During a press conference last month ahead of its annual general meeting (AGM), billionaire Mike Ashley told reporters that Sports Direct was on track to become “the Selfridges of sport”.
The AGM followed a particularly tough year for Sports Direct and its founder Ashley. Despite taking measures to avoid bad press at this year’s meeting, controversy has stalked the company ever since it was revealed to be paying warehouse workers below minimum wage.
Aside from its PR team being in permanent crisis management mode, the company faces problems elsewhere. In July it laid bare the damage of the devalued pound as profits fell 53 per cent, and a month later two of its largest shareholders left over corporate governance concerns.
Yet Ashley has always been a maverick, and clearly has a penchant for making money in the world of retail.
In an exclusive survey carried out by Toluna for Retail Gazette, the question of whether Sports Direct could ever truly be considered “the Selfridges of sport” was raised.
Of the 1017 people surveyed, just over 80 per cent had shopped in Sports Direct before, whereas 50 per cent of them had shopped in Selfridges.
Nearly 80 per cent of respondents said they didn’t feel Sports Direct could ever be considered the Selfridges of sport.
The reasons behind this varied widely, although many referenced the brand’s poor reputation, Sports Directs’ product offering, and inherent demographic as key factors.
- “The quality of aesthetic in sports direct has no par with that of Selfridges and a great deal of a shopping experience is how things look when you enter a store”
- “Staff need to be proud and happy to work there. Never going to happen at Sports Direct.”
- “It doesn’t have the prestige or class of a big-name store such as Selfridges”
- “I cannot see sportswear as fashionable or chic”
- “It’s marketed as a budget brand and that’s what makes it successful”
Some people thought Sports Direct had a chance to overcome its reputation.
- “Sports Direct has a huge market and can be equal to Selfridges”
- “They sell lots of leading brands and are very popular”
Paul Twite, UK MD of Toluna, said, “Many of the comments by respondents within this survey focused on Mike Ashley rather than on the Sports Direct brand.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the public intrinsically link the owners (and/or CEOs) and their brands and they are synonymous with their employees and organisations.
“This makes it increasingly important for brands and their CEOs to constantly engage with their consumers to gauge sentiment and feedback.
“This will strengthen their standing with consumers and positive coverage within the media.”
Despite a large number of respondents citing Ashley’s public image as a key reason it could never be compared to the world-famous department store, only 24 per cent said the brand’s reputation affected how much they’d shop there.
- “I am only interested in the product and not the owner”
- “I concentrate on buying products”
- “If I want to shop there it will make no difference to who owns it”
- “Media can make things sound worse than they are”
Aside from its reputation for questionable corporate governance and PR mishaps, the retailer is also famous for buying up stakes in rival businesses. Lesser known to the public, these vehicles could yet make Ashley’s dream a reality.
Luxury fashion retailer Flannels, which sells brands largely in line with Selfridges, is owned by Sports Direct.
Despite this, just eight per cent of respondents stated they knew Flannels was associated with the sportswear giant, giving Ashley an avenue to operate in the luxury sector without the poor PR shadow blighting its every move.
However, only eight per cent said they had ever shopped at Flannels, so it seems it has some catching up to do to rival Selfridges.