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  • The John Lewis Christmas ad gets cute with a loved-up snowman. There’s just one small problem…

    November 12, 2012 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    This is the new Christmas ad for John Lewis. It’s called The Journey and the 90 seconds of snowy seasonal selflessness that lie within were created for the department store by the agency Adam&Eve DDB. According to the retail group, the ad “celebrates the extra mile we all go to at Christmas to find the perfect gift”. Well, that’s the power of love. Not that power of love. The other Power of Love.

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    Awwwww… right? It’s a snowman with a crush. Our hero got up early one morning and went all the way to the city, negotiating dual carriageways and dodging snowball fights, to buy his snowlady a rather flattering scarf-hat-and-glove set. Of course, a freezer would have better facilitated any ambitions for a long-term relationship, but still – so sweet.

    Except, if you’re in the habit of watching one of the most popular shows on British television, you might have another, rather less gooey take on this powdery pair:

    Don't blink! John Lewis goes all Weeping Angels

    And that’s just a small sample of the Twitter-people who have been uncannily reminded of the terrifying, heartless Weeping Angels. Originally created by writer Steven Moffat for the Doctor Who episode Blink and now a recurring villain, Weeping Angels seem like demure statues but have a habit of moving jumpily closer whenever you take your eyes off them, eventually getting near enough to zap you out of the present day with their raised fists and enraged stone faces. All very Christmassy, in other words, though after last year’s ad, which inspired this creepy spoof version, it’s almost as if John Lewis are doing it on purpose.

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    Naturally, you can buy a toy set of angels at John Lewis.

  • New Valentine’s Day rule: only single people get to use the phrase “Hallmark holiday”

    February 14, 2012 @ 8:00 am | by Laura Slattery

    Everyone knows e-cards aren’t worth the paper they’re not written on, but it’s the printed greeting cards industry that gets a proper hard time from people who think mass-produced sincerity is incompatible with how they truly feel. A “Hallmark holiday” is shorthand for dates in the year when naysayers feel guilt-tripped into buying anodyne stuff for the long-term parkers in their lives, and, let’s face it, sometimes it’s just easier to profess repulsion than it is to come up with consumption-free alternatives to mark the occasion.

    Statistically, you are 2,874 times more likely to hear the sneer “Hallmark holiday” applied to Valentine’s Day than to Mother’s Day. Happily, today is Valentine’s Day, so people who consider themselves blissfully paired off but can’t be bothered to go to the shops can simply blurt “Hallmark holiday” in the hope that it all goes away. It probably won’t though. Hallmark is a $4 billion company – a privately owned, Kansas-based king of sales, manufacturing and intellectual property licensing – and it will take more than a recession, a few thousand personalisation apps and a dollop of ennui to unravel it all.

    The “Hallmark holiday” declarers can come across like they believe they’re pointing to some covert retail conspiracy, as if the people who brought us Purple Ronnie and the Cessna-themed “brother” birthday card are engaged in a devious scheme to manipulate our innermost emotions and only they are resolute enough to stand alone from its saccharine tendrils.

    Perhaps that is a more accurate reflection of what’s going on than American Greetings’ description of itself as “a creator and manufacturer of innovative social expression products that assist consumers in enhancing their relationships”. So far, so Facebook. American Greetings, by the way, is the second largest publisher of greeting cards in the world and parent company of such brands as Carlton Cards, Gibson Greetings and Camden Graphics. But “American Greetings holiday” just doesn’t trip off the tongue quite so fast.

    The point is, you only have to have endured one solo February 14th deep in a post-break-up mire to know this: While the sight of slow-walking couples holding hands, heart-shaped helium balloons, ribbon-collared teddy bears and/or cupid’s milk chocolate arrow as they hold up pathway traffic may indeed be gut-wrenching for several reasons, there’s nothing more irksome to a single person than the trill of a coupled-up person who casually asserts the meaningless of the day even as they’re promising their mobiles that yes, they can vacate the table by nine.

    In any case, the Hallmark sentiment-behemoth might have helped popularise Valentine’s Day cards, but it didn’t invent them. The practice of sending cards predates the founding of the company by at least 60 years – a factoid worth keeping in your back pocket if your partner turns out to be a tedious Valentine’s curmudgeon but you haven’t reached that level of jadedness yet. The Hall brothers did lay claim to having invented modern gift wrapping paper, though, so they’re not entirely innocent. And if your partner is allergic to red envelopes, remember to keep some sense of perspective.  It could be worse. They could be “more of a savoury person”.

  • What does the future hold for Superquinn?

    July 19, 2011 @ 11:39 am | by Laura Slattery

    The tills have rung for Superquinn, sold to one of its main rivals, Musgrave Group, after the chain was placed in receivership last night. That the company, founded in Dundalk by Feargal Quinn in 1960, has secured a buyer is undeniably positive for both its 2,800 employees and the Irish grocery market alike, especially as Musgrave chief executive Chris Martin cited comforting phrases like “excited by this opportunity” and “supports our growth agenda”.

    The Superquinn bakery (still glazes ahead of its competitors) and Superquinn sausages (coveted by generations of emigrants) will remain on sale for now.

    But many questions remain. How will the Competition Authority assess the transaction? If the deal goes ahead, Musgrave, which owns Centra and Supervalu, will become the biggest retail group in the country, overtaking Tesco. Musgrave has its strongest presence in Munster, while 16 of Superquinn’s 24 stores are in Dublin. This geographical spread may be enough to assure the authority, and in any case, it will be under severe pressure to prevent retail jobs falling by the wayside.

    An outside entrant may have brought more price competition to the market as a whole, but then Superquinn is not Dunnes Stores – it has traditionally branded itself as upmarket, with the prices to match. Competing on price rather than product would change the essence of the brand. Indeed, recent economic times have seen it attempt to chase value-conscious customers in a manner that has perhaps muddied perceptions of its core offering. With its market share slipping to just 6 per cent, it probably felt it didn’t have much choice.

    Which way will Musgrave push the company? Can Ireland afford an indigenous Waitrose-type chain, especially with Dublin already well-served by Marks & Spencer and a smattering of quality standalones? The Superquinn name will be retained, but will the stores be developed by Musgraves into quasi-SuperCentras? What does Musgrave mean exactly when it says it will use “its significant brand expertise to develop the Superquinn business by investing in the stores and bringing value to the Superquinn shopper”?

    One possible solution to the gap between Superquinn’s old brand identity and the state of the economy would be to rebrand those stores that are located in struggling areas as Supervalus, but keep the Superquinn name above stores located in areas where disposable incomes have held up.

    For Irish grocery suppliers, the deal means a further concentration of retailer power and the risk of missed payments for goods already supplied. But it could be worse. Musgraves has committed in its statement this morning “to providing existing Superquinn suppliers with the opportunity to continue to supply Superquinn stores”. Contracts may be renegotiated. But an overseas buyer looking to scale up by expanding in Ireland could have decimated the supplier base altogether.

    How much has Musgrave paid the receivers? The only thing we know for sure is that it will be significantly less than the €450 million that Select Retail Holdings, a group backed by property developers, reportedly paid Senator Quinn and his family for the chain in 2005. It is this debt that prompted the receivership, rather than trading difficulties, though trade has been going in reverse of late. As a private company, Superquinn did not disclose its sales or profit figures – the group that it is set to become a part of does, however, and made a pretax profit of €72 million on sales of €4.4 billion last year.

    Musgrave, which managed to increase its profits by 3 per cent in 2010 despite a 3 per cent drop in sales, includes “not being greedy” in its list of corporate values. Customers, suppliers and staff of Superquinn will soon find out if this statement holds true.

  • HMV lines up tablets, festivals and paraphernalia

    July 1, 2011 @ 1:52 pm | by Laura Slattery

    “You can’t wrap a download for Christmas,” HMV Group chief executive Simon Fox noted yesterday, as he signalled that it will not completely abandon the CD format. But you can slip an iTunes gift card into an envelope, which HMV accepts well enough, as it stocks them. Is there any product on its shelves so representative of its capitulation to the imminent end of the physical entertainment product?

    By Christmas, a quarter of the floor space in 150 HMV stores will be dedicated to consumer electronics, from high-margin accessories like headphones and iPod speaker docks to rising markets like tablet computing devices. Racks devoted to CDs and DVDs will be scaled back as part of a grand re-fit – the Dublin Grafton Street store already resembles HMV’s blueprint for future stores, with Dixons-like tables of electronic paraphernalia in the prime ground floor area where once the music A-Z was located.

    There will be mitigating factors in this evaporation of the physical entertainment market: gifts, the penetration of Blu-ray and 3D and sales of pre-played games all help counteract the trend. But it is technology products, which currently account for 8 per cent of HMV’s sales, that are its future, Fox has decided. One in five pairs of headphones bought in the UK are purchased in HMV, though its current market share of MP3 players and speaker docks is a less impressive 5 per cent.

    By 2014, HMV wants 32 per cent of its sales to come from consumer electronics. By this point, it expects CDs, now a quarter of sales, will decline to 15 per cent, while sales of DVDs and other visual entertainment units, now 44 per cent of turnover, are expected to drop to 30 per cent. It also plans for a greater focus on links with live music events – festival shops, in-store performances and ticket deals are all lined up in its calendar.

    Electronics retailers have not been having a wonderful time of it lately either, of course, and HMV Group’s presentation to investors effectively sought to assure that HMV is not and has no plans to become Harvey Norman. Its stores will not be located out-of-town, nor will they have “counter-only” service, the group said. Instead, they will have a “fun, young, ’buzzy’ urban store environment” – which is more or less code for hipster staff, softer lighting and more of those handwritten staff recommendation notes.

    HMV has attracted plenty of criticism for not waking up to the download reality fast enough, but it remains the last specialist CD/DVD retail chain standing, for which it deserves some credit. But after a downbeat year in which it lost share in various declining markets, it will be hoping that the tempo of sales quickens pretty fast. If it doesn’t, its pink lettering and red sales balloons will disappear from the streets for good.

  • Feminine, sexy, fun-loving Jane Norman has gone into administration

    June 27, 2011 @ 4:25 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Jane Norman has gone into administration, the latest casualty of recession-related fashion fatigue, the result of which 1,600 jobs in the UK and Ireland are at risk. The British women’s clothing chain has been struggling with debts of £140 million and a depressed retail sector at a time when input costs are rising. However, it’s not too much of a stretch to also blame its woes on the twin spectres of Primark and the obesity epidemic.

    Jane Norman specialises in the 16-25 age group – with the emphasis on the sweet sixteen end of the scale – which means its dresses tend to be doll-like confections of viscose and elastane, with a fondness for jewel embellishments, netted underskirts and an abnormally high frequency of halternecks. Where a mother-daughter shopping phenomenon was embraced by the likes of Topshop and its profitable ilk, body-conscious styling more or less ruled that out at Jane Norman.

    “While our core market falls into the 16-25 age bracket, our style is more about a state of mind than a specific demographic,” the 59-year-old company claims on its website, to which the obvious reply is “your demographic is all too specific”. Today, Twitter is awash with tweets lamenting that Jane Norman’s stock didn’t fit a) anyone over the age of 21 b) black women and c) anyone of any race who isn’t anorexic. Only its employees will miss it is the tenor of an unhealthy chunk of the online reaction.

    “The Jane Norman girl is feminine, sexy, fun-loving and confident,” declares the company website, to which you can add “broke”. Though its stock has improved of late, traditionally its dresses looked and felt unnecessarily cheap – as if life was a permanent hen night for petites – which would be fine, except it wasn’t cheap, it was significantly pricier than the Primark / Penneys trading round the corner, to where its customers have presumably long since departed.

    The fate of its 90 UK stores and a similar number of Debenhams concessions – plus seven standalone stores and six Debenhams concessions in Ireland – now hangs in the balance. It’s been suggested that the administrators, the accountancy group Zolfo Cooper, will be able to swiftly sell it on in what’s known as a “pre-pack administration” to either Debenhams or Edinburgh Woollen Mill, saving its workforce, or most of it.

    UPDATE 28/06/2011: Edinburgh Woollen Mill has purchased 33 of the 94 Jane Norman stores, saving 396 of the jobs. A further 740 jobs related to Jane Norman concessions are still at risk, but 390 jobs have unfortunately been lost across the UK and Ireland. Five of the Irish stores are to close, though the Sligo store is to remain open. Apologies to any employee offended by my comments about Jane Norman clothes in this blog, which is meant as an analysis of just some of the business/market factors behind the company’s difficulties.

  • The Flip has flipped. Shame I just bought one

    April 15, 2011 @ 12:25 pm | by Laura Slattery

    It only seems like yesterday that an infinitely more tech-savvy colleague showed me the sleekly designed delight and built-in USB-port convenience of the Flip video camera. It was actually about two-and-a-half years ago, but sadly it was only a couple of months ago that I purchased one. This week, Flip’s owner Cisco Systems announced it was shutting down Flip.

    Boo. It used to seem like being an early adopter was the risky strategy – you shelled out a high price for a glitch-laden technology that was far from certain from becoming the standard platform. Now the tech world’s metabolism is so fast, the risks of not being an early adopter seem almost as great.

    Flip has gone from being glowing new kid to extremely popular camcorder vendor – in the US, more than here – to old-school irrelevance in just four years. But while tech analysts did largely blame high-speed innovation for Flip’s demise, it wasn’t just the cannibalistic powers of the smartphone that killed it. Its shutdown was also the result of a poor commercial decision by Cisco to acquire Flip’s maker, Pure Digital Technologies, in 2009. Cisco specialises in business networks rather than consumer technologies and couldn’t make Flip fit.

    So Flip’s fate is not exactly that of the Sony Minidisc (another gadget loved and lost) all over again. For those who own the cameras, they still have the advantage of great battery life. No one’s going to convince me that the great age of technological convergence has arrived until smartphones boast something as basic as a battery that lasts longer than the parental supply of alcohol at a kids’ birthday party.

    Still, whatever advantages it retains over its apparently more evolved replacements, few people like committing to a technology just when it’s about to become a collector’s item – something consumers might like to keep in mind next time they’re considering buying a PC. According to research firm Gartner, PC sales in the first quarter of 2011 fell 1.1 per cent worldwide and 6.1 per cent in the US.

    (I also bought a cute little mini tripod for my Flip, although so far I’ve only used this as an office desk toy, splaying the cables of its three legs and twisting them into a spiral as the fancy takes me. Procrastination is never going to be an Apple/Google duopoly.)

    The Flip RIP (with a USB port that pops in and out)

     P.S. My television set is 11 years old. It’s older than most of my friendships. I’m not replacing it until it explodes.

  • Barbie’s pink dream house fades to grey

    March 7, 2011 @ 1:30 pm | by Laura Slattery

    The six-storey Barbie flagship store in Shanghai has shut down. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

    It was blessed with a restaurant, a spa and more Schiaparelli pink than a candyfloss museum, but now Mattel’s flagship Barbie concept store in China has shut down after less than two years. Based in central Shanghai, the retail haven for all-things-Barbie was part of toymaker Mattel’s grand push into Asia – and as such was at all too safe a distance from the pester power of the multi-careered doll’s Western fanbase.

    Mattel told the Bloomberg news wire this morning that it was planning a new “brand strategy” in China for Barbra Millicent Roberts, who at 52 years of age* is still not showing much sign of middle-age spread (although her waist is wider now than it was as late as the 1990s). The Shanghai sales were a bit lean, however, obliging Mattel to lower its targets for the 37,700 square foot store three times since its opening in March 2009.

    Despite the fact that her plastic limbs and blonde locks are, unsurprisingly, put together in China (and Indonesia), brand awareness of Barbie in the world’s fastest-growing economy hasn’t been sufficient to keep the dream house open for business. Luckily for Mattel, some $3 billion worth of Barbie-branded products are sold worldwide every year.

    Parents unnerved by all the princess pink that mushrooms out of the girls’ aisles in stringently gender-segregated toystores shouldn’t worry too much, however. Academic research published by the marketing expert Dr Agnes Nairn in 2005 suggests that as girls grow older, they reject Barbie – by, er, torturing her. Maiming, shaving, decapitating, microwaving… Barbie barbarism is just a rite of passage for the maturing Barbie-owner. Indeed, it’s probably only a matter of time before Mattel cashes in with its own Doll Destroyer Kit.

    * Technically, Barbie is 51. But it’s her birthday on Wednesday.

  • His Master’s Voice is barely audible

    January 5, 2011 @ 1:07 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Bought any 2 for €15s lately? How about a decade-old Stephen Fry novel for €5? HMV, it is feared, is “slowly being consigned to the history books”, according to one retail analyst (Keith Bowman at stockbrokers Hargreaves Lansdown) – and that was before the Christmas carnage. Today, HMV Group’s seasonal trading statement revealed a 14 per cent plummet in sales across the UK and Ireland, with the kicker being that it is to close 60 stores.

    It is expected that around 40 of these will be HMV stores and as many as 20 of them could be outlets of Waterstones, the book chain that HMV bought in 1998. Whereas 12 months ago, it was the 8.5 per cent sales drop at Waterstones that led to a downbeat January for the group and the departure of Waterstones’ chief executive Gerry Johnson, this time around it is the music, DVDs and games end of the company that is suffering the most.

    Reaction to its Christmas sales disaster has hardly been any more life-affirming than at the time of the group’s last set of figures, which saw its moves to diversify into clothing and electrical products described as “smack[ing] of desperation”, again by Bowman. To that, you can add changing stores layouts and the nagging sense that there is a perma-sale. “The market largely expected a profit warning, but the news is still depressing,” Arden Partners analyst Nick Bubb told Reuters this morning. The group is now taking about having to restructure its bank loans in order to avoid breaching its covenants, and Bubb reckons Waterstones could be sold.

    Will HMV still be on high streets and in suburban shopping centres in five or 10 years’ time? As group chief executive Simon Fox said today, the retailer is still profitable. But its status as one of the last men standing in its category doesn’t seem to be insulating it from the fear that the business model of selling hard copies of entertainment products in a physical retail location is fading fast. The brashness of its brand, mainstream stock selections and prioritisation of the DVD market means it is also unlikely to be lamented by the few remaining music-buying stalwarts in the same way as independent record shops.

    HMV’s dog and gramophone logo, adapted from a 19th century Francis Barraud painting called His Master’s Voice, tells us everything about its history and little about either its present or its future.

  • Marks & Spencer sends Portfolio to wardrobe heaven

    November 9, 2010 @ 5:33 pm | by Laura Slattery

    By now, it is pretty much standard for Ireland to get mentioned in the same sentence as Greece – it’s not just the facepalming bond junkies, but the mid-market retailers as well. Publishing interim results today, Marks & Spencer noted that while many of its overseas businesses were achieving good growth, some “continue to be impacted by the economic downturn, particularly the Republic of Ireland and Greece”.

    That’s polite investor relations-speak for “oh dear god, no one’s buying our workwear wardrobe staples anymore and if we’re not careful, we’ll end up with a Cumberland sausage mountain just in time for the January diet season”. Of course, that is paraphrasing, and if there’s one thing all major retailers have been doing in Ireland over the past two years, it’s managing their inventories with recession-esque caution.

    The M&S statement, which reported an overall 5.4 per cent rise in sales, revealed that new chief executive Marc Bolland is taking a hard line on the proliferation of clothing brands at the store. He’s zapped the Portfolio range, which was introduced last year but left consumers cold and confused. Indeed, the differences between Portfolio and its Autograph collection (more tailored) or its Per Una range (more tassels) were never especially pronounced, while the knowledge (from my bad habit of reading retailer press releases) that Portfolio was aimed at women over 45 always made me feel that even browsing its racks was instantly ageing. Older customers, those in the demographic that Portfolio was supposed to cater for, also failed to be impressed.

    Mind you, obliterating Portfolio is the type of sensible-but-kind-of-obvious manoeuvre that makes Bolland (not to be confused with the late glam-rocker Marc Bolan) one of the best paid chief executives in the UK.

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