21/11/2012

Fading retail giant "Comet" begins store closures; 2,000 jobs threatened

Domestic appliance distribution giant Comet has been a High Street staple since the late 60's; but now the over 200 shops they boast across the United Kingdom look set to close.

The company stands on the verge of bankruptcy, the name destined to fade from the High Street like the shooting star the brand name infers. Nothing but a flash across the technological night sky, disappearing almost as soon as it arrived. Shining bright, then alas, no more.

Enough of the poetic claptrap. The Comet story epitomises the pitfalls that can bring companies down when farming off UK brands into Europe.

A Comet's Tale


[caption id="attachment_3273" align="alignright" width="646"]The Comet Building Hull The Comet building, George St., Hull
(credit: Wikipedia)[/caption]

In 1933, between the two world wars, George Hollinbery and one other employee opened up the Comet Battery store. It was a simple enough business recharging wireless batteries for the people of Hull (because that's where the shop was).

For younger readers who perhaps need a little help with the term wireless, it's what they used to call transistor radios. No, not Transformers, transistors.

Okay, ghetto blasters, then? Y'know, the big beat-boxes Jamaicans used to carry on their shoulders (us white guys weren't strong enough)?

Okay, rewind. They were the wartime equivalent to the iPod, but with only Terry Wogan to listen to and a bit of ragtime jazz - no Internet or iTunes, capice? Good. I'll continue.

From the recharging side of the blossoming Comet business, Hollinbery progressed to renting out radio sets.

This natural evolvement happened the year the second world war broke out and. By the time Hitler's plans had been thwarted and the subsequent baby-boomer generation was settling to watch Hendrix storm Woodstock, 'Comet' as we know it today, a purveyor of white goods and everything new in technology, opened its first superstore, still in Hull.

Yeah, yeah, because that's where the customers were. We hear you.

The Comet brand enjoyed High Street success for more than three decades


In 1970, the brand of Comet went public and it continued to open stores and remain profitable right up until the new millennium. But the brand's fortunes began to change in 2003 when Kingfisher, who'd bought the chain in '84 for £129m, created Kesa Electricals.

Comet found itself pitted alongside a group of similar European distributors, with the Kesa brand established in France, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Holland, all individual entities within this new conglomerate. And it didn't fare all that well.

Kesa eventually offloaded Comet for a token £2 (yes, as in, "two pounds," or "three American dollars and nineteen cents") in 2011 to OpCapita, who in turn appointed former Dixons boss, John Clare, as chairman to oversee the brand's 240 UK stores and its 6,500 employees.  No ulterior motive there, then.

The first sign Comet was in trouble came in April this year (2012) when 450 jobs were cut in the first wielding of the redundancy axe. But that's a drop in the ocean compared to the 2,000 jobs scheduled to go during the downsizing operation, 600+ from the dozen hubs across the country alone.

There are still hopes that fifty of the stores can be saved from the jaws of the winding up orders if the administrators, Deloitte, can find a buyer.

But with its future having looked so bleak for so long, in all honesty, the only Comet we're likely to be seeing come Christmas will be tethered next to Rudolph, pulling a fat bastard across the night sky.