Friday, 6 January 2012

Blacks: How a phoenix could rise from the ashes?

"Now is the winter of our discount tent" UKC 2012

I have made no secret of the fact that I have never been that impressed with Blacks, why? My main gripe is that the choice of brands present in the store is reflective of fashion rather than function. In addition the staff are varied; some are excellent, and really know their subject, and some are woeful and couldn’t tell the difference between their arse and their elbow never mind a softshell and a hardshell.

It is therefore not entirely surprising that Blacks have ended up at deaths door, bargaining for a last minute reprieve. If we take Stoke on Trent as an example; Blacks in Stoke is middle of the park as far as I’m concerned. Some of the staff there are great and know their stuff, but the brands sold there are what I would consider ‘form over function’. But non the less Blacks in Stoke has had somewhat of a monopoly in recent years, with the minor outdoor shops (Mountain Fever and Hi Peak leisure) closing down, one through lack of business, one through the owner emigrating. However a recent GoOutdoors store opening, meant that Blacks was always going to struggle, introduction of a price promise, and various offers failed to achieve the required sales (nationwide also) and Blacks finds itself in administration. But why?

Price matching is great....if you sell things that people want to match. The fact is that when the high street fashion trend of having outdoor jackets went away, Blacks continued to stock items that qualified as neither fashionable (by current trends) or functional (by outdoor standards). It would be unfair of course to accuse Blacks of stocking brands that nobody liked. The range of rucksacks was always quite good, featuring top brands like Osprey, Deuter and Lowe Alpine. However I always found that the choice of brands for technical garments was found wanting. North Face and Berghaus were the 2 main options available. In my opinion they are both brands that suffered from a drop in popularity during the “outdoor fashion boom”; by this I mean that as a community we outdoorsy types are quite protective of our image, it’s our thing, and when it becomes fashionable to plod around town in Berghaus and North Face, we don’t want it. Partly because we want to be different, and partly because these brands had a noticeable refocus in purpose from function to fashion, meaning a drop in the quality of the kit; something that they are both only now recovering from. Fact is, nobody wants to go wearing the same kit on the hill, as a 15 year old chav stood smoking by the corner of the local shop, with their Burberry scarf up over their face. Even though this trend has long since passed, there is still a perception that this is the case, and that North Face and Berghaus (to a lesser extent) are too high street.
This can’t be put down to a simple case of the outdoor retailers having a hard time in general, Cotswolds, GoOutdoors even to some extents the smaller and less well known Mountain Warehouse all seem to be doing well.

Bidding is ongoing for a takeover of blacks in a pre-pack deal after going into administration this morning (6th Jan). So when a new owner emerges how will they get Blacks back on it’s feet? Here’s what I think:

1)   Get Blacks back to selling the TOP outdoor brands, I don’t want to walk into Blacks and have North Face thrust in my face from every angle, by all means sell North Face and Berghaus kit, but give you consumers a range of choice. Get Mountain Equipment, Mammut, Rab, and other top outdoor brands in there, and Blacks will once again begin to appeal to the outdoor enthusiasts. As a consumer I want a choice of the best, if you stock only a couple of brands in a given category, I will go elsewhere.

2)   Climbing hardware, Blacks had a brief flirt with climbing gear last year and did a crap job of it, why? Because they stocked only CAMP gear, and at shockingly high prices, with staff who didn’t have a clue.  They were uncompetitive, and the staff knowing nothing about the kit is unforgiveable, If they were to stock DMM, Wild Country, Black Diamond and other top notch hardware brands, and get the staff some training on how to use them, the store would appeal to climbers and mountaineers, as well as walkers and hikers.

3)   Staff training, get the staff trained on their product. If I ask a sales assistant about a jacket, I want to know their opinion, their thoughts based on their experiences, I’m not interested in hearing a pre learned speech about how gortex work – I know already, I want an enthusiasts opinion of the kit.

4)   Ditch the surfware, Animal, O’Neil etc, let Republic and other high street shops stock that kind of stuff, fact is, it’s not in fashion, and no outdoorsy types want it, it’s just dead weight.

5)   Loyalty scheme, get a loyalty scheme, similar to GoOutdoors card perhaps, or even Cotswolds Explore More card. Make Blacks feel like an outdoor shop, get some good offers, deals, and rewards for shopping there.

Start stocking better gear, with more knowledgeable staff, and the fact is people will flock to Blacks. It’s the most well known and widespread brand in the UK for outdoor kit, it’s about time it started acting like it.

A phoenix from the ashes.....we can only hope.

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