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Now is the winter of our discount-tent

John Hughman

Now is the winter of our discount-tent

So Blacks Leisure is finally set to go into administration, probably the least shocking news to come of the retail sector since Next offered up some gloomy financial guidance and promptly beat it. No surprise either that retail vultures Sports Direct and JD Sports are both said to be picking over the carcass, and only a little more so that Dragon Peter Jones believes he is the man to turn around the ailing outdoor retailer’s fortunes. He can do anything, you know.

The only surprising thing is that it’s held on for this long. Blacks has been teetering on the cusp of collapse for nearly three years now, regularly returning to market to tap shareholders for more cash, repeatedly deferring covenant tests, and issuing calls for someone to put it out of its misery and buy it. Confidence in the outdoor retailer's prospects has been waning for longer than that, though, with the group's share price suffering a near continuous descent from a peak of 560p towards the current 0.25p.

While it would be very easy to blame the tough market conditions for this precipitous decline, I'd argue that most of Blacks' problems are of its own making. After all, the market for outdoor leisure goods is booming, and arguably has actually benefited from the current economic squeeze as households look for cheap days out and trade in the package holiday on the Costa del Sol for a camping trip to Norfolk.

Unhappy campers

We too joined the ranks of happy campers this summer, and that's when it became apparent to me that Blacks had simply got its retail offer very, very wrong. Having shopped around online for a tent and other sundry camping supplies, it was clear that Blacks had neither the ranges nor pricing to keep up with rivals - even small independent specialists offered better value, although we ended up buying most of our gear from Go Outdoors, a private equity backed retailer that's expanding at a rate of knots even as Blacks contracts.

It also wasn't clear to me exactly what was the difference between Blacks branded stores and its Millets chain. Blacks is supposed to be the more upmarket of the two fascias, and yet both websites appeared to be selling exactly the same gear. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a multi-branded retailer using its scale to purchase common ranges, but why have two brands that are different only in name? In this age of internet-enabled transparency, shoppers are going to notice, and go elsewhere.

While it may be too late for Blacks to put these shortcomings right, I can think of one or two other retailers that also need to deal with this particular problem, not least Dixons, which remains firmly on our sell list. Compare, for example, the range of laptops sold at its general electrical retailing business Currys and those sold at the supposed computing specialist PC World – you'll find they're exactly the same, and in some cases, Dixons has both fascias in the same retail park.

In short, if a specialist doesn't behave like a specialist, then shoppers these days will tell them to take a hike.

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