Leader comment: House of Fraser’s fate now in Mike Ashley’s hands

House of Fraser failed to move with the times (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
House of Fraser failed to move with the times (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
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Market forces swept away House of Fraser, a giant of the high street, but Mike Ashley’s controversial Sport Direct empire will now try to put it back on its feet.

House of Fraser has a special place in the hearts of many Scots. It’s where your mum might have taken you shopping on that first big trip to the city centre as a child or the place where you bought your first party dress. It’s not just a shop, it’s part of many people’s lives.

But, as Woolworths discovered, nostalgia doesn’t count for much in terms of hard currency. Market forces are a powerful thing; businesses that fail to swim with the tide are soon overcome and the currents have been shifting dramatically in recent years.

READ MORE: House of Fraser: Mike Ashley ‘to keep as many stores open as possible’

While rival department store John Lewis moved quickly to create an effective online business, House of Fraser appears to have dawdled, only belatedly realising the extent of the transformation in buying habits.

In addition, its 59 department stores contained hundreds of concessions, meaning that its own brand products – which could have been House of Fraser’s “unique selling point” – were overshadowed and overlooked. If ever a high street shop needed a strong reason to persuade people to actually visit the store, it is now. Next month, John Lewis plans to trial having personal stylists in-store and holding evening classes for precisely this reason.

A failure to recognise the need to innovate proved House of Fraser’s downfall, so one thing is certain after Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct bought it out of administration – change is coming.

Ashley has talked about turning the chain into the “Harrods of the high street”, an ambitious plan that may test the public’s appetite for luxury. But experts also speculated that some stores could be turned into restaurants, bars, hotels and offices or be divided up into smaller shops.

Staff are likely to be nervous, even if their jobs are saved. In 2016, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee said it had found evidence of “extremely disturbing” working practices at Sports Direct with staff penalised for taking a break to drink water or being ill and it also reported claims that workers were offered permanent contracts in exchange for sex.

However, just as House of Fraser swallowed up stores like Arnotts, Binns and Jenners, Ashley’s business empire has now absorbed it.

His task will be to leave the 1900s behind and find a 21st century business model.

READ MORE: House of Fraser falls into administration