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Night of the long knives on London Road

Sad that TJ Hughes is going? But when did you last shop there?

Written by . Published on June 29th 2011.

Night of the long knives on London Road

SADNESS and recrimination across the radio phone-ins this week as  TJ Hughes becomes the latest retail institution to go under on the high street.

HMV, Jane Norman, Thorntons, Habitat closer to home Homeform Group in Manchester; over the last five days all have announced they're brining in the administrators or closing stores. The weakest links had better watch it, but will we end up with the high street we deserve?

TJ Hughes couldn't be more of a Liverpool
bird if she ran into the nearest boozer carrying
a plate of Scouse and calling everyone Queen

The revelation that TJ Hughes is braced to call in administrators throws the future of its 57 nationwide stores into doubt, with more than 4,000 jobs at risk undoubtedly promting more hand-wringing and prophesising of doom. It's the end of a troubled six months for the firm and perhaps the writing has been on the wall.

TJs in 1951 by Stewart BaleTJs in 1951 by Stewart BaleTJ Hughes made a loss of £10 million in 2010. It almost vanished in January but was saved by a turnaround specialist called Endless. It's claimed it  invested a sizeable chunk into the business but perhaps it finally took one last long look, took a sharp intake of breath and decided enough was enough.

For those motivated by nostalgia, TJ Hughes truly is a grand dame of the Liverpool high street. She (why is she a she, like a ship?) must have heralded a brave new world in 1912 when she opened, the same year as the Titanic set sail.

Excellent service, a whole range of products under one roof from homeware to the latest (kind of) fashions, fragrance and cosmetics. The first store, on Liverpool's Lonodn Road, was family run and was the blueprint for the country's first department stores. A partnership with Owen Owens followed, which linked the store with Lewis's. TJ Hughes couldn't be more of a Liverpool bird if she ran into the nearest boozer carrying a plate of Scouse and calling everyone Queen.

In the early 2000s, it seemed perhaps this old high street staple would embrace the new online world with gusto and become a rare success story. Footfall fell but brand awareness was the new catchword. In 2005 ebay proclaimed it the first UK store to sell its main products through the auction site. A new advertising campaign was funny and helped push its e-commerce site. Featuring relatives of celebrities including Wayne Rooney's brother and Robbie Williams' dad, it showed TJ Hughes 'got' where they where on the high street pecking order. Cheap, cheerful and a bloody good deal.

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Alarm bells should have started ringing when Woolworths disappeared. They grabbed a few of their empty lots but on paper it revealed a worrying trend. The theory goes like this: Online changes how we shop. We want everything in one place. We want it fashionable. We want it quick. We want it cheap. If that's the online mentality then surely recreating that setup on the high street is the key to success? If it didn't work for Woolies then maybe that's when the writing was on the wall for TJ Hughes.

I walked past the London Road store on Thursday on my way from the Royal into the city centre. Huge "20 percent off" posters adorned each window. Trendy-esque looking furniture you can buy in a dozen other stores filled the displays. To the left dresses wrapped in Sellophane blew in the breeze from the market stalls.

The square was busier than I had seen it for a while, but the shoppers had a good 40 years on their counterparts in Liverpool One.

Two years ago as Zavvi, Whittards, Homebase and MFI vanished in one fell swoop we shook our heads but we looked to the future, shrugged our shoulders and thought, “If this is what needs to be done to get through this recession then so be it”. Except the only ones who seem to be getting a good deal out the continued woe are the administrators. Feeling an upturn yet?

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At TJ Hughes, the website has already been taken down and replaced by a holding page, mimicking the uncertainty staff must be feeling this morning as they put on a brave face for customers. As we speak, broadcast vans and local journalists have already headed to London Road to commiserate with shoppers. “Isn't it sad the name might go?” “How long have you shopped here?”

And I'll bet you a cheap memory foam mattress there will be more people outside the store today and tomorrow than there have been over the last seven months.

Why do we only care about something when it's on its way out?

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7 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Prof ChucklebuttyJune 29th 2011.

It will be very sad indeed if TJs goes under. It is an institution in this city, something I have known since a toddler, a place where generations of my family have shopped. I am pleased to say that I have continued to shop there. It is a way of going into town without going into town. I have bought clothes, kids toys. electrical goods, three piece suite, bedding, crockery and many many household items from TJs. I even got my wedding suit there. The new Museum of Liverpool Life is after it, if they ever open.

Although Liverpool One is impressive in it's scale, I don't like going there. The ill thought out pedetrianisation of almost the entire city centre has in my view been detrimental to some shops and does not help those with mobility problems who now have to walk forever to get from one place to another. At least with TJs you can still jump a bus to outside. But the messing about with traffic on London road helped kill part of it off and it's never recovered. The new arrival of B&M should have helped boost traffic but it could also have posed a serious rival in that district. Seems too late now. It is also a magnificent building. I sincerely hope there can be a last minute salvage and my heart goes out to the staff, who are always friendly and helpful.

I think one of the problems over recent years has been overstocking the shop floor and a reduction in pay desks which has meant queues and people getting fed up of waiting. But every time I have been there it is crowded with shoppers, admittedly they are in the older age group, but that is a good thing, because there seem to be lots of them wanting to go there as their first choice.

TJs is a part of Liverpool life and it will be a sad for all concerned if it's lost. And so soon after Lewis's, although that seemed to be a deliberate and unecessary loss benefitting the development proposals for yet more sodding hotels. Good luck to them all.

RayJune 29th 2011.

If nothing ever changed, there wouldn't be any butterflies. However, local institutions like T.J's and Lewis's are burned into our collective scouse memories. We seem to live in an age where we are moving at light speed, so much change, so much loss. I love it and hate it, love it for my kids, but I'm not enjoying it at all.

Ethel AustinJune 29th 2011.

As ever you are right professor, particularly your comments about Lewis's. One person very high up in the City BID team recently was overheard saying the whole of that area should be flattened. It was over. Imagine!

David AttenboroughJune 29th 2011.

My, that Rooney genepool

Sherlock HorribleJune 30th 2011.

I think there's something rotten in the state of TJ Hughes. In April this year it was reported that "retail entrepreneurs" Anthony Soloman and David Luper "bought" into the business with Endless. They were rumoured to be injecting £20m of their own money, a point put across no doubt to numerous suppliers when they were duped into sending their stock in with little or no credit insurance. I wonder whether this £20m ever materialised, or did these 2 escape with their purses intact when they resigned their directorships last Friday (rats and sinking ships spring to mind). BOth are reported to have gone to ground, although I did hear that Mr Soloman was sunning himself on a beach in Spain.

What is curious, is that all the action or lack of action that these 2 "retail entrepreneurs" took while at the helm of the company appears to have had an adverse effect on the sales, driving them into further decline. An unkind person might say this was a deliberate attempt to force the company into administration. Why would anyone want to do this you may ask? Well perhaps Mr Luper and Mr Soloman may yet reappear to buy a trimmer version of the company at a knockdown price, once it has disposed of stores and staff it no longer needs without paying them their due, and without having to pay for all that stock they duped unwitting suppliers into supplying. Many of these suppliers could well be driven into administration as a result.

Not very original though, as didn’t Elaine Macpherson do exactly the same to the staff and suppliers of Ethel Austin’s not so long ago…

Ethel AustinJune 30th 2011.

Yes, Sherlock, and it will be a familiar story to anyone who took an interest at what went on at Lewis's

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