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  • You don’t really know me at all, do you?

    December 14, 2011 @ 9:00 am | by Laura Slattery

    All I want for Christmas is a Christmas gift guide that acknowledges the tat as well as the treasure. Instead I’m forced to shun their glossy pages for fear I might absorb their array of snowflake-pattern hot-water bottle covers, retro cake-stands and pen holders in the shape of giant pencil sharpeners and fall in consumer lust… It’s likely to happen, even though I don’t use hot-water bottles, already possess a retro cake-stand and am capable of rationalising the pen holder in the shape of a giant pencil sharpener as an office stationery joke of limited lifespan.

    It’s a tricky business, gift-giving subjectivity. For example, 66 per cent of people think the “keep calm and carry on” meme, and all products emblazoned with versions thereof, is a sloganeering ship that’s sailed, but 85 per cent of people think that’s just a #madeupstat. All of which makes it important to highlight the dark side of gift exchange; the faux pas presents; the “you don’t really know me at all” moments. It’s crazy what you could have had, as REM used to sing before they broke up and released a greatest hits collection just in time for the Christmas market. With that cheery thought of seasonal dissatisfaction in mind, here are my top three “must not buys” for 2011.

    Tulisa’s TFB The Female Boss Eau de Parfum – Celebrities have never been known for lending their names to the world’s finest colognes, but this fragrance could waft like a bed of delicate lavender infused with only the finest top notes from the meadows of heaven and I still wouldn’t want its scent anywhere near my wrists. It’s the title that grates – the “female boss”, so exotic a creature she merits her own olfactory trademark. Tulisa Contostavlos’s controversial arm gesture at the start of the X Factor, showing off a tattoo of those three words, not only attracted the ire of UK telecoms regulator Ofcom, but also had the effect of making Cheryl Cole’s walking hair advertisement for L’Oréal seem subtle. So it’s a no from me, but with the obvious deep regret that Tulisa’s sometime band colleague Dappy has not yet brought out an aftershave called The Male Boss. And as X Factor viewers will know, Tulisa’s Little Muffins are not, sadly, edible.

    Top Gear: The Stig Soap on a Rope – The Stig is that enigmatic bloke who poses on Top Gear in a dark-visored helmet and all-white motor racing suit, like a Michelin man after a life-changing diet, only not as cool. The story of the Stig is in fact a sorry legal tale that came to a head last year when Formula Three driver Ben Collins won a court case against the BBC after the broadcaster tried to prevent him publishing a book that identified him as the anonymous Stig. So it would be fun if as the layers of soap peeled away, the helmet revealed a miniature human head, rather than reaching its presumable destiny as a greying alkaline clump of indeterminate profession, dangling from the temperature dial. The Stig’s shower gel recently stood defiantly on the bargain shelves of my local Tesco for weeks, proving that not even puberty is a compelling excuse for a personal hygiene range trading off the snarls of Jeremy Clarkson.

    BBC DVD of The Royal Wedding: William and Catherine – Ah, Kate and Wills, bless. The dress! The abbey! The bridesmaid’s backside! Relive all those romantic moments from last April on this special DVD from the BBC. Pause and rewind to see if Amy Huberman was actually there. Marvel over the construction of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson’s new nose. Did Samantha Cameron really not wear a hat? These were good times… or at least they were over on ITV, where reliable old Philip Schofield and company proved more willing and able to first identify and then gossip about the celebrity guests en route to their pews than the stiff-upper-lip BBC with its stream of constitutional experts, royal historians and awkward silences. So if royal wedding memorabilia is your thing, make sure to request the ITV highlights – or better still, drop hints about the charms of the made-for-TV movie version. It’s a bit like Made in Chelsea, only based on a true story.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • You shouldn’t have. No, you really shouldn’t have

    December 24, 2010 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    There is a lot to be said for a festive pair of socks. They’re warm, they’re practical and with any luck, they’ll have a cheery snowflake pattern – to remind you of what snow used to look like when it was all nice and white and theoretical and Bing Crosby-like. Christmas socks, like a good reindeer jumper, are in fact really excellent gifts masquerading as cliches. That’s not something that can be said for this lot, my personal list of items that I wouldn’t even bother faking gratitude for:

    1. Straight Up: My Autobiography by Danny Dyer. Who? Why? How? Danny Dyer is the British actor who earlier this year, in his guise as an agony uncle for lad’s mag Zoo, suggested that a heartbroken reader ”cut his ex’s face, and then no one will want her”. That’s not really what I call the spirit of Christmas. Now Dyer, who claims he was misquoted, was rather good in Andrea Arnold’s short film Wasp. But that’s no reason to encourage his literary career by purchasing a memoir that “tears it up proper”, apparently. In general, it’s best to leave the domestic violence to EastEnders.

    2. Going Rogue: An American Life by Sarah Palin. Read by the author. Oh no, NOT THE AUDIO VERSION. Listening to Palin, the inexplicably popular Tea Party lady, one feels new sympathy for Margaret Thatcher, who underwent vocal training to lower her voice by several semi-tones after advisers suggested she was too shrill. Palin’s dogs-only range proves Thatcher needn’t have bothered. While I’d usually object to the notion of a deeper voice = more gravitas on the grounds that it reaffirms the “naturalness” of male authority, in Palin’s case I’d make an exception.

    3. The “Snuggie” from JML. JML is the ubiquitous direct sales firm with the kind of over-excitable pitches that encourage crawling back under the duvet forever. If you want to “use your laptop without being cold”, stick on a cardigan: do not be tempted by the sleeved ”Snuggie” blanket, which looks like the kind of thing Brian Blessed would wear on stage. In the Snuggie’s festive TV ad, a family of four sit wearing their matching cult-like druid’s cloaks and paper hats, looking like they’re taking part in a cut-price and slightly sinister re-enactment of the Nativity. A good rule of thumb: if an ad has its own YouTube parodies, don’t buy what it’s selling.

    4. Cath Kidston business card holder. I’ll admit this is the kind of kitsch paraphernalia that I’m vulnerable to. But it’s all wrong. Firstly, no one wants to be reminded of work on Christmas Day. Secondly, a floral-patterned business card holder? Really? If you do have the kind of job that requires the cheesy exchange of business cards at the end of the meeting, you’re probably working in a profession that requires the maintenance of a degree of drab seriousness. In other words, it’s not the ideal opportunity for showcasing one’s affection for the retro, cutesy, reclaimed housewife-chic Cath Kidston aesthetic. That’s for cupcakes.

    5. Working the Red Carpet by Lorraine Keane. There is a bit of a book theme emerging here, which possibly reflects the old NME assertion that even crap CDs can make excellent ashtrays. I’ve nothing against the ex-TV3 stalwart Lorraine Keane, who seems like a nice person. If you want a coffee table book showcasing pictures of her with fellow broadcasters Gaybo and so on, then this is the stocking filler for you. But let’s not pretend there is such a thing as a Hollywood-lite red carpet glamourfest in Ireland: anyone who happens to be passing Dublin’s Savoy Cinema while they’re having a premiere knows the truth.

  • 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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