Links of London: What went wrong?

The idea for Links of London was born in 1989 when Annoushka Ducas went to Harvey Nichols during a lunch break to pitch her cuff link designs. Within two decades her idea became a retail chain. But what exactly happened in the lead-up to its collapse this month?

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Links of London Folli Follie administration CVA John Ayton Annoushka Ducas
The first Links of London standalone store opened in Broadgate in 1992.

A BRIEF TIMELINE

1989: Jewellery designer Annoushka Ducas was asked to make fish-shaped cuff links as gifts for the chefs at her mother’s fish supply business. With 60 spares, Ducas went to luxury department store Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge during her lunch break to pitch her design. The department store agreed to stock them if she designed a full collection.

1990: Ducas and her corporate lawyer husband John Ayton launched Links of London, creating and selling affordable sterling silver pieces.

1992: The first Links of London standalone store opened in Broadgate.

2006: Links of London had 48 stores and turnover was £42 million. Ducas and Ayton sold Links of London for £50 million to Greek jewellery retailer Folli Follie.

2007: Ducas leaves Links of London. Former Gucci and Dunhill boss Andrew Marshall was appointed as Links of London’s chief executive.

2009: Ducas launches eponymous label Annoushka Jewellery.

2011: Marshall steps down from his role as Links of London chief executive and is replaced by David Riddiford, the former buying and merchandising director of Selfridges.

2013: Ducas is awarded the MBE for services to the jewellery industry.

2014: Links of London named the official jewellery sponsor of Wimbledon.

2015: Links of London reveals plans to launch its first dedicated watch store on London’s Regent Street.

Links of London Folli Follie administration CVA John Ayton Annoushka Ducas
Links of London collapsed into administration on October 9, risking 350 jobs.

2018: Annia Spiliopoulos is appointed as Links of London’s global chief executive, and is responsible for leading the retailer’s turnaround plan.

2019: Links of London’s revenue reaches £85 million.

On March 18, Links of London called in advisers from Deloitte to review its options as it edged towards collapse, risking 500 jobs at the time.

On May 30, Links of London appointed Dominic Jones as its new global creative director to bolster the brand.

On July 17, Links of London parent company Folli Follie was found to have overstated its 2017 revenue by more than €1 billion.

Folli Follie’s shares on the Athens Stock Exchange were suspended and founder Dimitris Koutsolioutsos resigned.

On August 23, Links of London was reportedly scrambling to find a new owner after Folli Follie asked potential suitors to finalise their bids.

Links of London shut down all US stores and 16 UK stores.

On September 5, Folli Follie confirmed the appointments of Deloitte and Savigny Partners to look at various sales options for Links of London.

On September 9, it was revealed that Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct was among the final bidders for Links of London. Links of London also reveals its turnaround plan, involving moving its headquarters back to London and 85 redundancies.

On October 9, Links of London collapsed into administration, placing 350 jobs at risk.

The retailer currently has 28 standalone stores and seven concessions across the UK and Ireland.

In its most recently filed accounts for the year to December 2017, Links of London recorded a sales decline of 12 per cent to £42.9 million and plunged to a £20.5 million pre-tax loss.


THE REASONS

Although Links of London had been implementing a new turnaround strategy since September 2018, tough market conditions have put more pressure on the company to open more stores, resulting in the retailer operating from too many unprofitable stores.

Nicky Stewart, a partner and specialist in retail at law firm Howard Kennedy, said Links of London lost market share due to its lack of offerings.

“It has not expanded its offering with a readily identifiable and recognisable branded range,” she told Retail Gazette.

“In a crowded market, Links of London is not clear who its target demographic is, and in challenging conditions where it is not competing on price, a retailer needs to be clear and get that message across on the right platforms.”

“In a crowded market, Links of London is not clear who its target demographic is”

Nottingham Business School retail research associate Nelson Blackley agreed, adding that Links of London should have looked to “develop closer links with contemporary retail fashion brands perhaps with concessions in their stores or online platforms”.

Simon Underwood, business recovery partner at accountancy firm Menzies LLP, said it was important to “keep a close eye on the cash position of the business in an extremely challenging trading environment to ensure accurate cash-flow forecasting is possible”.

“These are basic principles, which when combined with access to accurate, real-time management data, will enable the business to take preventative action to protect the business if profitability and/or turnover dips,” he explained.

It’s no secret that the jewellery retailer has had a strenuous year. Meanwhile, rival jewellers Pandora and Swarovski have endeavoured to stand out and create unique and original designs.

Blackley argued that customers felt Links of London has gone “too high street” and hasn’t given customers a “compelling” reason to visit stores or concessions.

“It should have moved away from stand-alone stores with their high occupancy business rates, rents and service charges – with the exception of one or two small ‘showcase’ stores in London, Birmingham, Manchester,” he told Retail Gazette.

Blackley added this reflects the way the market was changing.

“Links of London customers feel the retailer has gone too high street”

“As online purchases gain momentum, there has been an increase in the number of jewellery retailers focusing on online, with retailers such as Lark & Berry and Astley Clarke having just one physical store in the UK and instead relying on online sales,” he said.

Meanwhile, Naeem Arif, managing director of NA Consulting, said one of the reasons for Links of London’s downfall was its failure to take advantage of being labelled as the “Duchess of Cambridge’s favourite high street jeweller”.

“They have not been able to take advantage of this fantastic piece of publicity, or the fact that they had lucrative contracts with Harvey Nichols,” he said.

Moreover, Links of London’s quality has been questionable over the years. Arif said that during tough market conditions, “it is even more important to focus on your quality of product and customer service”.

“The quality of its jewellery has dropped in recent times and so it is not felt to have been value for money,” he said.

The retailer may also be struggling to receive financial support from investors or banks due to reports of financial irregularities from Folli Follie, its parent company based in Greece.

In July, Folli Follie was found to have overstated its 2017 revenue by more than €1 billion, according to an audit from PwC – an aberration that could result in Links of London’s credibility being questioned.

Links of London Folli Follie administration CVA John Ayton Annoushka Ducas
Greek jewellery retailer Folli Follie acquired Links of London in 2006 for £50 million

“A £17 million fine for overstating revenue was possibly the start of the end, as they were struggling with customers and now lost the confidence of potential investors who may have stepped in to help them out,” Arif explained.

Blackley said Folli Follie’s overstatement has “completely distracted senior group management, and understandably unnerved both existing and future investors”.

“Not to mention the impact on the corporate reputation of Folli Follie, the financial impact of a huge €20 million (£17.57 million) fine by Greece’s securities regulator earlier this year,” he added.

Although Links of London has been trading in the UK for three decades, it can be argued that its high-end proposition lacks the mass-market appeal of other jewellery retailers.

However, its international presence is a key strength, and this is likely to be leveraged by administrators in their attempt to secure a sale.

The most likely outcome is that the administrators will seek creditors’ agreement for a CVA plan, which will mean closing under-performing shops, resulting in some job losses. Links of London may still be able to continue trading in the UK, while changing its business model to appeal to a wider range of customers.

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