Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Sports Direct and Selfridges: Does Mike Ashley have an inferiority complex?

You'd think the retailer's brash boss would tout his business as Britain's best retailer rather than keep comparing it to the posh department store 

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Thursday 20 July 2017 09:42 BST
Mike Ashley says he wants Sports Direct to be the Selfridges of Sports
Mike Ashley says he wants Sports Direct to be the Selfridges of Sports (PA)

In the wake of the courtroom revelations of bucket loads of booze and multi million pound bets at the top of Sports Direct, you’d think Mike Ashley would recognise the benefits of a period of quiet.

One of those dull as ditchwater trading statements issued by the FTSE 100’s boring squad would be just the ticket.

Tough ask with pre tax profits falling by nearly 60 per cent, but you blame currency movements, point to the continuing rise in your revenues, and say something like “we believe Sports Direct’s strategy is on track to deliver improved returns to shareholders over the next 12 months” before getting down to the nitty gritty of the chief executive’s review.

Mr Ashley, however, just can’t help himself.

If Channel Four ever decides that its comedy “Shameless” needs a reboot, the Midlands boardroom of a big sports retailer run by an Ashley lookalike would be just the ticket.

But here’s the thing that’s strange, and really rather sad, about that statement.

Despite the fact that everyone has long been aware of what Mr Ashley is all about, Sports Direct still used to give every impression of being a mightily impressive business.

This was, of course, before it was battered by the revelations of Dickensian working practices.

However, there is every possibility that, if its commitment to reform those is serious, it could be so again. After all, you don’t have to treat your people like the inmates of a latter-day work house to be a hugely successful retailer.

That being the case, and given Mr Ashley’s brashness, if you can't be quiet why not just be shameless? Why not just say we think Sports Direct is Britain’s best retailer, and we are on course to become Europe’s best retailer too.

Mr Ashley’s continual comparing of Sports Direct to Selfridges seems to be a reference to the shiny new premium outlets he’s opening. They offer better margins than the more common or garden Sports Direct stores.

Fair enough. He’s in the business of generating returns for shareholders, and if he thinks trying to take the businesss upmarket is the best way to do that, the he should go for it. But why invoke Selfridges in doing so?

It could actually be damaging.

Selfridges is expensive, and unashamed of that. Its customers are happy to pay its prices because, for some people, there's a cachet in shopping there that Sports Direct, and even Sports Direct Premium, will never have.

By contrast, Sports Direct’s business model has been based around out competing all of its rivals based on value. It’s the sports shopper’s friend.

Even those premium outlets can't escape the need to be competitive on price, becasue if you’re really desperate to over pay, why would you go there? Why not simply shop at Selfridges. It sells sports kit too. In trying to be Selfridges, Mr Ashley is risking his brand.

The comparison also suggests Ashley and his team are suffering from a deep seated inferiority complex. Despite all that brashness, and rather than be who they are and proud of it, they’re desperate to join the posh kids’ club so they can hang out with them.

As Sports Direct bosses look to a future beyond their recent travails, they might like to reflect on the fact that therein could lie their Achilles’ heel.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in