Comment: Dawson doing it differently down on the Range

THE old Woolworths store near my house has stood empty and forlorn for years, a victim of the recession and changing retail habits.

George Kerevan

Suddenly a new sign has gone up – the Range, an upstart homeware chain that started life as a market stall in Plymouth. Of course, that’s how M&S began.

The Range is owned and run hands-on by Chris Dawson, self-styled Pirate of Plymouth, who left school with no qualifications due to his dyslexia. The Range has 76 stores across the UK and Dawson has just announced plans to open 45 more, creating another 6,750 jobs, including 1,750 in Scotland.

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What is fascinating about the Range is that other retailers in the same market niche, including household bands MFI and Woolworths, have gone to the wall. Yet Dawson was able to snap up the stock left following MFI’s collapse and make money out of it.

He says the recession has been tough for everyone but the difference for him is that he has always run his businesses as though the country was in recession.

Dawson affects a Del-boy image but he is known for keeping a tight rein on costs, for being ultra flexible regarding the lines carried in his stores, and for moving swiftly when he sees an opportunity. A sophisticated computer system tracks every transaction in every store to keep on top of costs and shifting customer requirements.

The Range stores – located in out-of-town retail parks – sell anything Dawson and his team of buyers can lay their hands on for a decent turn. In 2009 Dawson swooped on £29 million worth of electrical goods from failed retailer Empire Direct and shifted them quickly through his own outlets.

Purists say that such opportunism doesn’t lead to a sustainable business model. On the other hand, the Range has enjoyed double-digit annual revenue growth and turns over in excess of £200m in a poor retailing climate.

Dawson has used the cash to invest in a modern distribution system operating from a half million square foot facility near Gloucester. As the bellwether UK housing market pick ups, the Range is strategically positioned to expand.

The probable weakness of the Range is its dependence on Dawson, who still runs the show personally via his mobile phone.

But they say that about Rupert Murdoch too.

Amazon still the big winner in online trade

Are Brits different from continental Europeans? The answer is yes when it comes to online shopping. On mainland Europe, online buying is still focused on non-grocery items.

According to a new survey by Mintel, that is not going to change quickly. Nevertheless, Mintel predicts online retail sales in Europe (including the UK) will double in value over the next five years.

The big winner will be Amazon. Mintel thinks Amazon will double its Europe-wide market share in the next four years despite the negative publicity over tiny corporation tax payments, and strikes by its 9.000 German workers.

Reason: Amazon is the only big game in town until, perhaps, the French drop their aversion to online shopping and create a local champion (as the French do).

In the UK, our love affair with buying groceries online continues. Mintel’s list of the top ten European e-retailers includes Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s. The French, meanwhile, still prefer to go to sniff their cheese directly.