Stuttafords officially closed its doors on Monday, 31 July after 159 years of operating in the South African retail market.
The retailer filed for business rescue in October 2016, after it could not recover from the pressures of the low growing economy and the significant devaluation of the rand following the axing of former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene.
A final bid to buy the last two operating stores in Sandton and Eastgate was rejected by the landlord, Liberty. Chief executive Robert Amoils told Fin24 that all staff at the two remaining stores will be retrenched and have their full retrenchment packages paid.
The business is currently undergoing a winding down process which will take a few months to complete. A sale of Stuttafords intellectual property is being finalised by the business rescue practitioners.
Amoils had explained to Fin24 that the business had been on the right path, but simply ran out of time to correct things. “I believe the path we set was correct. I believe the repositioning we did was consistent with what international trends have shown to work,” he said.
“Simply, we ran out of runway, we ran out of time. The market downturn was so swift, so severe and was paralleled with significant [rand] devaluation and political uncertainty.”
Amoils explained that the rand devaluation impacted the business model negatively because commitments were made to buy international brands almost a year in advance. But director at Norton Rose Fulbright and senior insolvency lawyer Haroon Laher said that the downfall could not be pinned down to the economy only.
“I think there were a number of factors. There was a lot of tension between the shareholders which obviously is tension in the house, so to speak. That did not contribute to a successful business rescue.”
Stefan Salzer, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group said that generally the retail sector is under pressure. Particularly in recessionary conditions consumers tend to cut down on spend for discretionary items such as clothing, household appliances and furniture.
“It is tough not to buy food but it is very easy not to buy a TV or buy the latest fashions from Stuttafords,” he said.
Salzer explained that over the past two to three years international clothing retailers had been entering the market, posing another complication for Stuttafords. Amoils previously told Fin24 that the arrival of international players like H&M, Zara and Cotton On had cut into their customer base.
That, coupled with increasing financial pressures on consumers and changing credit regulations did not contribute positively to the environment for clothing retailers, said Salzer.
Indeed, the devaluation of the rand impacted Stuttafords profits, he explained. An item that cost $3 would end up costing more at a later stage due to the sensitivity of the currency. This cost could be borne by the consumers, in the final price charged for the item, or the retailer would have to carry the expense and let profit take a knock.
Stuttafords purveys international brands and this set it in a disadvantage to other local retailers which rely on South African produced and sourced products, explained Salzer.
Salzer said that international players are also clear on what they are, and on what they are not.
These retailers also differentiate between “basics” and fashion items and price these accordingly. For example a basic white T-shirt would be just that. Contrarily South African retailers would sell a “basic” white T-shirt with some print on it. Additionally, South African retailers often do not match pricing for basic and fashion items appropriately. Something considered basic, would be priced as a fashion item.
Local retailers also need to adopt fashion faster as international retailers do, he said. International retailers also have the advantage of scale, they have access to global brands at larger volumes.
South African retailers should also learn to introduce a “theatre of shopping” to inspire people to buy. Some retailers just put items on shelves, which is not as inspiring as having a styled manikin, he explained. A consumer could walk into a store with the idea to buy a T-shirt but then leave with a dress because the product was represented in an emotive and inspirational way, said Salzer.
International players also follow a different model when it comes to planning and buying merchandise, explained Derek Engelbrecht partner and consumer products and retail sector leader at EY. Global brands have a sense of urgency and frequency with which they change offerings.
“That is probably one of the key reasons the department store has battled. In gold old fashioned department store planning, the business would put new things on the shelf when the seasons change.”
“Global brands have worked hard and long to perfect the model where they are able to put items on the shelf every four to six weeks,” he said.
Develop a niche
Globally, the department store is facing challenges, explained Salzer. The way forward is to develop niche or specialist stores. Given South Africa’s mall culture, retailers do not necessarily have to stock all kinds of items under one roof, when a consumer can get these products a few meters away in a different store.
Salzer added that if some retailers still want to diversify their offerings, they need to be clear on the overall theme they are offering, like quality, convenience or affordability. For example a retailer could offer clothing items and cars, if the overall expectation of the offering was quality.
Engelbrecht explained that retailers can no longer be all things to all people. “If you follow approach of being all things to all people at some point your customer will leave you,” he says.
“If you identify the niche or the consumer you are targeting, while it may not appeal to all people, at least you are guaranteed that you created something unique. That is probably where the slow demise of the department store as a concept comes from.”
Engelbrecht also pointed out the importance of retailers adapting to the world in which they operate in.
Before entering business rescue, Amoils said Stuttafords had managed to reposition itself as a provider of cutting edge fashion and offered affordable branded luxury. The customer base was also more reflective of the South African consumer, with over 60% of Stuttafords’ market being black. The group also started focusing on targeting younger, tech-savvy consumers. “We perpetually evolved and I think we did a good job in the last five years,” says Amoils.
By Lameez Omarjee for Fin24