Back in the heyday of Blog 1.0, I gave the carpet retailer CarpetRight a right carpeting. “Visual pollution” was about the kindest phrase I had for their repellently cheap and nasty stores, promotional materials and advertising. Why oh why, I wailed, must quite decent and expensive items like carpets be sold in this preposterously crude and old fashioned way?
As I recall, this was just a rhetorical question. But returning to the subject, in Blog 2.0, I’m keener to give answers. I reckon the entire reason for their ghastliness can be found in the first line of the chairman’s biography on the website: “Lord Harris is now in his 53rd year in carpet retailing…”. That’s it. That’s all you need to know. The boss has been doing it 53 years, and he’s lost the plot. His style of retail marketing will be forever about 1968, when this kind of lurid, manipulative nonsense was SOP for the likes of MFI, Moben, Brentford Nylons, Courts and all the other fourth-rate home furnishings retailers whose names we’ve long since forgotten. Somehow, Lord Harris’s Carpetright staggers on, the last of the line, hopelessly out of date and off the pace and, despite the fact that profits have collapsed over the last three years, completely incapable of change.
Which is the point of this blog. For all the talk in my world of the need to be market-aware and customer-led, the reality is that in business the huge majority of us do what we do. If the market likes it, and goes on liking it, then we make a ton of money. If the market doesn’t like it, or stops liking it, we’re stuffed. Very few of us have it in us to be something else – and if we try, our efforts lack as much conviction as Lord Harris’s would if he tried to understand about style, taste, added value and the natural human desire for something more rewarding and meaningful than BIG BIG BIG SAVINGS.
This line of thought fits pretty neatly with my Nutcase Billionaire theory, which says that it’s a matter of sheer luck and happenstance whether the market decides you’ve come up with a great idea, or writes you off as a lunatic. As I recall from my distant days on confectionery advertising, Forrest Mars 1st was a rather eccentric food scientist who believed that chocolate and sugar were good foods that had the answer to America’s depression-era nutrition crisis. He decided to make a handy-sized bar to put his theories into practice. The rest is history. But if his studies had taken him in a slightly different direction, he might have come to believe that turnips, say, or ox liver were the foods to nourish America. The rest would still have been history – but a rather different history.
There’s not so much of a difference between Forrest Mars and Lord Harris of Ugliness. They’re both one-trick ponies. They do what they do. The public takes it or leaves it. With Mr Mars’s lead product, they’ve taken it for 70 years or more (although actually I notice the Mars Bar has fallen sharply down the Top 100 grocery products league table in the latest 2010 edition just published). With Lord Harris’s horrible stores, they used to be keen but are now steadily getting very unkeen. I don’t have the figures, but I bet that John Lewis’s carpet department isn’t suffering like Carpetwrong.
It would be nice to think that Lord Harris would rethink, and in so doing decontaminate some of the retail world’s very worst eyesores. But I’m not holding my breath. A tiny handful of business leaders are genuinely capable of reinvention. The very large majority just repeat the only trick they know. And if the watching crowds start to dwindle, it doesn’t make any difference. Their firms just carry on till there’s no-one left at all.