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How Thorntons melted away from the high street

Retail has seen a lot of losers disappear rapidly from the high street, but Thorntons’ gradual retreat was years in the making.

24th Mar 2021
Founder & Chief Dreamer flinder
Columnist
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The Frontage of Thorntons Chocolate Store
istock_Thorntons_Roger-Utting-Photography

Over the last decade the chocolate retailer shrunk its store estate from 350 to 61 and seen declining revenues since 2014, with sizeable losses too. It’s now at point that it’s propped up by its Italian parent, Ferrero.

And last week Thorntons announced it would be closing the remaining 61 stores and putting more than 600 jobs at risk. While that’s another blow to the British high street and to those affected, Thorntons the brand is expected to live on and retain the other 1,500 people thanks to its manufacturing site and other sales distribution channels.

So, is this another victim of the coronavirus lockdown? Yes and no – clearly, it’s pretty much wiped out any store revenues for the past 12 months, but it’s likely just accelerated a path it had been on for some years.

It’s a brand that’s steeped in British history and been around for over 100 years.

  • 1911: Joseph Thornton, a traveling confectionery salesman, opened a store in Sheffield.
  • 1921: Both sons join and incorporated as JW Thornton Ltd.
  • 1920s: It first branched out into chocolate making.
  • 1960s: The company opened its 200th retail store.
  • 1988: Listed on LSE, selling 25% of its shares.
  • 1999: Launched new in-store coffee shops and cafes.
  • 2015: Italian food giant Ferrero bought them for £112m.
  • 2015 onwards: Revenue and profits declined rapidly.
  • 2021: Company announced closure of all owned stores.

Declining…everything

So why has it disappeared from the high street? Well, of course, coronavirus has had an impact – the high street has been empty for a while but Thorntons’ presence was receding anyway.

Below you can see consistent revenues from 2009 to 2015 with a rapid fall from then onwards. 2015 is flattered by a long 60-month trading period as they changed their year-end when they were bought by Ferrero.

Thorntons: Revenue, gross profit and operating profit/

Thorntons: Revenue, gross profit and operating profit/loss (Source: Annual accounts)

In recent years, there have been large exceptional items for onerous store lease costs and similar hitting profits, but when you have exceptional items every year, they kind of run into regular costs and it’s part of high street retail.

Dwindling store numbers have had a significant impact on revenue. From more than 350 stores and 200 franchise counters in 2011 they reduced to 250 by 2016 and then to just 61 today – soon to be zero. A relatively fast reduction in real estate and outlets to sell through.

Not only has revenue fallen but gross profit % has fallen off a cliff too (see below). As the proportion of sales has shifted from own stores to supermarkets it’s hit their margin, hard.

Thorntons: Revenue per week and gross profit %

Thorntons: Revenue per week and gross profit % (Source: Annual accounts)

Thorntons vs Hotel Chocolat

You can’t think of high street chocolate without thinking about Hotel Chocolat. Personally, I don’t recall ever setting foot into a Thorntons’ store, but I do go into Hotel Chocolat from time to time. It’s inviting from the outside and has a boutique feel about it. Although, as a nut allergy sufferer, it’s always a bit of a risk when they offer me a chocolate to taste!

Where Thorntons has struggled over recent years, Hotel Chocolat has thrived. Thorntons’ revenues have halved since 2015 whereas Hotel Chocolat’s revenues (less than 50% of Thorntons in 2015), actually surpassed Thorntons in 2019.

Thorntons v Hotel Chocolat: Revenues

Thorntons v Hotel Chocolat: Revenues (Source: Annual accounts)

But revenues aren’t the only disparity between the two; Hotel Chocolat has a clear edge in gross profit % too, signalling the premium position they sit at in the market.

Thorntons is paying the price for becoming a multi-channel brand and selling through stores, franchises, online and more damagingly supermarkets and discount stores – it’s driven the price point and the brand value down, which is a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. Whereas the more artisan Hotel Chocolat is commanding a higher price point in the market demonstrated by the significantly higher gross margin.

Thorntons v Hotel Chocolat: Gross profit %

Thorntons vs Hotel Chocolat: Gross profit % (Source: Annual accounts)

Clicks vs bricks

So if Thorntons is backing out of the high street, how good is their e-commerce offering?

We can’t know for sure but since the beginning of the crisis, sales through its website have allegedly increased by more than 70% compared to the previous year.

While they had just about 500k website visits in February 2021, Hotel Chocolat had over three times that. Not only does Hotel Chocolat have more visits but their visitors stay on their site twice as long as Thorntons’ do (at over 4 mins). To add insult to injury, Thorntons has a higher bounce rate and fewer pages are visited too.

The below shows the web traffic over the past six months – you can see the huge Nov/Dec increase in volume at Hotel Chocolat but a much more modest festive increase at Thorntons.

Thorntons vs Hotel Chocolat: Web traffic

 

Thorntons vs Hotel Chocolat: Web traffic (Source: SimilarWeb)

They say size isn’t everything but when you have only 6k Instragram followers compared to Hotel Chocolat’s 215k it’s going to have an impact on your online-only demographic.

About half of both brands’ traffic is from search but where Hotel Chocolat are paying for about 38% of this on keywords, Thortons has a much lower spend in (absolute and proportion) at just 9%. Basically, their search (organic and paid) and social strategy is far less effective than Hotel Chocolat’s – they’re losing the online chocolate war in the UK.

Online should be vital to any retailers’ strategy but while many brands are rethinking their store strategy to complement their online presence Thorntons is shutting up all its own stores. As its more loyal fans are ageing, it will be tough to tap into a new generation of chocolate lovers and the chocolate retailer will need to invest significantly into its online presence and search strategy.

Conclusion

Thorntons was the leading premium chocolate brand in the UK. But a combination of changing high street habits, lack of focus on customer proposition, selling through supermarkets, lack of innovation and the three national lockdowns, has seen 100 years of Thorntons’ own stores dwindle out of existence.

Thorntons.co.uk has seen good growth which will remain a key focus for them in addition to a franchise high street presence and supermarket shelves. It’s a huge opportunity for Thorntons to move forward as a more agile brand but I think they still need a physical experiential presence to tap into a new generation of chocolate lovers who don’t share the romantic notion of Thorntons as a child.

Thorntons also needs to invest significantly in its online brand otherwise it will just become a commodity on supermarket shelves – and commodities are price compared rather than value compared.

While it’s not exactly good news, it does put Thorntons front of mind at one of the biggest chocolate events of the year – it will be interesting to see if that drives customer traffic to the site over Easter.

Investing isn’t enough. Businesses and brands need to invest in the right things to remain relevant with evolving customer demographics and preferences.

Replies (6)

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By Angela Spencer
25th Mar 2021 15:28

In my view Thorntons has failed to respond to changing tastes in Premium chocolate too. Hotel Chocolat does better as they are concentrating on less sweet, dark chocolate, with fillings/additives which appeal to more sophisticated tastes.
Thorntons has continued to be very sweet, mainly milk chocolate, and the majority of their products are aimed at the childrens market - which is declining when we are all being encouraged to avoid giving children sugary things.

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By Angela Spencer
25th Mar 2021 15:28

In my view Thorntons has failed to respond to changing tastes in Premium chocolate too. Hotel Chocolat does better as they are concentrating on less sweet, dark chocolate, with fillings/additives which appeal to more sophisticated tastes.
Thorntons has continued to be very sweet, mainly milk chocolate, and the majority of their products are aimed at the childrens market - which is declining when we are all being encouraged to avoid giving children sugary things.

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By vstrad
25th Mar 2021 16:19

Thornton's chocolate doesn't seem particularly premium to me, certainly not in comparison with the competition. Also, my nearest Thornton's store was a franchise, which I could tell wasn't providing the franchisee with much of a living.
While we're discussing high street premium chocolate, let's give a shout out to Montezuma's.

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By john hextall
26th Mar 2021 11:33

Thorntons used to be good but they lost the plot when they started using palm oil in their products. Now they are seen as little better than Cadbury's.

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By hfiddes
26th Mar 2021 12:36

As a somewhat older person (whose ferry to school took me past Thornton's Archer Road factory every morning), I remember Thornton's when its shops were lovely and you could choose which chocolates you wanted in your box. Roll on a few years and I moved N of the border for Uni and work and really missed having a Thornton's. Blow me, they must have heard me because one opened on Princes Street. Several years later and qualified, I was working off Fleet Street, really missing my Thornton's and, would you believe it, they opened one there too! This was fantastic - and they even catered for folk like my diabetic colleague. They knew their public somehow.
When the fancy Belgian chocolate shop opened a few doors down a year or two later, people still preferred the Thornton's shop.
They may not realise it but, sadly, their business strategy seems to have been aimed at eroding the huge amount of goodwill I felt bit by bit over the past 20+ years. (They are not the only ones btw.) I didn't mind seeing a few things in the supermarket at special times of the year but this increased so, when they took the self-select option away in the shops, my reasons for visiting became fewer - namely to secure a bag :( , rather than a box, of my most favourite chocolate - the Apricot Parfait. Then they stopped making them - what a low blow. It was a gorgeous combination of dark chocolate with sharp apricot and nutty bits. They brought it back a few years later - rebranded as the Apricot Delice - but it had a gooey sweet apricot part - ugh - where was the piquancy?
Given a choice nowadays, I just buy a box of dark chocolate gingers from whoever rather than anything else - though I quite like a decent dark truffle - but so many have a nasty synthetic tang. Most things sold (not just Thornton's) are just too sweet, not dark enough and don't get me started on those nasty cream Belgian things.
I wish them luck with the online sales and hope they regain that knack they had of knowing what we wanted.

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Ivor Windybottom
By Ivor Windybottom
27th Mar 2021 15:34

Anyone think the revenue graph and timing of sale looks a bit fortuitous?

I know that new owners may change things that can reduce income, but Ferrero's purchase does look like either extremely bad timing or that the rising sales to that point were not accurate?!

Although, as others have said, the chocolate and the marketing strategy were both dragging the brand down, so maybe Ferrero should have understood the chocolate market in the UK better when they sought to apply their wisdom to the brand.

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