Cutting Room: Confusion around EE store closures

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As EE announces of the closure of 78 of its retail stores by April, Chris Donkin looks at how ‘tackling duplication’ may effect staff and the brand’s reputation

With the paint barely dry on EE’s 700-store refurbishment, the operator has announced 78 of the them are to follow the worrying high street trend of becoming empty shop sites.

Even though it’s only January this has to be a contender for our list of least shocking news stories of the year, as anyone walking through a busy city centre since the mass refit would testify.

Hull, for example, currently boasts five EE-branded stores within a 350-metre radius – most of these are empty at any given time of the day and it can’t do much for the brand image having potential customers seeing shops with staff stood twiddling their thumbs.

Even the Communications Workers Union – which is usually first to jump on these sorts of stories – wasn’t surprised by the news. Yet, just four months ago, EE’s chief of sales Marc Allera told Mobile News the operator had no plans to cut store numbers and said he was “happy” with the size of its retail estate.

Something has clearly gone wrong with the original plan, or why spend vast amounts of money refitting stores that would then be closed within six months? To get the brand noticed? It seems like either a huge waste of money or a swift backtrack.

Did they overestimate high street demand or just rebrand without fully thinking through the high street EE saturation they were creating?

EE’s bill for money wasted on refurbishment must be getting quite large now when you add on the impressive Everything Everywhere dual-branded stores which were opened and then rebranded within two years.

Of course “tackling duplication”, as EE puts it, makes commercial sense – saving money on rent and other bills retail establishments incur – but would it not have made more sense to close the stores at the same time as the rebrand?

Closing down stores still bearing the EE logos won’t do much for brand image, so the operator has to make sure it gets all traces of its signage out of the closing stores as soon as the bolt goes across the door for the final time.

Thankfully the front-line staff in the closing outlets will keep their jobs, if EE is to be believed, although it will be interesting to see how this is managed.

Several of the smaller stores already appear over-staffed and, based on our Mystery Shopper visits, many seem ready to pounce a second after entering. How an extra four assistants from another store will fit in remains to be seen.

But speaking to staff immediately after the news broke, many seemed far from convinced their jobs are safe – and with good reason. EE is anything but a secure place to work, be it on the shop floor or back office, given the number of redundancies since the JV began.

Assuming the stores have an average of four full-time staff each, then around 312 people are being affected in some capacity – either having to move location or going through some form of consultation.

I fear – as do many of the  staff we spoke to – the message that they (if affected) will move to others stores is nothing more than a temporary PR smokescreen. It simply doesn’t make sense.

Stores work on a matrix based on the average number of customers walking through their doors each day.

Will closing one store double the custom in another? Unlikely.Will a store warrant having twice the number of staff than usual? Not a chance.

One manager currently working in an EE store (formerly Orange) just two doors from another EE store (formerly T-Mobile) told me the uncertainty is already giving him sleepless nights. He claims staff morale has taken a dip too, claiming many are now actively seeking employment elsewhere before a final decision is even made.

And it’s perhaps this attitude which will actually help shield EE from potentially negative press in the future.

There will no doubt be a recruitment freeze on all affected stores, meaning no new starters.

Retail has a notoriously high rate of staff turnover anyway, so between now and April when the final store is closed a good percentage may already have gone anyway.

Let’s hope these changes will be the last – for the sake of everyone involved with the firm.

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