Theo Paphitis’ TV persona is that of a dragon, and with the recent launch of his new lingerie chain Boux Avenue and his role as an apprenticeship champion in the UK he is certainly breathing fire into the embattled retail industry right now.
The Dragons’ Den star, who is the former boss of women’s underwear specialists La Senza, current Chairman of Ryman Stationery and effectively a dyed-in-the-wool retailer, is adamant that the sector can open doors to hugely successful careers.
Analysts have voiced their concerns recently about the potential of a lost generation of workers following data from the Office for National Statistics showing UK youth unemployment surpassed one million earlier this year, but Paphitis thinks the government should be doing more to help retailers chip away at this growing figure.
“The government has got to make sure it looks after retail because it is the industry that employs young people,” he told Retail Gazette.
“It could introduce a whole manner of initiatives such as new employee tax breaks that ensure young people don’t get into the non-working habit, as that is a very dangerous habit.
“This government talks a good show but it doesn’t put its money where its mouth is.”
Paphitis is walking evidence of the heights a career in retail can lead to. He started on the shop floor at Watches of Switzerland and now, in his TV role as well as his business owner guise, he is the one wielding power over other people’s future work.
And although the route into running his own businesses came via forays into property and corporate finance, it is hardly surprising that he holds such passionate views about retail.
Quick to scoff at the assumption of many analysts that retail is generally a low-skilled industry, the Cypriot resembles less angry dragon and more peregrine falcon swooping down on its prey when defending the sector.
“It’s the best job in the world - you learn everything you need to know about small business by working in retail,” he argued.
“It’s a great apprenticeship, it’s a great career. It is not an industry that people should consider below them.
“You don’t need to go to university to get a job in retail; in fact many people should forget about university and get on the work career ladder by joining the industry.”
Paphitis, who is Apprentice Champion on behalf of trade organisation Skillsmart Retail, is creating jobs himself by rolling out the Boux Avenue business in shopping centres nationwide.
Last week saw the opening of the company’s eighth shop, at The Friary in Guildford, but he expects the store portfolio to grow to 11 by the end of January, to 15 by next summer and up to around 30 in total. The company is “on a gallop”, as he describes it.
The new UK lingerie concept, which its boss only plans to unveil in prime shopping centres nationwide, views the quality of its staff and service as a selling point too.
“Anyone can buy lingerie from a popular department store, but putting it in the same plastic bag as the cooked chicken and coleslaw, etc is not right,” Paphitis said.
“Here you get the service, you get the product wrapped, you get the petals part of the packaging – and it’s special.”
In previous years, a target of 30 stores nationwide would be seen as lacking ambition, but with a changing retail landscape where prime shopping centres are one of the only dead-certs around in terms of ROI potential, this figure arguably could be the winning number.
On the same day Boux Avenue opened its first Surrey store, Sir Philip Green announced that his Arcadia Group might have to close down 260 stores in the next three years to streamline his fashion business, a move that would represent a ten per cent reduction in the company’s UK portfolio.
It is a familiar tale and shoppers should not be surprised to hear similar announcements from other large multiples in the new year, as leases are un-renewed and businesses focus on reducing overheads.
Paphitis is aware that retail is changing, but he is adapting with the change by installing high tech equipment in his Boux Avenue stores as well as the myriad of services the modern customer requires, be it click & collect, buy & deliver or purchase online/return in store.
Stores have a “boudoir” look about them, with products displayed in unique ways and shoppers able to try clothing on in different atmospheres due to the three lighting options made available in each changing room.
Paphitis is also backing his property opening strategy.
“I bet Philip Green isn’t shutting any stores in the centres I’m in or the centres I’m trying to get into,” he asserted.
Describing Arcadia’s move as necessary in a changing retail market, he added: “It is a great person who makes the tough decisions when they have to make them.”
Boux Avenue’s owner himself has proved throughout a successful retail career that he makes the correct choices more often than not.
He helped turn around the fortunes of La Senza and Ryman, and in his role as Millwall Football Club Chairman he even oversaw the team’s journey to an FA Cup final against Manchester United in 2004 – for any football fan, one of the most remarkable feats of the last decade.
It is therefore understandable that he shows no little confidence in his own ability, and in doing so he proves the potential of the retail industry as a job creator and economic stimulator at a time when it is needed most.
“I can safely say that sales at the Boux Avenue stores have met our most optimistic estimates,” he said.
“If I can do it now, I can do it anytime.”