Dave Nemeth
Dave Nemeth

Edgardale finally shuts up shop

by Dave Nemeth. The final closure of Edgardale signifies the loss of the great retail minds which once dominated the retail landscape in South Africa.

by Dave Nemeth. Over the past few days my Facebook feed has been filled with people posting images of Edgardale and the final closure of this magnificent retail head office. The word Edcon immediately conjures up images of a brand that just didn’t move with the times, lost its relevancy, and ultimately ended up selling off portions of its business; and then, finally, having to close its doors. This isn’t the first time a mighty retailer has fallen. The well renowned Stuttafords closed its doors in 2017 after 159 years of trading.

The saddest part about the demise of Edcon is that, in its original format, it was once the most innovative retailer this country had ever seen. Go back 15 – 20 years when Steve Ross took over the reins and the picture was vastly different as at that time the group was unstoppable and loved by millions. The worst part of the current scenario is that the way in which it operated back then is just as relevant right now and should be adopted by the retail fraternity today. Having worked for the group from 2004 to 2009, I thought I would like to highlight some of the positive approaches this brand took in order to see substantial year on year growth and expansion.

Ross and his senior management team would regularly be seen in-store speaking to store staff as well as customers and inspecting the way the stores looked. It was common knowledge that he would reprimand staff for things as menial as a light bulb that was blown. As crazy as this sounds, he expected stores to be perfect, and a blown lightbulb in his eyes showed a lack of care and commitment. He continually had his ear to the ground and understood exactly what was happening in his brick and mortar stores and had a fine understanding of the store staff and their daily challenges. This practice was ploughed through the head office staff at all levels and every buyer, planner and trend analyst was expected to leave the corporate building and spend time in the physical stores. One of the biggest issues current retailers face is the complete disconnection between head office and the brick and mortar stores. I would love to know just how much time current retail CEO’s and their executive team spend in their stores speaking to staff and customers.

This kind of hands-on approach continued through other areas of the business whereby Ross and Jon Spotts, the then chief executive of the store’s division, were present at every single product review for every single department. It didn’t matter whether it was ladies’ shoes or furniture for the Boardmans brand – they wanted to have an intimate understanding of every single department and oversee what was being bought for the season ahead; and more importantly, why the buyers and planners were choosing these items. Be it colour, price or shape, nothing went unnoticed as every single product was scrutinised.

Marketing followed a similar format with every advertisement having to be passed by the executive board, including Ross and Spotts. Although social media was not a big thing back then, however, if it had been, I am sure that the same process would have applied. There were severe repercussions for marketing and advertising campaigns, which on the rare occasion, went out without first being signed off by executives in all sections of the business and not only those involved in marketing. The business later invested in a very complex computer system which enabled the process to be streamlined and ensured that a broader spectrum of people involved with the brand could see what was going out, and sign it off or make comments, no matter how small the promotion or campaign was. The recent Clicks debacle highlighted the need for this kind of system – why is it not happening?

Innovation strategies

I don’t believe that today’s senior retail executives come close to being as hands-on as Ross and Spotts were. You cannot come up with great innovative strategies if you don’t have a full understanding of the entire business all the way from logistics and warehousing through to store level. The Edcon brand at this stage was continually innovating and the leadership was not concerned about the risk of things failing, but rather of maintaining a culture of being at the forefront of trying new ways of doing things. The Edcon brand understood youth culture and associated itself with music concerts and bringing international artists into the country. This initiative lasted for many years and gained the brand a loyal following who associated their clothing with the pop culture of the time.

Edgars was one of the first local retail companies to support local designers and put in a major effort to stock limited edition lines which were all designed and produced by local designers. Pricing and logistics created several stumbling blocks, but the initiative died a death when the new leadership took over from Ross. Other innovative initiatives failed dismally such as when Edgars decided to “own” denim and increased their range to include almost every famous brand of denim such as True Religion, Lucky Brand and even others such as One Green Elephant. This initiative ended up being a costly exercise as most of the stock had to be drastically marked down in order to clear it. However, the point here is that the brand understood the importance of innovation and, although everything was researched, they were not afraid to fail. This was a trait which kept them at the forefront of retail during those years.

The staff who worked at Edcon at that time learnt the true art of retailing and those who left after the Ross/Spotts era, ended up in top positions both locally and internationally. Unfortunately, it would appear that in South Africa those days of great retail minds no longer exist, as current retailing seems to be on a downward spiral consisting of boring stores, poor service, bad product assortment, a complete disconnect with consumers, and shocking marketing and advertising. The final closure of Edgardale signified not only the demise of Edcon, but also the great retail minds who once walked those corridors and dominated the retail landscape in South Africa.


Retailing Africa’s retail analyst and columnist, Dave Nemeth is trend forecaster and business consultant at Trend Forward, and a design thinker, innovator, business re-designer, trend analyst, keynote speaker and writer.



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