North East stores at risk as high street furnisher Walmsley’s collapses again
The dreaded black and yellow ‘Store Closing’ banners – now so familiar from a succession of other retail administrations in recent years – are adorning branches including Newcastle’s, above, which I passed a couple of days ago.
Based in Walsall in the West Midlands, Walmsley’s has a long history – having been founded in 1933 – but has struggled in recent years, even before the present economic downturn took hold. Amid what was already a slowdown in the housing market, the then 100-store Walmsley’s chain collapsed for the first time in December 2005, with the shops and assets being sold on to Unibrook, a new firm formed by Walmsley’s management team in partnership with private investors.
Reduced by then to 60 stores, the business collapsed again in August last year – reportedly with debts of over £13m – amid cashflow problems and the withdrawal of a key supplier. Nevertheless, a rump of 25 stores was rescued by ‘turnaround specialist’ SKG Capital in a £250,000 pre-pack deal, with the remaining stores – including Rotherham, above – closing their doors. Now, in turn, this latest incarnation of the business has itself fallen into administration after barely a year.
As always with a retail administration, one’s thoughts have to be with the 105 Walmsley’s staff who find themselves once again facing an uncertain future. However, as with other serial collapsers – such as Ethel Austin – the prospects are surely not good.
Walmsley’s own website still claims that “our size enables us to buy product at the lowest possible price and pass that benefit on to our customers with our every day low price offer”, yet it’s hard to see how a chain that’s already just a quarter of its peak size can hope to leverage significant economies of scale. With Scottish stores as far north as Kirkcaldy, and just a single store in the South of England (in Bracknell), the threadbare distribution of Walmsley’s remaining locations also seem to make little sense from an operational or brand penetration point of view.
Brand association, awareness and marketing may also be issues for the chain, assuming that a deal can be done before it becomes too synonymous, Ethel Austin-style, with failure. Walmsley’s link to the Chinese-made ‘toxic sofa’ scandal of a few years ago, for example, raised awareness of the brand for the wrong reasons, yet the business has, certainly in the past, championed a ‘no advertising’ policy, relying instead on “highly visible high street stores” as a “window to watch”.
This may, on the face of it, convey a no-nonsense, low-price message that resonates with customers who happen to pass the stores. However, it’s a potentially dangerous strategy in a furniture market that is traditionally so reliant on advertising, with competitors such as DFS, ScS and Harveys all aggressively seeking to position themselves as the mid-market furniture destination of choice, while weekly payment stores such as BrightHouse and Perfect Home make strong inroads with their particular furniture offer.
Amid all this, it’s not quite clear where Walmsley’s sits. For me, as someone who has regularly walked past the Newcastle branch for many years, the garish window posters and sofas stacked up on the pavement outside have always conveyed a rather downmarket image of the chain, somewhat at odds with the attractive looking products featured on Walmsley’s well presented website.
If anyone is to rescue Walmsley’s this time, then, there are certainly challenges ahead in restoring the business’s critical mass and sorting out the brand as far as consumers are concerned, on top of convincing the inevitably sceptical suppliers and landlords that the company has a secure future fourth time around.
In Newcastle, at least, the prominent position and large footprint of the Walmsley’s store – on the corner of Clayton Street and Newgate Street, close to the city’s new Debenhams – suggests that a new occupier would be secured fairly swiftly. For the moment, however, let’s not lose hope that the Walmsley’s staff might yet – however slim the chance – enjoy some festive cheer.
My retail consultancy business, CannyInsights.com, works with retailers nationwide to improve their stores, customer communications and market knowledge, and can provide bespoke place- and sector-specific market insight. For more information, visit www.cannyinsights.com, drop me an email, or give me a call on (0191) 461 0361.