patients in 2 months”
    “I meant how long will I be sat in the waiting room. If it’s more than 1 minute it’s not worth the effort to me”.
    “But you can save 25…”
    “I don’t care, how much do these cost now”.
    {Gast utterly flabbered that someone might value any amount of time at greater than 25 euros}
    “Because you are over X you will need two pairs, one for distance one for close”
    “But my eyes are still fine with the pair I am wearing”
    “You will need two pairs”
    “But the old pair I am wearing work fine from 10 centimetres to infinity. I guess my eyes aren’t as old as the rest of me”
    “You will need two pairs”

  17. My previous post on this subject seemed to have been eaten, so I shall try again.
    My bugbear is with Debenhams. In Ye Olde Dayes, Debs used to sell pretty reasonable clothes for the office: good shirts and especially black cotton trousers. One can wear them with almost anything looked nice,had turn-ups, happily go into a wash-machine, sometimes shrank after many washes, but were cheap enough to buy two at a time. they stopped selling them along with 100% cotton and wool socks and nice boxers. Go into a Debs today and literally cannot find anything to buy – shirts are horrible, “normal” jeans in black or blue or decent trousers in natural fibres ( and turn-ups !!!!!!) are impossible to find ect ect moan droan chiz… I will not miss them when they are gone.

    BiG – re TKMaxx and Primark et al – our feeling with these shops was that sometimes one could “hit the jackpot” and find something brilliant at a good price. 95% of the time I could never find anything, although the missus often did and it was a nice feeling when it happened.

    I concur with you on shopping in Ger and Austria, soul destroying in most places, especially in Munich. There never seemed to be anything mid-priced, particularly shoes, i always bought them when in the UK. Buying anything electronic is a hateful experience.

  18. BiG,

    “Thing is, Germans buy almost always on price alone. Quality isn’t of interest, unless it’s a real niche product like an dSLR (I own two, but then I’m crazy – since the smartphone most people will never own one from now on).”

    That’s interesting.

    When I served in Celle in the early ’80s we used to have regular Mess drinks with the German Panzer battalion next door. I was told by them, and some civilians I got to know, that Germans would always pay a extra for German goods, especially white goods. Something foreign would have to be a lot cheaper and be of the same if not better quality to compete.

    I suppose after that they went through their “sick man of Europe” phase and that must have changed their psyche.

  19. Ottokring is right that there is rarely stuff of mid-quality here, goes especially for furniture. Everything is either cheap shit or well beyond the budget of even 1%-ers.

    Sure, some Germans are economic nationalists like everyone else, and many will spend stupid money on their cars (especially German cars). But Germans also save money. Not for a rainy day, they are saving for Armageddon.

  20. Retail in the high street is dying for many reasons:
    1. Parking is a fucking nightmare. And expensive.
    2. There is nowehere to sit. I can endure going with the Mrs for about 1 hour before I can’t hack it any longer. If M&S offered seats and beers with a telly for bored husbands they’d coin it. There is literally nowehere to sit. So I leave.
    3. Not everyone is trendy. I went to M&S after A. a pair of shoes for work – but it was all faux leather pointy crap (note to M&S management – please sell simple, polishable Oxfords). B. A simple black leather belt – nothing simple or under £25. I think stores have decided that they need to lead in fashion. Oh dear. M&S certainly doesn’t and it seems to have forgotten how to do classic basics. I even bought some boxer shorts from Tu recently (Sainsburys). Would have been perfect for M&S 20 years ago.

  21. It isn’t just the shops. Banks, Insurance, everything seems to be crap nowadays. I’ve just added my son in law to my insurance and they wanted to know if he had any kids. WTF. What difference does that make? My bank has now added the requirement for a phone to use online banking. Why? Our whole country doesn’t add any value but adds useless jobs asking questions they don’t need.

    My default blame is Gov. If anything is really screwed up the Gov has a finger in the pie. Firms then gold plate it and it screws us up. As they all do it changing banks, ins, etc. makes no difference.

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