Robbs is saved – so what happens now?
With just over a week now passed since Beales’ takeover of Robbs of Hexham was confirmed, details of what the welcome change of ownership might mean for the historic 192-year-old store are starting to become clearer.
First up, it’s worth remarking that Beales buying Robbs is truly the the best possible outcome that could have been hoped for. After years of unsettledness, Robbs is now in the hands of a long-established company with a good track record in running market town department stores, and whose own fortunes are on the up – under the leadership of new Chief Executive Tony Brown – after a wobble a few years ago. Crucially, Robbs’ future now seems more secure than at any time since Merchant Retail’s ownership between 1987 and 2005.
Remarkably, Robbs is also – as yet – the only store from David Thompson’s 19-strong Vergo chain to have been saved following the company’s collapse into administration. There is no news on the future of Joplings in Sunderland or any of the other shops in the south west and east of England, despite Chris Dawson – owner of The Range – confirming that he has “bid on some of Vergo Retail’s stock and stores”.
This week’s Hexham Courant talks excitedly of a “New era of investment for Robbs”, and the Beales era certainly gives lots of cause for optimism – not just for Robbs, but in reinforcing Hexham’s overall position as a successful retail centre. So, what do we know so far?
1) The Robbs name is staying: Keeping the Robbs name is not a big surprise – when Beales has acquired stores before, it has tended to retain the local brands where one exists. Robbs will, however, be marketed as ‘part of the Beales family of stores’, as seen already in Beales’ half-page ad in this week’s Hexham Courant.
Despite the retention of the Robbs name, I hope that one of the first things Beales does is to replace the store’s tired and faded exterior signage – after many years of use, it is surely a much paler shade of blue than was ever intended. Adopting a tasteful white on black fascia – similar to that used at Beales’ recently opened Fareham store – will not only improve the store’s appearance significantly, but it will also be a powerful and very visible statement of Beales’ intent to invest and improve.
2) The post office and food hall are staying put too: While one or two Beales stores sell gift food, none to date have had a food hall; however, Robbs’ food hall has been cited in the past as the most profitable part of the business, so keeping and improving it does make good sense. The Courant quotes Beales boss Tony Brown as saying “I spent 19 years with Asda – I can do food!”
3) Beales has signed a 15-year lease with the building’s owners, Buccleuch Group: This is significant – it is a much longer lease than Vergo Retail ever signed, and indicates that Beales wil be investing for the longer term, seeing Robbs through to its 200th birthday and beyond. Certainly, Buccleuch’s previous plans to redevelop the site – which made more sense before the economic downturn, and when Robbs’ ability to recover from its previous administration was still unclear – look now to have been definitively shelved.
4) The store will see a two-year programme of refurbishment, starting immediately: The store will relaunch officially on 1 September, by which time there will have been a first phase of refurbishment – including a new cosmetics hall – and the introduction of new, more upmarket brands and concessions. The Courant has Tony Brown praising John Lewis and Fenwick, and stating that Beales will “try to get that type of quality and brand-mix” for Robbs.
Talk of bringing in younger brands to run alongside the ‘classic’ fashions that have dominated Robbs in recent years makes good sense, and reflects the shift that Beales has recently been implementing across its store estate. It’s important, of course, to still cater for the grey pound, but it’s right that Robbs also develops its appeal among younger shoppers – after all, getting younger people into the habit of shopping at Robbs will be key to building the store’s long-term success.
5) Robbs will open on Sundays for the first time? Merely speculation on my part, but given that all Beales’ existing shops are open on Sundays, it’s reasonable to expect that the Hexham store will follow suit in due course.
Paying a visit to Robbs yesterday was quite an interesting experience – the ‘Store Closing’ signs have obviously gone, replaced by ones that proclaim ‘Under New Management’. The shop is also in the midst of a ‘Clearance Event’ – in other words, Beales getting rid of all the random stock that it has inherited for its £250,000.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of signs, just eight days into its ownership, of Beales bringing in its own stock, with large areas of the shopfloor piled high with boxes marked as ‘internal transfers’ from other stores in the group – Lego from Bolton, china from Horsham and kitchenware from Yeovil. Given the challenge ahead – with Beales needing to carry out clearing, restocking and refurbishment, all at the same time – it will be fascinating to see the store as it evolves and improves over the coming months.
Incidentally, regarding that £250,000 figure, one or two people have asked me whether that seems a really cheap price for Beales to have paid for Robbs. In my view, it does seem quite a low figure for “all assets, brand, intellectual property and employees” – i.e. the Robbs business – given that it includes the Robbs name, all the fixtures and fittings, and whatever stock was left in the store at the time of purchase. Obviously, the building itself – owned by Buccleuch Group – isn’t part of the deal.
Of course, the flipside is that Robbs will require a lot of investment to bring the store environment up to scratch, is currently a loss-making business, and employs 76 members of staff – all risks and responsibilities that Beales is taking on. However, if Beales can turn Robbs around, I would expect it to recoup its investment fairly quickly.
After all, go back to the last financial year before David Thompson first bought Robbs and Joplings (under his Owen Owen vehicle, in 2004), and you see that the two stores made a combined profit of £2m. Even three years later, when the three-store-strong Owen Owen business collapsed in 2007, Robbs was supposedly still profitable. With the experience and purchasing power that comes from a portfolio of 13 stores, and as a member of the Associated Independent Stores buying group, I would fully expect Beales to turn Robbs back to profit within a couple of years.
After all, there’s tremendous goodwill that still exists among local people, hence the fate of Robbs being front page news on the Courant for the last six weeks on the trot. I suspect that almost all shoppers in Hexham want Robbs to be a success, but in recent months the previous management risked alienating even the most ardent supporters. Indeed, commenting on Vergo’s tenure, even Beales’ Tony Brown has described “the way this store has been managed over the last three years [as] almost sinful, with a lack of investment and under-stocking two of the main reasons for its lack of success”.
As I noted before, however, Beales was barely in a position itself to have bought Robbs in 2007, given its own travails at the time. The irony is that while Vergo gave Robbs three of the least satisfying and successful years of its long history, that stay of execution back in 2007 ensured that the business was still around to be saved, by a much stronger and growing Beales, in 2010.
Looking forward then, the prospects for Robbs in the coming years are surely much rosier than those of the recent past. Beales’ plans promise to keep and celebrate all that’s well-loved about the business already, while also bringing in some much-needed fresh ideas. There is also, finally, the investment to back those ideas up, and to give Hexham back the vibrant, quality department store that it’s been missing for so long.