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The Fall Of Topshop: 5 Brand Lessons Worth Bagging

4-minute read

From brand royalty to brand in crisis – we examine where it all went wrong for a high street legend…

Topshop clothes

Rewind to the mid-Noughties and Topshop was pretty untouchable. Near enough every teen or 20-something in Britain had a wardrobe heaving with their clothes. Collaborations with popstars and supermodels saw people camped outside stores, determined to bag a piece that had been sprinkled in stardust. And the brand had gained serious design cred, becoming the first high street label to show at London Fashion Week, as well as a regular on the pages of Vogue.

Fast forward to now and the jewel of the UK high street has lost its shine, big time. In November 2020 its parent company, Arcadia, went into administration after reporting staggering losses and the brand looked set to be consigned to the history books. Until, that is, ASOS stepped in. The online giant snapped up Topshop and three other Arcadia brands for the not-so-princely sum of £330million. But if we were in ASOS’ leopard-print plimsolls, we’d be taking a long, hard look at what went wrong for the brand that had it all. And this is what we’d learn…

1. Be digital first, second and third. Topshop wasn’t so much late to the digital party as it lost its invite and fell asleep on the sofa. By far and away the biggest change in consumer behaviour over the last 15 years is the move to online shopping. And, as if numbers weren’t rising fast enough, along came the COVID pandemic which closed shops and brought a whole new army of fashion fans blinking into the digital sunlight. But for some reason, Topshop didn’t invest in online retail channels the way it needed to, allowing internet-only platforms like Boohoo, PrettyLittleThing and Missguided to cruise past them on the cyber highway.

2. Never take your eyes off the competition. Topshop’s competitors came at them like a pack of Velociraptors – fast, formidable and hungry. They lured shoppers with their lightning-quick fashion and blink-and-the-doorbell’s-ringing delivery times.  For Gen Z, it was the stuff of dreams – high fashion at cheap prices, delivered fast enough to keep their Instagram feeds refreshed daily. In contrast, Topshop was busy stocking more than 500 shops – 300 in the UK alone – and simply lacked the dynamism of its online competition, both in terms of fashion and delivery. Why, asked the masses, would you schlep to your local high street for a limited selection of shoes when you can browse over 8,000 styles on ASOS, snap up a pair for a fiver, and get next-day delivery? You wouldn’t.

3. Know your audience and create products that excite them. In the fickle world of fashion, tastes can change fast. What happened with Topshop is its loyal devotees got older. Suddenly teenybopper crop tops were out the window and words like ‘wardrobe staples’ and ‘forever pieces’ started to get bandied about. For that, they turned to grown-up brands like Zara. Meanwhile, the new kids on the fashion block wanted clothes that were cheaper and cooler than Topshop could offer, so the brand found itself in a bit of a no-man’s land. It shows that sometimes a brand needs to be bold, rethink its target audience and breathe new life into its product range if it’s to stay on-trend.  

4. Social media is king. Social media is moving rollercoaster-fast and brands need to work hard to match its pace. Boohoo was one of the first companies to spot the impact influencers could have on sales, linking up with top Instagrammers of different shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, PrettyLittleThing has made great strides where TikTok’s concerned, clocking up 1.3 million followers on its official page – a stark contrast to Topshop’s count of just under 3,000. In 2019, the Boohoo Group, which owns Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing, saw its overall revenue skyrocket by nearly 50 per cent to more than £850 million. That’s not to say Topshop was short of an audience on social media – its Instagram feed has more than 10 million followers and its Facebook over four – but research suggests its content wasn’t always hitting the mark.

5. Don’t let your brand values slip. More and more people are choosing brands whose values and ethics align with their own. Sadly, this is dodgy territory for Topshop. The man at the helm of the Arcadia group, Philip Green, is no stranger to scandal. His reputation took a major knock following the BHS pension saga in 2015, which left thousands of people massively out of pocket. He also got bad press for his tax affairs and, more recently, has faced sexual harassment allegations, which Green denies. Big boss aside, Topshop has faced questions over its sketchy sustainability strategy – not ideal in an era where environmental issues are front and centre.

The Conclusion

ASOS has made no secret of the fact it’s planning to board up Topshop’s retail empire once and for all. The only exception could be the flagship store in London’s Oxford Street, and that decision appears to have a lot of ifs and buts attached to it. So Topshop will finally become a digital-first brand with the ASOS powerhouse behind it. Is it enough to turn it around? Only time will tell. But a good long look at its product range, its social media strategy and its brand values will certainly be high up on the new bosses’ to-do list if they’re to put the top back into Topshop.

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