Sometimes events can feel both surprising and inevitable, all at once.
So it is with the news that Topshop has been purchased for £265m by the online fashion retailer Asos, while its former stablemates at Arcadia – Burton, Dorothy Perkins and Wallis – look likely to be acquired by another e-commerce giant, Boohoo.
Boohoo also recently bought the department store group, Debenhams, for £55m.
“The flurry of recent purchases means that more than three centuries of British retail heritage have been salvaged by companies with a combined age of 36 years,” the Financial Times wryly commented, before noting that Asos and Boohoo are now each valued at more than twice that of another high street institution, Marks and Spencer.
This is, of course, primarily a story about how traditional bricks and mortar retail has been supplanted by e-commerce, a process accelerated to a breakneck speed by the Covid lockdowns.
But as always the devil is in the detail.
Looking at the breakdown of employees at Asos is interesting. Of the 3,800 employed by the group just over 1,000 are employed in “fashion.” The rest? Operations and technology.
This is the often overlooked part of modern retail. The bits you cannot see are often the most important.
Sitting behind the product listings are sophisticated recommendation algorithms and highly targeted marketing campaigns overseen by in-house and agency specialists.
Take another step back and there are devilishly complex logistics and supply chains run by more teams of experts. At Asos those teams are responsible for ensuring over 1 million parcels are delivered every month.
Topshop will become part of Asos in name only – the shops will close and the range will just be sold online.
Explaining the decision to buy Topshop, Asos CEO Nick Beighton explains, “The brand was not distressed, the business was. We have liberated it from that business.”
It all feels a long way from when the co-founder of Asos had to sell his car to keep the business afloat.
“Every staff member is told that story,” says Beighton. “It’s a reminder of where we’ve come from and the dangers of hubris.”