Bottom Line: Chain or errors

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The Independent Online
TURNING round Debenhams is beginning to look like a piece of cake compared with the task facing John Hoerner, chief executive of Burton Group, at Top Shop, Principles and its other multiple chains. And so far he been forced to learn from his mistakes.

At Top Shop the mistake was to focus on too narrow an age range, alienating the 20- to 29- year-olds who felt they were a little long in the tooth for outsize grunge dresses and midriff- hugging tops.

At Principles the mistake was to make the store revamps so elegant and the merchandise so narrow in focus that many customers assumed it was a different shop.

At Burtons the mistake was to become too fashionable, losing those customers who wanted a more formal look.

At Top Shop and Principles reversing these mistakes has got sales on a rising trend once again, although the record has been so patchy that it would be rash to extrapolate from 11 weeks' figures. At Burtons an acceleration in the decline and a warning about a further drop in margins suggests there is still some way to go to get the format right.

Whether it will ever get the chains right remains an even bet. A 22-times multiple, based on a mid-range forecast of pounds 49m, assumes the odds are far better than that.