Thoughts on Crossing the Pond

Europe and North America stand as glittering respective prizes for retailers on either side of the Atlantic, but why are there so few real success stories?
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Posted June 18, 2019

What is it about the Atlantic Ocean that seems to prevent U.K.-based retailers that cross it from flourishing once they reach the other side? The Pilgrim Fathers certainly had a rough time, but they toughed it out. By contrast, more recently you don’t have to look too hard to find examples of Brit retail adventurers that have opted to go stateside, only to find that the welcome they anticipated has not been quite as warm as imagined.

The latest example is Topshop, which has closed its 11 U.S. locations and now has the landlords on which the stores are located chasing it for monies they feel they have been unfairly deprived of. This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg when considering Tesco’s Fresh & Easy grocery chain, Marks & Spencer, WH Smith and consumer electronics firm Dixons – all having tried and failed, to name just a few.

The point is that we think we Brits know what it’s like across the pond, but we don’t. The consumers are different, their expectations are at variance with Europe and many things that are taken for granted here are not the norm in North America.

And it works the other way, too. U.S. retailers have a habit of touching down in London, an expensive location by any standards, setting up a flagship store and then calling it job done. Brooks Brothers, Coach and Hollister, among others, all stand as example of this, and while it might be nice to view the U.K. capital as the launchpad for a Europe-wide offensive, more frequently than not, this proves to be hopelessly ambitious.

Distance, logistics and differing practices all militate against retailers making it when they set sail in this manner, and a wise head might be inclined to stay put and concentrate on Europe or North America respectively. Yet they keep coming and will continue to do so. There is of course a notable exception – Apple – which does as well in the Big Apple, London and Paris as it does in every other destination it touches down in. What does it know that others don’t?

John Ryan is a journalist covering the retail sector, a role he has fulfilled for more than a decade. As well as being the European Editor of VMSD magazine, he writes for a broad range of publications in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany with a focus on in-store marketing, display and layout, as well as the business of store architecture and design. In a previous life, he was a buyer for C&A, based in London and then Düsseldorf, Germany. He lives and works in London.