This week I was going to wrap up my “Project Management for Hillwalkers” series by covering the benefits of learning the lessons from the past and applying them to future walking. But as I thought back over the last 6 years or so, looking for material, I couldn’t ignore the sad business story playing out at the moment. To a great extent the fortunes of Blacks mirror my own story over the last few years, and I’d say my relationship with the company helps explain a lot of the trouble it finds itself in.
So let’s get the economics bit over with first, which I’ll try to keep as light as possible…
In October, Blacks reported a first half trading loss of £16million, in November they announced that they were worried about their trading over Christmas, and early this month they confirmed that they were up for sale, and that shareholders weren’t going to get much out of any deal, which isn’t great for them considering the 95% drop in share price this year. Cue Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct and Field and Trek, and Blacks’ largest shareholder, stepping in and looking at buying the rest. But it seems he learnt his lesson from his first attempt last year, when Black’s key suppliers refused to countenance such a deal, and has this week backed out, leaving Cotswold, Mountain Warehouse and maybe some others still circling the company.
I’m glad Ashley won’t be buying it. From a practical perspective, my local Blacks is right next door to, you guessed it, Sports Direct, and I for one don’t want another “pile it high, sell it cheap” outdoor shop locally – I’ve got enough already. If I want cheap(ish) stuff I can get it from Sports Direct or walk 5 minutes up the road to Decathlon. I need somewhere that sells decent quality stuff, and for that reason I hope that out of the contenders Cotswold win out and take it over.
But I’m also worried that my local store will actually close completely, whatever the outcome. You see it’s an out-of-town store on a retail park, and it’s never busy. I’m concerned it’s uneconomic whoever owns it and that it doesn’t have a long-term future as a result. Certainly there’s no chance of me getting a nice independent gear store out of all this.
But when I think about it, I’m the reason that Blacks are in such a hole. I want it to be there, but I don’t spend much money there anymore. It wasn’t always like that – when I started out in 2005, I pretty much kitted myself out from Blacks, and I’m sure I’ve spent thousands in total with them. So why have we fallen out of love with each other, yet still can’t bear to break up completely ?
Well firstly Blacks’s product range is wrong. A big chunk of the store now is devoted to surf wear, and I’ve never seen a single surf dude in there, and I imagine they wouldn’t be seen dead in somewhere like that. It’s the same with ski wear, made worse by the fact that if I walk up the road to Decathlon, there are hordes of families kitting themselves out for their ski holidays with reasonably priced stuff. They’ve dumbed down a lot of the more technical kit that they used to sell, and have tried to focus on the family camping market, which makes sense although again that’s not flying off the shelves either. I go family camping at least once a year, and think I’ve only ever seen 1 Blacks tent on a campsite.
Even the proper walking gear isn’t right. Blacks focuses on Berghaus and The North Face (who seem to really dislike Ashley and scuppered the previous deals), but it’s all vanity gear really. It’s all expensive for what it is, and is never sufficiently reduced in the sales. For example, Blacks sells the Berghaus Tech Tee for about £30, yet next door in Sports Direct, I can pick up a cycling base layer, which is essentially the same, for under a tenner, or walk up the road and get something similar at Decathlon for the same amount. Of course when I started kitting myself out, I knew no different and happily spent the £30, several times over. But now I’m a much more savvy shopper.
Which brings me to the second reason. The internet. I can sit, like a man in a CCTV control room, at my laptop at home and survey the offerings from all the major gear shops and manufacturers without leaving my seat. Blacks never comes out as the best value place to buy something. But what it does offer is somewhere to see gear in the flesh (or should that be polyester ?), try it on, and then go home and order it on the internet. And with the surge in popularity of outdoor-related gear in the last decade, there’s a lot of choice out there, all completing on price, and it’s clear that I’m not the only one that uses Blacks for research only. It’s now got to the stage where I’ll happily stroll down to Blacks to research, not specific pieces of kit, but kit generally and purely to be able to visualise what I subsequently buy online. All I now tend to buy in physical gear shops like Blacks are consumables (as the postage when buying online is ridiculous compared to cost of the items) and footwear. Nowadays I buy stuff on eBay, Amazon or via the websites of favoured independents like Gaynors and The Climbers Shop.
The other thing I use Blacks for is gear fixes. By which I don’t mean repairs – no I mean somewhere I can go and immerse myself for a few minutes in the outdoor world during at lunchtime during a hard day at work. In the old days, this often led to impulse purchases, but sadly for them now it doesn’t. Indeed, I even seem to be losing enthusiasm for browsing around the shop – as I know there’s very little there I want. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I guess I’ve moved on. Blacks really is the place for beginners to kit themselves out (especially since after their troubles in 2009, they closed most of the duplicate Millets stores), and I do still see people in there being kitted out for the first time. It’s ideal for that. Having gained outdoor experience and knowing what my gear needs are, I don’t confine myself to the normal outdoor shops too – I’ve bought kit from B&Q, the government’s online army surplus website and cycle shops. I also have Decathlon to thank for helping me to look cross-sport and now I look for gear not just in the hiking section, but in the cycling, equestrian, fishing, running and ski departments too.
It’ll be sad to see Blacks go, which is what I think is going to happen, but if it does I fervently hope that my local outlet morphs into a Cotswold rather than disappears altogether. Cotswold always seems like a more exciting shop to be in than Blacks ever was, it has a wider range of the premium brands, and their footwear department is vastly superior. But I’ll still be trying to be a savvy shopper, so I’m not going to single-handedly keep them in business either.