Godfreys has struggled to remain competitive.
Godfreys has struggled to remain competitive.

How Dyson nearly killed iconic retailer

FOR decades, iconic Aussie retailer Godfreys was the authority on vacuum cleaners.

But in recent years, the company has struggled in the face of online competition, new vacuum trends - and the rise and rise of Dyson, which has developed an almost cult-like following.

That is the opinion of local retail experts, who believe the failing company needs to innovate quickly if it is to reverse its ailing fortunes.

It has just been announced that Godfreys' 99-year-old co-founder John Johnston - who turns 100 in July - will take over the company after he secured a more than 91 per cent stake in the group.

As a result, the business will be removed from the ASX as part of an effort to fix the struggling company.

Mr Johnston first announced plans to buy back the company through Arcade Finance, which is owned by the Johnston family, back in April.

Mr Johnston founded the company alongside Godfrey Cohen more than 80 years ago, and it was bought by private equity investors CCMP Capital Asia and Pacific Equity Partners (PEP) in 2006, for around $300 million.

But in May, Mr Johnston convinced two major shareholders to sell their stakes to him after he raised his bid from $13.1 million to $13.7 million.

It means Arcade Finance now holds 91.21 per cent of Godfreys shares and will start the compulsory acquisition of the rest shortly.

In 2014, Godfreys was listed with an issue price of $2.75, but ever since the company has been hit with plummeting sales, multiple changes of senior management, and a share price drop to the historic low of 21 cents in April.

In early May, Mr Johnston said like-for-like sales over the previous fortnight were 27 per cent lower than the same period in 2017, blaming the slump on a new series of ads with focused on product features instead of discounts and sales.

The following month, the company blamed the huge drop in sales on Godreys television ads - but according to several Australian retail experts, the problems run far deeper.

Retail expert Brian Walker from the Retail Doctor Group said a lack of innovation was what had really let Godfreys down.

Godfreys will need a dramatic reversal in fortunes if it is to survive.
Godfreys will need a dramatic reversal in fortunes if it is to survive.

"Godfreys has been a very traditional, bricks-and-mortar-type retailer, but meanwhile the world around them has kept moving on," he said.

"They haven't kept at the forefront of product innovation and development - they haven't had a lot of new things to say for a few years.

"You need to keep your offer fresh with new products and it's about creating stories - in their case, they had an invitation to be the experts, but I think they didn't take that strongly enough."

Mr Walker said the company had missed the crucial opportunity of selling Dyson cleaners - a brand which consistently makes headlines with new products as well as through partnerships including Aldi's Special Buys.

Over the years, Dyson has become the darling of the vacuum world, and Godfreys' failure to stock the products might have cost the company dearly.

"In an age where there is more brand consciousness and awareness than ever before, retailers need to carry winning brands within their category," Mr Walker said.

"There's also been a significant level of underinvestment too; the shops look the same, feel the same and are the same as 10 years ago."

Godfreys co-founder John Johnston turns 100 next month.
Godfreys co-founder John Johnston turns 100 next month.

Queensland University of Technology retail expert Dr Gary Mortimer said Godfreys had failed to present itself as an expert in the category.

"Like any business that specialises in one product, whether it is toys, sporting goods or vacuums, there needs to be a point of specialisation; you've got to own a brand and have exclusive rights to clearly insulate you from competition within the marketplace," he said.

"When we see Dysons sold at Aldi occasionally, there's no reason to walk into a specialty vacuum store if you can get the brand at a German discounter.

"You can get the brand anywhere, there's no exclusivity or specialisation, so essentially there's no point of difference, and no need to go into a specialty vacuum cleaner retailer."

Dr Mortimer said Godfrey's reputation had also been damaged by its culture of heavy discounting.

John Hardy appeared in Godfreys commercials in the 1990s.
John Hardy appeared in Godfreys commercials in the 1990s.

"It was very famous for carpark sales and slashing prices, and consumers got tired of the discounting. If you're looking for discounts, you can walk into a Kmart or Big W and pick up a vacuum - even Bunnings are selling them these days," Dr Mortimer said.

Dr Mortimer pointed to the recent collapse of Toys'R'Us, which he said demonstrated how discount department stores were impacting specialty retailers, which has allowed customers to "get the exact product at a low price at a discount department store".

He said there were several options facing Mr Johnston, including closing unprofitable stores, changing the distribution model, moving online or opening concession stalls within larger retailers such as Bunnings or Myer.

John Hardy, who starred in Godfreys' famous bowling ball TV ads in the '90s, is set to return as chief executive of the company for a third time, having previously held the position from 1983 to 2010 and again from mid-2016 to 2017.

 

- With AAP



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