Retail

Andrew Hill

Jeff Bezos is famously smart but I wonder whether he has thought through all the political implications of Amazon’s strategy of becoming back-office ecommerce infrastructure provider to the world.

The first part of FT colleague Barney Jopson’s series on the etailer was full of insight, but it was the comparison between Amazon and investment banks that struck me most forcefully. As Barney writes:

One investment banker says Amazon’s position is reminiscent of Goldman Sachs’ dual role as a broker and trader at the centre of capital markets. “People complain about conflicts of interest. But you still have to do business with them.”

Like Goldman and others, Amazon has set out to simplify the life of its clients, so they can concentrate on what they do best.  One business identified by the FT investigation – RJF Books and More – has delegated the “selling, shipping, customer service, payments and complaints” functions to Amazon, which left me wondering what else was left for RJF to do. Simplification was a strong theme of my recent trip to Silicon Valley, where countless start-ups, and a few larger businesses like NetSuite and Salesforce.com, are offering businesses the opportunity to “plug in” their operations to outsourced back-office services and payment systems. Read more

Andrew Hill

I can’t help thinking that Jesse Boot and Charles R Walgreen Senior were destined to meet eventually. With Tuesday’s deal between the UK’s Alliance Boots and Walgreens of the US, the paths of the two pharmacy chains, each founded more than 100 years ago, finally cross. Boot – son of the original founder John – was said to have a “talent for business”; Walgreen, though he built his business more slowly initially, “instituted a level of service and personal attention unequalled by virtually any other pharmacy in Chicago”, according to the company history. Read more

Andrew Hill

I wonder what Sir Terry Leahy, former chief executive of Tesco, makes of the fanfare about rival UK retailer Marks and Spencer launching a bank with HSBC. According to Marc Bolland, M&S boss, the rationale for putting 50 bank branches inside its stores goes as follows:

This bank will be built on M&S values; putting the customer at the heart of the proposition and delivering the exceptional service that sets us apart from the competition.

 Read more

Andrew Hill

There were some interesting foretastes of Monday’s deal between Amazon and the big UK bookstore chain Waterstones in comments made by the latter’s managing director, James Daunt, at the FT a few weeks ago.

Mr Daunt – who had previously called the etailer a “ruthless, moneymaking devil” – spoke at a roundtable in early May to launch the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award. You can listen to a podcast of his initial interview in which he pointed out that all bookshops had to find ways to make the environment for book-buying attractive again. He added:

The largest of us face the additional challenge of how do we become a relevant part of this new digital world, in which, clearly, a substantial part of the reading that our customers engage in is going to take place.

  Read more

Andrew Hill

With scent and skincare giant Coty’s $10bn bid approach for Avon Products, the descendants of Johannes Benckiser have put Bart Becht straight back to work.

Lady Gaga’s first perfume 'Monster', made in conjunction with Coty, is due to be released this year. Image by AFP/Getty

Lady Gaga’s first perfume 'Monster', made in conjunction with Coty, is due to be released this year. Image by AFP/Getty

Mr Becht stepped down last summer as a highly acclaimed (and paid) chief executive of Reckitt Benckiser, the listed household goods and personal care group in which private family company Joh A Benckiser has a 15 per cent stake. By November, with the applause of Reckitt’s investors still ringing in his ears, he had stepped in to chair another Benckiser holding – unlisted Coty, the biggest fragrance company in the world, with perfume brands from Calvin Klein to Lady Gaga’s forthcoming ‘Monster’.

For all the soft-focus marketing of Coty’s products, Mr Becht’s “Dear Andrea” letter to his Avon counterpart Andrea Jung is as direct as the sales pitch for his former employer’s popular Cillit Bang grime-cleaner. The Dutchman writes:

We were surprised and disappointed that Avon’s Board of Directors has no interest in a discussion to explore our acquisition proposal…. We do not understand how your Board’s unwillingness to discuss our proposal can serve the best interests of Avon’s shareholders.

 Read more

KFC tempura chicken strips get progressively spicier, the deeper you penetrate inland China. Iglo’s frozen fish fingers used to have four different colours of breadcrumb, depending where you bought them in Europe.

Andrew Hill

Luxury goods companies increasingly seem to inhabit a parallel universe.

Many ordinary shopkeepers – at least in the recession-blighted west – are grappling with slumping sales, falling share prices and the threat of bankruptcy.

In the US, in an effort to offset worse than expected post-Thanksgiving trading, many stores caused confusion, according to the New York Times, by bringing forward “Super Saturday” – a day of pre-Christmas discounting – to December 17. In the UK, the bleak outlook for the likes of HMV, Peacocks and Blacks Leisure, is a symptom of what one analyst forecasts will be the worst Christmas for a decade.

Contrast that gloom with the great expectations of the luxury brands. On Wednesday, Mulberry announced it would appoint Bruno Guillon, a director of Hermès, the high-end French company, as its next CEO. He’ll lead the UK bagmaker’s push into Asia. The group’s shares added another 3 per cent, having risen 60 per cent in the past year. Read more

John Gapper

Whoever thought up Amazon’s latest idea for squeezing other retailers – offering money off to people who scanned prices in US stores with its smartphone app and then bought the goods on Amazon – deserves an award for bad timing.

John Gapper

J.C. Penney, the department store chain, has pulled a fast one by nabbing Ron Johnson, head of Apple’s retail stores as its next chief executive.

The runaway success of Apple’s stores, despite early predictions that they would go the way of other capital-intensive efforts by product manufacturers to reach consumers, have prompted many imitations but none have worked as well. Read more

John Gapper

The changes to director remuneration at Tesco following a shareholder rebellion last year are sensible enough. The interesting thing is the line they draw between entrepreneurial risks and rewards, and what directors of big companies should be paid. Read more

John Gapper

I’m intrigued by McDonald’s move in Europe to replace some cashiers by introducing touchscreens on which customers can order their own food because it is a practice that could be introduced more widely in retail outlets and restaurants.

My reaction stems from having noticed that I prefer to use self-scanning machines at a local supermarket rather than go to the aisle where items are scanned by a cashier. I find it generally quicker and easier to scan them for myself. Read more

My first reaction to Best Buy’s closure of its nine branded stores in China was: not again. Another retailer had leapt into the Chinese market – and fallen on its face.

Andrew Hill

I asked Sir Terry Leahy to bring to his video interview with me this week – his last as Tesco’s chief executive – an object or picture that represented a “personal turning point” for him. My heart dropped when word came back from the supermarket chain’s HQ that he’d be bringing a Clubcard.

Sure, this sliver of plastic tells the retail group more about shoppers’ preferences and habits than any opinion poll ever could. But we know what the discount-voucher card tells Leahy about us; would it tell us anything about Leahy? Read more

When creative stars explode, they do so with a more spectacular bang than the average sufferer from a midlife crisis.

Christian Dior this week fired John Galliano, its 50-year-old chief designer, for allegedly making anti-Semitic remarks to a couple in a bar. He denied the claims but it seems that he told others in the same bar: “I love Hitler” and that their forefathers would have been “gassed” – a video of Mr Galliano slurring those words was published by The Sun.

John Gapper

I am struggling to believe in Groupon, which Google is reported to be considering buying for $5.3bn, making it the company’s largest acquisition. Despite Groupon having some social media trappings, and being profitable, it feels oddly old-fashioned.

Groupon amasses groups of users to take part in mass one-off discounting programmes by retailers – hence the name. In the US, where coupon-clipping is still popular, despite the power of Wal-Mart’s “every day low prices”, it grown very rapidly. Read more