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)