Until early October, Andy Beaton was assistant manager at the Inverness branch of Nevisport. Then, as he reports, things fell apart...
IT HAS BEEN SAID of restaurant waiting staff that they are the cheapest to hire and the easiest to fire. Perhaps that should be extended to include staff in the outdoor retail industry in light of the shabby treatment handed out to workers at branches of Nevisport.
In an industry notorious for its poor pay and high staff turnover, Nevisport seemed until recently to be an exception to the rule, living up to - for the most part - the ideals of the Investors in People programme to which it subscribed. How things change! The messy takeover of the company by outside investors has seen supposedly valued staff - eight of us at the Inverness branch alone - sold and discarded with a ruthlessness that would do a Victorian mill owner proud.
As a Scottish mountain person of some 24 years experience, I was actually quite proud to work for Nevisport, in a sentimental sort of way. The company was founded in 1970 and its roots were firmly in the Highlands, with its branches and staff retaining some of the laid-back, outdoorsy ethos which tends to be absent from the larger, more faceless chains such as Blacks. Nevisport shops were/are run by outdoor folk, and I like to think that I always gave customers an honest opinion, whether good or bad, of the gear in which they were about to invest their hard-earned dosh. But the market for "kit"- as the outdoor lads' mag Trail insists on calling gear - has never been bigger, or more cut-throat. Add to this the undoubted clout increasingly being wielded by internet outlets, and perhaps it was inevitable that something had to give.
In late September, director Bruce Cameron - who acquired Nevisport a few years ago with fellow directors Rab Ferrell and Alistair Highet - announced to managers that the company had been taken over by an unnamed buyer. Branches started what was clearly a closing-down sale from that date.
Had we seen it coming? Well, perhaps. For several months it had been apparent to us that companies supplying gear to Nevisport were not being paid on time; you would phone a supplier to order an item for a customer and be met with a slightly embarrassed reference to the Nevisport account being on hold.
What we didn't see coming was what happened on Friday 5 October. In the middle of a normal working day, staff from Sports Direct - our rumoured new owner - turned up at the shop out of the blue. Bruce Cameron told us by phone to hand them our shop keys and go home. End of story. The same thing happened at the Glasgow store, while Altrincham, Newcastle and Leeds also closed. We got the chance to gather personal effects from the staff room and that was it - no pay for the past month, no redundancy pay, no pay for holidays not yet taken, no notice. Can you imagine that happening to a postal or railway worker? We felt like criminals.
In the longer term, we will receive our month's wages and our redundancy payment where applicable - I've been informed by the receivers that it will probably take three months - what a relief. No honest employee deserves to lose his or her job in such a callous, hamfisted manner, and it would be nice to think that at least one of the directors involved might have the decency to publicly state their case, because to date their silence on the issue has been deafening. (Incidentally, the former owners, Ian Sykes and Iain Sutherland, are thoroughly decent blokes and have had no part in the recent butchery of what was a well-regarded company.)
The bottom line to all this? Well, there are no prizes for guessing that the days of smaller chains or independent outdoor stores are well and truly numbered, and the buzz in the industry surrounds the likelihood of brands - The North Face is just one example - establishing their own dedicated outlets. At least then you could try on that new £200 jacket before going home and buying it online for £150. Is outdoor gear overpriced? Quite possibly, but then what does Tesco pay for the loaf of bread that costs you £1?
Most TAC readers will have tales to relate of experiences good and bad in outdoor stores. I'm not here to defend the bad, but spare a thought for the retail staff who really do try to make sure that you leave the shop with the right piece of gear. Best of all are the ones who would rather see you leave empty-handed than sell you something you don't need or which doesn't fit. Heaven help you all when outdoor retail businesses start paying staff on a commission basis.
Ed. - Of the 12 branches, at least half have been taken over by the leisure-clothing retailer Trespass (part of Glasgow-based Jacob and Turner Ltd), following the involvement of liquidators KPMG. It seems that at least one of these stores - Fort William - is likely to retain the Nevisport name for geographical reasons if nothing else. One branch - Hathersage - had already been sold in a completely different transaction several weeks earlier. It's unclear if the"billionaire sportswear entrepreneur" Mike Ashley still has a role in all this. Ashley owns Sports Direct and Newcastle United FC, and he appears to have been the "unnamed buyer" who took over Nevisport in September. Certainly his name was high in the mix in early news reports of Nevisport's demise, and as mentioned above it was Sports Direct employees who took possession of the Inverness branch. Ashley also owns Field and Trek and has a significant interest in both Blacks and Millets. It's also worth noting that it was Ashley who took over Karrimor in 2003 and, while the Karrimor brand still exists, it is now widely seen as being very different from the respected Accrington-based makers of high-quality rucksacks, panniers etc. Hopefully that kind of downmarketisation won't happen with Nevisport - and Ashley does appear to have quickly sold it on.
The recent turmoil is a far cry from the old days, eg the evening in 1994 when the Glasgow branch of Nevisport couldn't have been more hospitable in hosting the launch party for Walking the Watershed. Nevisport has also been a consistent stockist of TAC since the very beginning. For now, though, attempt to access http://www.nevisport.com/ and you get this: "Nevisport.com is currently undergoing essential maintenance. Please check back again soon..."
Perkin Warbeck adds (31 Oct): I wandered into the Sauchiehall St branch, mainly attracted by the SALE posters. There wasn't much to excite one about the sale, probably because stock had got low. The chap behind the counter was more than happy to discourse on the whole process. He was very upbeat. At the moment they were having to sell Trespass because other stock was so low, but ultimately Trespass would be only 20%. They would get back to selling books and would flesh out the climbing section. Staffing levels were low but were about to expand again. Overall he seemed happy to be in the new arrangement. Existing Nevisport staff would decide on the stock rather than it being any kind of Trespass imposition.
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