Thorntons closes UK high street stores: A reminder of the importance of purpose in retail

It’s hard to imagine that any high street retail business starts with the objective of one day competing with itself. So what went wrong?

The first quarter of 2021 is drawing to a close and it will be Easter in just a few days. For millions of people around the world it’s an important religious festival but unlike Christmas it has never really been the target of hyper-commercialisation.

In the UK, there is a tradition of giving children chocolate eggs. Not just children. And so it was that I read with a heavy heart that one of the most familiar names in the UK confectionery industry is closing its stores. 

Thorntons has been synonymous with Easter for generations. Millions of children went there with their parents to get a chocolate egg personalised with their name. I was one of those children. Alas, no more. When the rest of the UK comes out of lockdown, Thorntons’ stores will be staying locked up. 

Obstacles on the high street

The reasons given for the decision to close its stores were all too familiar. “The obstacles we have faced and will continue to face on the high street are too severe,” says a statement on the company’s website. “Despite our best efforts, we have taken the difficult decision to permanently close our retail store estate.”

What isn’t immediately clear is how this decision will affect the many franchise stores in its network, nor its sales through other retailers. A number of franchisees have already said they are going to keep their stores going.

Some analysts have pointed at Thorntons’ sales channels and suggested they may have contributed to some of those obstacles on high street. “Thorntons chased revenues over relevance – and ended up squandering both – unwittingly becoming a corporate case study in how to destroy brand equity,” writes Retail Week editor, Luke Tugby.

The Guardian newspaper carried a story in which one of Thorntons’ franchisees details the obstacles his business faced – from elsewhere within the Thorntons universe. Customers were coming back into his shop asking for a refund on items they had found on sale for less at one of the many supermarkets carrying the same product range.

“If you are going to be a mass channel brand that’s absolutely fine, but that doesn’t sit with a retail strategy,” Mark Rees told the Guardian. “Retail is difficult. It is not just about producing lots of the same product and sticking it on shelves.” 

If you build it they will come

One of the most memorable lines in movie history (ok, in the history of movies starring Kevin Costner) is “if you build it, they will come.” It’s a great line. But it’s truly terrible business advice.

Mark Rees, the Thorntons franchisee, is right to say that retail is about more than just putting products on shelves. Of course, having no products on the shelves is a fatal problem, but as appears to have been the case for Mr Rees, too much of the same thing on too many shelves isn’t great either. The idea that you can double sales simply by doubling the number of places selling your products might work for a time, but it will not scale indefinitely.

It’s hard to imagine that any retail business starts with the objective of one day competing with itself. So what went wrong?

As is so often the case, customers’ tastes changed – literally. In the UK, the appearance on the high street of upmarket chocolate sellers, like Hotel Chocolat, effectively stole Thorntons’ USP. It had made a name for itself by bringing a treat to a mass market. But high-end chocolate with fancy names, fancy packaging and a slightly higher price point, seized the treat crown from Thorntons’ head.

All of which sounds terribly bleak. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that anyone wanting to buy Thorntons’ confectionery will still be able to – this remains a healthy, vibrant business. It’s just had to trim back its sales channels.

But it serves as a timely reminder of the importance of knowing who you are and what you stand for. If you aren’t clear on that, it won’t be easy for customers to know why they should keep coming back to you. Understanding where sales are coming from, where margins are the most healthy, and how customer shopping habits are changing can help a retail business stay ahead of the many obstacles waiting to trip it up.


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