How challenger brands inspire in challenging times

As investors in consumer brands, it can be dispiriting to read the papers, bombarded with tales of woeful mismanagement and a gloomy malaise, a self-fulfilling prophecy fast becoming a hardened reality. It can be just as depressing walking the streets and seeing prime Central London vacancies adorned with the red banners of closing down sales, once only the tactic of Sports Direct window merchandising teams. On our own doorstep, Notting Hill Gate is a prime example of struggling retailers and restaurateurs, unhinged by crazy rents and changing consumer demand.

On one of our safaris around Covent Garden, we bumped into a retail stalwart, East. For purely sentimental reasons, thinking that this might be the last time we experience the brand, we walked in. We wish we hadn’t. Ignoring the red banners awash this beautifully located store driven into administration, chipped paintwork enshrined a patchwork of homogenous, tatty rails and wall-mounted imagery out-dated by decades not seasons.

It made us question the sentimentality of the press for the final capitulation of long dying brands, which consumers have abandoned and long fallen out of love with. Retailers like New Look, House of Fraser, Maplin and BHS have stopped advocating a reason to exist, a shopping experience bettered by the immediacy of Amazon and millennial-focused retailers like ASOS and boohoo.

As beautiful contrasts go, there aren’t much better than Petersham Nurseries on the other side of the square, on King Street. It is everything that a store should be – infused with scents that linger on you as you meander around the store, unusual products that you want to touch, feel and ask the staff about, merchandised in a way that encourages you to browse, discover and Instagram. Amazon eat your heart out!

Meanwhile most of the big department stores are looking to shed space. Ecommerce furniture retailer Swoon opening a large showroom in Debenhams, Westfield is indicative of the changing relationship between online and physical retail. With WeWork discussing taking space at Debenhams Oxford Street and John Lewis launching a host of hospitality concepts in their Oxford Street store, the future for large retail-focused department stores feels uncertain.

In our weekly team meetings where we discuss the brands we’ve recently met, we hear about troves of exciting concepts challenging the stale retail status quo. There is no better sign of the experiential trumping the transactional than this month’s announcement of Swingers mini-golf opening up in the old BHS on Oxford Street. The carving up of the retail giants is only just beginning, but we are as excited about what will appear from their ashes, as we are unsurprised by their demise. Sadly, they will not be missed. It doesn’t take much soul searching to see why so many household names in the retail and restaurant sectors are struggling – stale, commoditised, poor value for money propositions that no longer provide the experiences that consumers crave.

We recently had a tour around the new Thomas Heatherwick-designed Coal Drops Yard development in King’s Cross. Even through the steamed-up safety goggles, we could see Argent’s £3bn vision coming to life – surrounded by a lively mix of workers and residents, it’s an extraordinary place that you would want to spend time in, a space to meet, dwell, eat, drink, look and feel better, get fit, Instagram…and shop.

The late Zaha Hadid’s recent research initiative and exhibition ‘Walkable London’ is a wonderful insight into how cities will need to change to cater for consumers’ changing lifestyles and habits to make them nicer places to live in. The exhibition highlights how globally, pedestrianisation increases commercial activity by 30%, with the temporary Sunday closures to traffic on Regent Street resulting in a 57% increase in footfall. Creating spaces made for walking where people want to spend time, away from congested streets, is good for consumers’ health and wellbeing as well as businesses.

Our belief is that ecommerce will not kill physical retail, but force it to become more inspiring and experiential. In response to these tectonic shifts, we are working hard with all our brands to ensure that they offer the personalised experiences that will represent the future of consumer demand, both on and offline.