Gone in a Flash

It started life over 130 years ago as a single chemists shop in Leicester. After years of trading, its owner Frank began to see an unusual demand from customers; they wanted to buy raw ingredients for photographic chemicals.

Frank’s son Alan immediately spotted an opportunity. In 1930’s Britain, photography was a pastime solely for the wealthy. Alan’s dream was to make it accessible to the masses.

He set about transforming his father’s chemists into a haven for photography. With prices at an average of 25% below his nearest competitor, Alan attracted immediate attention. The idea grew, and it wasn’t long before the father and son duo had opened a huge facility in Hinckley Road; later crowned the largest photography store on earth by Guinness World Records.

By the 1980’s business was booming. From a simple idea, Frank and Alan now had sites in London, Leeds, Birmingham and Liverpool. By the early 1990’s, they had over 50 stores. What began as Alan’s Dad’s chemist, was now the largest independent retailer in Europe.

Frank and Alan’s surname was Jessop.

How the Mighty Fall

On January 9th 2012, Jessops was placed into Administration. All of its 187 stores closed with immediate effect, resulting in the loss of 1,370 jobs.

Of course Frank and Alan are now long-gone. They successfully sold the business to their management team in a £30M MBO back in 1996. Since then, its had a variety of new owners, including ABN Amro and more recently Deutsche Bank, Investec and Barclays after it went public in 2004.

However in 2007, things started to go awry. It had to close 81 of its 315 stores after loosing market share and entering the red. Its shares plunged by over 70%. It had been on a downward spiral ever since.

Damn that Internet

Cash-strapped consumers, Internet shopping and the rise of camera-enabled smartphones are all cited as factors that led to Jessops ultimate demise.

Many experts are even talking about the end of the high street as we know it. After all, Jessops joins the likes of Barratts, Peacocks, Comet, Game, JJB Sports and Woolworths – all brands to enter Administration in recent times.

And just yesterday we heard of the latest victim, music and DVD powerhouse HMV.

But is it as clear-cut as that? If the end of the high street really is nigh, why is Apple opening over 30 retail stores a year? Or how can we explain the success of Bill’s Produce? (Bill’s started as a storefront café in a Lewes grocery, and now has four sites in London alone). Not to mention bumper trading from Hotel Chocolat, Jack Wills and John Lewis.

Who are You?

If a retailer wants us to put down our tablets and drag our lazy butts from our sofas, they need to create something that we can’t get online.

At the heart of Jessops strategy was price. This might have worked for the first 60 years, but then the Internet rolled into town.

Price-savvy shoppers could now search for the best deal without ever having to leave their homes, so why did they need Jessops? Especially when a memory card in Jessops would cost you £19.99, compared to £3.99 online.

If the only differentiator you are giving customers is price, then you can’t blame them when they decide to take their business somewhere cheaper. In today’s world, price is no longer a viable strategy. Sure it can help give your revenue a quick boost, but it’s impossible to maintain. There will always be someone cheaper.

Sadly, Jessops had become an irrelevant commodity. The moneymen had taken over and the only thing on their mind was shareholder value.

It no longer was telling a story that customers wanted to be a part of. They didn’t know who the brand was anymore, but more importantly nor did Jessops.

Great Brands have Great Stories

Brands that are failing on the high street have lost sight of their story. Their only goal in the world is to make more money.

Without a strong purpose guiding their existence, leaders resort to price-cuts in order to boost short-term sales. The trouble is, customers only return when there’s a sale on, so the sale becomes more of a permanent attraction. Before you know it, you’ve reached the point of no return. The brand has become a commodity.

Compare this to how John Lewis communicates.

Not a sale in sight. No talk of price drops, buy-one-get-one-free, or any other manipulative offer. In fact, it doesn’t even sell a product.

No mention of features, functions, bits or bytes. Instead, it tells you a story.

In trading for the five weeks to December 2012, John Lewis recorded £684 million in sales; a 14.8% increase from the previous year. Compared with two years ago, total sales were up by a whopping 25.5%.

In a high street that’s supposedly collapsing and shoppers so obsessed by price, how can a premium brand like John Lewis report such strong growth?

At the heart of John Lewis’s existence is a promise that’s been with the company since 1925 – “Never Knowingly Undersold”. Marketing taglines come and go, but mantras like this one are deeply ingrained.

This brilliant campaign reinforces that what’s important in life never changes. Just like a brand’s purpose.

John Lewis’s promise is as important today as it’s ever been. It demonstrates to customers that they can always trust the brand to deliver fantastic value. It’s a story that everyone can understand but more importantly, experience.

In comparison, Jessops had a tagline. In fact, they had more than one. They recently dumped “Your Pictures. Our Passion” in exchange for “Advice for Life”.

Advice for Life? Are you kidding me? What does this even mean? Are you going to help me with career guidance, money troubles or a cheating spouse? This reeks of a complete lack of understanding of who Jessops is.

Lead with a Soul, not with a Spreadsheet

Always remember that a “brand” is nothing more than a set of impressions that live in people’s minds. Branding is the art of managing those impressions.

What impressions was Jessops actually managing? The store looks like any other. It feels like a Dixons, Comet, or Curry’s – but just for cameras. The shops had no soul, and no distinct personality. Jessops started with such humble beginnings, but did nothing to use its story to its advantage.

Granted, the market for film cameras is dying. Most of us have semi-decent cameras in our smartphones, and if you know what you want then you can simply order online. So, with 187 stores to support, Jessops was doomed right?

Possibly. But consider for a moment that rather than defining itself as a cut-price camera retailer, it instead defined itself by what it believed.

Alan Jessops dream was to make photography available to the masses; he wanted everyone to become a photographer. With this as the brand’s beacon, there are endless opportunities to help people capture those special moments in time.

Instagram built software that helps us to take amazing pictures using technology we already hold in our hands. More importantly, it tapped into our desire for social connectivity by opening our photo-streams up to others, and have them tell us how great our pictures are.

If it was guided by a purpose – AKA the soul of its brand, rather than a spreadsheet, there is no reason that Jessops couldn’t have created an Instagram.

Every single day, disruptive innovators and start-ups are uprooting entire industries. Yet, staid corporate behemoths are still trying to make money based on tired approaches and business models.

By defining a brand based on what you sell, rather than what you believe, you will never be able to consider options that could propel you forward in this rapidly changing age. It’s the exact reason that American Express didn’t create PayPal. Or that Maxwell House didn’t create Starbucks.

Death of the High Street

You don’t have to look far to stumble across articles citing the end of the end high street. Latest studies show that we have record numbers of boarded-up shops, with nearly one in seven unoccupied.

The high street is far from dead. It’s merely evolving. The problem doesn’t lie with the high street itself, but the tired brands that occupy the high street; those that have no purpose beyond price.

We are living in a crazy, busy world. Our attention spans are shorter than ever, yet so many brands are telling the same uninspiring story. In order to stand out, you have to stand for something.

It’ll Never Work

When Apple decided to move into retail in 2001, people said it would never work. After all, they had no experience, and only about 3% of the computer market worldwide. Rival manufacturer Gateway had already tried the concept, and was beginning to close a number of its 300 stores.

Of course we all know the outcome. Today, you’ll have to look pretty hard to find someone that doesn’t see the value of Apple stores.  They are regarded as one of the widest successes in retail history. There’s now over 350 of them worldwide, making more money per square foot than Tiffany!

Unlike Gateway and all those before it, Apple just didn’t build shops to flog kit. It built physical representations of its brand. Gateway never understood the power of brand value. In 2004 it announced it would be closing all of its retail stores. 2,500 people lost their jobs as a result.

Just like Gateway, Jessops had lost sight of who it was. It thought of itself as a business, not as a brand. It had a culture firmly rooted in selling, not serving.

Retailers need to realise that the days of high-pressure sales are gone. Customers find it uncomfortable. Ask yourself, would you rather spend time in an Apple store, or a Carphone Warehouse? One is focussed on selling you, whereas the other is focussed on helping you to buy.

Big difference.

  • SimonStafferton

    Very thought provoking post Mark. I had missed the HMV news! Like many I enjoy time spent in an Apple store (expect Regent Street shortly after a launch – tooo busy) and equally last time I was in Hotel Chocolat I was offered a few tasty samples and no pressure, a pleasant experience more rewarding than buying online.. But what does all this mean for those on low incomes? Apple/John Lewis, Jack Wills etc. much of their product lines are mid to high end price wise as far as i am aware, so is there a place for budget/low end retailers on the high street? Internet cafes maybe!?

    • http://www.marksampson.com/ Mark Sampson

      Thanks for commenting Simon, some great points. The retailers I refer to have been able to charge a premium because they have differentiated their brand so strongly.

      Of course you can create a strong brand, yet still be accessible. You only have to look at the success that Zara has experienced on the high street. Zara understands that budget-conscious shoppers don’t want to compromise on style. Zara is a pioneer of “fast fashion”, basically offering customers latest catwalk trends, but at bargain prices. The price might be low, but the brand still provides strong self-expressive benefits with its modern styles.

      IKEA is another great example – they believe in great design at affordable prices. A concept they are now considering applying to hotels! IKEA doesn’t employ pushy salespeople – it lets its products tell the story. It presents them in a way we can visualise how they could fit into our lives. They don’t communicate with any jargon or hype – they are clear that their products aren’t going to last forever – but they still look good, and are very competitively priced.

      IKEA also demonstrates a distinctive and identifiable personality – a little over a year ago, they ran a competition on Facebook for 100 people to win a “sleepover” in their Lakeside store. Over 100,000 people join the group! Their thinking behind it – the average person takes less than 5 minutes to choose a mattress. They wanted to persuade us to try a little more before we buy. A brilliant concept that got huge attention and really “humanised” their brand. The winners had a strict PJ’s only dress-code – and were given eye masks, midnight snacks, towels and slippers. They laid on massages, manicures and even a bedtime story read by celebrities! IKEA “sleep experts” were on hand to help people understand how to choose the right mattress and bedding specifically for their needs. The genius part is it not only demonstrated IKEA wasn’t just another bland furniture company, but a huge viral buzz happened around the event, with the 100 people who won obviously sharing the entire experience to their social networks.

      You don’t have to be “premium” to build a great brand. But you will need a unique opinion, purpose, & personality – and deliver it all in a consistent manner.

      • http://twitter.com/Storyologi Anna McLoughlin

        A great read Mark, thank you. I love the idea that Jessops could have created Instagram if they were true to their founding belief. Likewise, your insight that obsession with product is why “American Express didn’t create PayPal. Or that Maxwell House didn’t
        create Starbucks.”

        In terms of the death of the High St, good riddance to the current model of clone towns devoid of personality :)

        My hope is that it opens up more possibility for local businesses with roots in their communities and that meet the needs of their individual communities – by their very nature they have a story to tell.

        Bills is a good example of that. It was founded by this eccentric guy – Bill – who would be there at 5am to set up the theatrical pyramids of pumpkins, brightly coloured tins and baskets etc. His cakes were like sculptures and every plate was a work of art. The whole place had such a energetic, joyful vibe. However you could see the difference overnight when the investors came in… the portion sizes went down by half, the staff didn’t seem as happy and it just wasn’t the same. I’ll be interested to see what happens next…

  • David Rhodes

    The High St isn’t dead at all. When people make a purchase, emotion plays a major factor and buying something they can hold immediately makes themselves feel good. How many times do you find yourself tracking the package of something that you have bought online? Once you have made the purchase, it can’t arrive soon enough. The High St is there for the shopping experience, if you want the cheapest price you can go online.

    • http://www.marksampson.com/ Mark Sampson

      Thanks for commenting Dave. Totally agree!