C&A, a sad tale of the high-street store that went from Coats and 'Ats to Closure and Acrimony

Staff at C&A must have known bad news was on the way yesterday when a special meeting was called for 9am which would result in the stores not opening until 11am.

Staff at C&A must have known bad news was on the way yesterday when a special meeting was called for 9am which would result in the stores not opening until 11am.

Given the company's poor performance in recent years, workers were probably expecting some store closures and a reduction in the workforce. But they could scarcely have imagined that the company's announcement would be so brutal, with all 109 C&A stores closing in Britain with the loss of up to 4,800 jobs.

Experts say C&A has been suffering a long slow decline. Six years ago it controlled 4.4 per cent of the British clothing market; now its share is 1.9 per cent, though it still ranks fourth behind Marks & Spencer, Arcadia (which includes Burton, Top Shop, Wallis and Dorothy Perkins) and Next. The company has lost £250m in Britain in the past five years.

What went wrong? C&A - or Coats and 'Ats as it was sometimes known - had a reputation built on a simple philosophy: decent, quality, mass-market clothing at cheap prices.

It developed valuable niches.But its main audience remained budget-conscious shoppers who found M&S a little too expensive.

But over the past 10 years the clothing market has changed. Supermarkets have moved increasingly into clothing, with Tesco and Asda proving particularly aggressive.

And a new wave of discounters has grown up including New Look, Matalan, Peacocks and Primark. These stores have wooed shoppers with more fashionable merchandise than C&A sells and at cheaper prices.

Jackie Highe, editor of Bella magazine, which regularly featured C&A clothes on its pages, said that in the past decade the company had drifted towards stocking "safe clothes".

"C&A used to be famous for knocking off catwalk designs and selling them at very low prices," she said. "Everyone used to go there in the 1960s, but they had lost their way since then and gone more mainstream."

Sally Bain of Verdict, a retail research group, said that despite spending millions on advertising campaigns, C&A could not shake off its downmarket image.

The phrase "Man at C&A", for example, became a classic put-down for the sartorially challenged.

The company has been trying to change its ways and cut costs. Two years ago it closed half a dozen stores and announced 160 job losses as part of restructuring. Only last week it said it was closing its new store in the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent due to poor trading and high costs.

"They have realised that you can't compete with the discounters at a prime high-street space," said Clive Vaughan of Retail Intelligence.

For C&A staff the sudden evaporation of their jobs is all the more shocking because the privately owned, family-run C&A has always been seen as a safe employer.

C&A was founded as a trading company in 1841 - 43 years before Marks & Spencer - by two Dutch brothers, Clemens and August Brenninkmeyer. Using the initials of their first names, they opened their first C&A store, in Sneek, in the Netherlands, in 1861. The family expanded in to Britain with a London outlet in 1922. As the company grew, so did the wealth of the Brenninkmeyers. It is now estimated at around £4.5bn.

A staunchly Catholic family, the Brenninkmeyers have cultivated a secretive culture in the business which has remained in this place to this day. As a private company it does not file traditional accounts and as an unlimited company the family is ultimately liable for the company's entire debts.

The family has been notoriously tough on its children. A Dutch journalist once overheard a family member remark that "openness is sign of weakness".

The Brenninkmeyers are said to grade themselves by numbers which denote each individual's place in the hierarchy. It has been said senior employees sign an oath of secrecy and communicate with head office through a code word. The code, the name of a street in the Netherlands, is no longer used, however.

The family is seen as conservative and not flashy. But it is no stranger to controversy. During the Second World War it clothed the Luftwaffe chief, Hermann Goering, and supported the Nazis. Five years ago a family member, Andrew Brenninkmeyer, was suspended from his duties as a Benedictine monk after complaints of sexual abuse. This year, Oliver Brenninkmeyer, 43, who was not involved in the family business, committed suicide by throwing himself off a top- floor balcony in the Canary Wharf office complex in London's Docklands. An inquest is due shortly.

The Brenninkmeyers will now concentrate on developing C&A in its other main European markets such as Germany, France and Spain and in areas like the Czech Republic and Mexico.

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