The writer, founder of Portas Agency, is the author of ‘The Kindness Economy’
The ghost of Christmas present has collided with that of Christmas past this season. Just as non-essential stores were set to reopen in the UK, clothes retailer Debenhams went down forever and Philip Green’s Arcadia Group went into administration. Meanwhile revenues at French Connection have plunged while Gap’s losses keep coming.
Few in Britain will mourn Debenhams, or Arcadia’s Dorothy Perkins for that matter. But many lament the demise of Topshop — the jewel in Arcadia’s crown. Once an unassailable high street leader, it is now a cautionary tale in how to squander brand equity.
There has been much discussion about the death of physical retail, the rise of digital — in which Topshop did invest significantly — and how much money was drained out of the business. But the core reason why Topshop failed is simple: it forgot that creativity is the ultimate economic resource.
In its heyday, Topshop wasn’t just a “shop”. It was a destination where you could tap into the zeitgeist. Its finger was not simply on the pulse — it generated the pulse. The key to that was the creative vision of brand director Jane Shepherdson and her team. She fostered a culture of experimentation, passion and ambition. Who before her dared to put high street designs on the catwalk during London Fashion Week?
Her departure in 2006 was a blow from which Topshop never really recovered. She understood that how we live is also how we buy, which is how to sell. When she left, the numbers and systems people got over-involved, and the creative voices were stifled and sidelined. Topshop became a cookie cutter volume store, sticking to the formula that once made it great but didn’t evolve to meet the changing demands of younger shoppers. It was a copy-and-paste approach, not a creative vision, and look where that took it.
The retailers who are winning today have vision. They create brands that people feel a part of — buying into, rather than mindlessly buying from. Millennial beauty giant Glossier achieved unicorn status by creating a two-way dialogue with its community. Patagonia’s clothes aren’t worn just because of how they look, but also the environmental and social commitments they embody. Ikea has straddled physical and digital retail by challenging itself to innovate while remaining razor focused on its core ideal — great design at affordable prices. Primark’s success is nothing to do with digital but with understanding customers’ needs — price, breadth of offer, availability — and then serving them. The list goes on.
Creativity isn’t about apparitions from above. It’s about your thinking, your strategy and your willingness to innovate. Today’s market leaders know that they must offer something that cannot be captured in system-driven online shopping. US toy retailer Camp has in-store playgrounds and many staff who are former actors. House of Vans has indoor skate parks, while Universal Standard has a clubhouse in its New York flagship store. In Amsterdam, car brand Lynk & Co has opened a co-working space instead of a car dealership.
These retailers straddle both digital and physical retail. One is not exclusive to the other. I suspect they are also led by people who allow the numbers people to work with the creatives, not stifle them. Creativity comes in many forms. It just needs corporate cultural oxygen to flourish.
So don’t fall for the line that digital was Topshop’s enemy. The pandemic didn’t kill the brand either; it just struck the final blow. Mr Green’s fatal error was that he didn’t understand how critical creativity is. He thought it could be bought. It can’t. Creativity creates cultural relevance and that’s something you instinctively feel. It was true of J Crew, until Jenna Lyons left in 2017.
As important as the bottom line is, creativity in all its confounding, unquantifiable glory is also what will pull businesses through this pandemic. For that to happen, the person at the top must embody creative qualities, or recognise others that do and enable them. Of course there is a central need for data and numbers. But for 30 years, that’s been the driving force in retail, and now we see that it isn’t enough. Companies succeeding now are disruptors and visionaries — not those that put creatives in charge but then crush them.
The demise of Debenhams and Arcadia is wretched because of the many jobs that will go with them, and the empty shop fronts they leave behind. But there is little else to miss. If only the people at the top had realised that great retail isn’t just a numbers game.