Martin Vander Weyer Martin Vander Weyer

Is Farrow & Ball’s business model flaking?

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The happiest thing that happens in May is the coming into leaf of my long beech hedge. The shift from brown to green symbolises, for me, an annual economic revival — of openings, reopenings and entrepreneurial optimism. This year, after April’s frosts on the end of a dismal winter, it was especially welcome. And as revival collides with new fears of ‘the Indian variant’, I’m clinging to optimism while watching for new-season winners and losers. In that spirit, I’ll make this column a collage of consumer themes.

First — though I’m not sure what this symbolises — a friend tells me he celebrated relative freedom by driving to Bicester Village to buy ten pairs of Y-fronts. Chacun à son goût: I’m reminded that I used occasionally to dive into the Debenhams menswear basement in Oxford Street in search of Calvin Kleins. But what a dull dog that store chain had become long before lockdown sealed the fate of its last 28 outlets, which closed for good a few days ago. A classic case of modernising too late in a fast–changing marketplace; no wonder not even Mike Ashley could think of a way to save it.

Then again, I preferred Debenhams’ echo of Are You Being Served? to that apotheosis of ‘experiential’ retail that is the Apple Store in Covent Garden. Designed for the committed Apple user in search of advice and upgrades, rather than passing trade, the place is more therapy clinic than conventional shop. At my booked appointment last week, I half expected Prince Harry to pop up and lecture me on self–actualisation. Instead I waited half an hour for a consultant to discuss my tech problems — and was told I could not buy a printer because there’s a global shortage. ‘Try John Lewis,’ another assistant whispered.

Surely she didn’t mean the outmoded home-furnishings emporium that’s scorned in Downing Street and fading almost as fast as Debenhams? But guess what I found: a survivor from an earlier era whose website is slick, its stock ample and its delivery service exemplary.

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