Mike Ashley is a man who divides opinion. He has turned himself into one of the most successful businessmen in the country and invested heavily in a football team, making enemies as easily as friends in both fields.
For years now, his Sports Direct brand has prospered, apparently following the tried and trusted maxim of build ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap.
That seems to be the way of all things in the UK at the moment. Discount retailers are becoming an ever more common presence, while those offering what most would regard as higher quality products and better service are finding themselves struggling to make ends meet. In fact, a significant minority have failed to make ends meet and are going out of business, have gone out of business or are desperately negotiating with landlords to reduce rents and suppliers to defer payments.
A visit to Vienna last week brought home how sad the British retail malaise has become. Within that city’s inner ring there seemed to be little but buildings of outstanding architectural interest and outlets from high-class global retailers. Unlike our high streets, every property was occupied, there were no charity shops and a complete absence of reduced prices.
What seems particularly alarming to this columnist is the ingress of Ashley and his conglomerate into older, traditional companies and groups.
Without taking any time to think, within the last few months he has either acquired or shown an interest in the likes of House of Fraser, Debenhams and Evans Cycles. While they may have struggled of late, in their pomp each of these groups offered something quite special and individual.
What can we expect looking forwards? Probably a massive increase in cheap goods manufactured in the Far East, far less choice and staff who may (or may not) be enthusiastic but will be barely trained. Hereby could lie a weakness in the Ashley business model, since so many of those staff appear to have European accents.
As long as that issue can be overcome, the homogenised High Street awaits. This will consist of little more than coffee bars, fast food outlets, pound stores and Ashley’s emporia.
To take two examples, London’s Oxford Street can soon expect to have two Ashley department stores sitting next to each other.
Things are going to be even worse in Edinburgh, where although the initial announcement was far from clear, one of the two House of Fraser stores is to be closed and the other Ashleyfied.
It seems a fair bet that this will be the store at the east end of Princes Street which has been a veritable delight, if rather expensive, run by and branded as Jenner’s one imagines a century or more ago. To put it in London terms, this is the equivalent to turning Harrods into a bargain basement.
Depending upon your point of view, this is all rather depressing or the herald of a bright, cheap future. It will also lead to the closure of many smaller suppliers, which in turn will kill off some of our best clients.
In an accountancy context, one might liken it to the slow decline of practices providing a quality service underpinned by qualifications and experience while cheaper competitors take their trade by undercutting and then providing poorer service.
What can we do to stop this from happening? Society seems to have made a collective decision that it would prefer to save money rather than pay for quality. If that continues then The Ashleyfication of the High Street is a foregone conclusion.
There have been suggestions in the past that large internet providers might attempt to step into certain parts of our own industry and do the equivalent, while high street providers without adequate experience or qualification also seemed keen to muscle in. To date, this hasn’t really happened in a big way but it may only be a matter of time.