There’s JM Coetzee’s Disgrace depressing, and then there’s the CNA. You’d be hard-pressed to find a store that evokes starker feelings of gloom and desperation than Edcon’s centenarian stationery and bookshop chain.
Back in 1896 when it first opened its doors, a decade after Jo’burg was founded, CNA was probably on trend. It was WHSmith for the tip of Africa — all papers and periodicals, pots of ink and slide rules.
Today, it’s another story.
Spend five minutes in any of its 198 stores, amid its shemozzle of harsh strip-lighting, deeply impractical white floor tiles and rows of ring binders and packets of elastic bands, and you’ll reassess your life choices. Who, you wonder, is the market for their endless range of serial killer paperbacks and scrapbooking paper?
Customers clearly feel the same way, which is probably why CNA’s sales plunged 7.2% for its financial year to March, after falling 5.6% the year before.
It’s still making a profit, but the graph is only going one way.
Perhaps underplaying the problem, owners Edcon said tersely in a presentation last month that the business “requires new strategy and engineering”. The problem is, the modern CNA is an anachronism.
Bar an impressive stock of Mills & Boon (One Week With the French Tycoon, anyone?), there isn’t much you could need from CNA that you couldn’t find elsewhere.
There’s Exclusive Books for books, Incredible Connection for gadgets, Waltons for the boring stationery and Typo for the cool stationery.
And, most pertinently, there’s the Internet and takealot.com for all of the above.
Even in the 1990s, CNA was a relatively pleasing place to spend your money.
Its Formica shelves (very en vogue at the time) were lined with paper dolls and imported magazines, wrapping paper and the indisputable crack of newsagents — those collectable series that came out every fortnight.
Their “back to school” campaigns were a winner. The scramble to secure rolls of brown paper, exam pads and Space Cases, if you are my vintage, from your local store must be etched in the minds of generations of customers.
But 20 years on, nothing has changed. Today, those shelves seemed jaded. The stock is undercurated and underwhelming.
Edcon CEO Bernie Brookes, who aptly describes CNA as “broken”, has big plans to fix the company.
Quite how remains to be seen.
What’s clear is that in 2016, it’s going to take a whole lot more than sticky tape and overpriced get-well-soon cards to mend this damaged business.
By Sarah Buitendach for Financial Mail