Why did Thomas Dux really fail?

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 10th February 2016

There is a whole lot of discussion around the progressive closure of Thomas Dux stores by owner Woolworths, and the assumption that it will be closed down if a trade sale does not evolve.


Maybe there is a plan to save it, but I cannot see it, and having bought some rubbish grapes at an inflated price in the Lane Cove store during the week, I do not know what it might be.


Not a lot of the discussion actually addresses the strategic failure that is the foundation of the commercial failure, just its superficial symptoms.


Strategic failure seems to have found its way into Woolies DNA over the past 15 years or so. They became so financially dominant in supermarkets that they forgot that they still have consumers to keep loyal, suppliers to keep in business, and competitors very keen to eat their lunch. They have done OK in petrol, well in liquor, absolutely bombed in hardware, poorly in general merchandise, and missed office supplies, electrical and furnishings completely, and are fiddling around with odd things like pet health insurance. Not a lot of logic in that mix.


I have watched Dux closely since the launch, had a number of clients products listed, and visited all the Sydney stores multiple times since the first Lane Cove store opened. Until a short while ago, I really thought they would defy the corporate odds, and make it work.

The apparent failure is a sad day for the specialty end of the Australian food manufacturing industry, what is left of it, one less way to reach consumers.


So, with the clarity of (almost) hindsight, where did they go wrong?


Confused business model


Whilst Dux had separate management, they operated out of the Woolworths warehouse, using the WW back office systems and presumably KPI’s which are all focussed on mass merchandise, stock turn and margin. This makes sense to the accountants who seek efficiencies but in the end forces the big brother behaviour on the upstart sibling who needs to do things differently to survive and prosper.


They forgot their Why


Perhaps they never had it beyond a kneejerk response to an upstart competitor. The slogan “Inspiring your passion for food” is at least a half way decent one, until you see packets of mass market products available in the Woolies and Coles stores next door at lower prices. As a consumer, going into Dux, the presence of such items is inconsistent and diminishes any claim to a differentiated and valuable consumer value proposition.


Value delivery


Consumers are not stupid, there is a limit to the price they will pay for something with a fancy name, fuzzy claim and benefit, and not much else. Pushing the prices beyond that limit in order to boost the GM% is pretty silly, because you do not bank percentages, just dollars. It is a fine line, but by observation, they got it wrong as much as they got it right, which is not enough.


Discounters are not the competition


Giving in to the accepted wisdom that discounters are winning and that Dux is competing for the same consumer dollar is nonsense.  Consumers are looking for an experience, for specialist products not available in mass retailers.  They started well with their “foodies”, in store chefs available to give advice and recommendations, but the enthusiasm for this potentially differentiating strategy seems to have waned over time. Behaving like a discounter in some Sku’s but like a high end, fancy pants deli in others just confuses consumers, and I suspect their own staff.


What you will not do


Strategy is, amongst other things, about what you will not do, as much as it is about what you will do. Thomas Dux seems to have forgotten this lesson and succumbed to the temptation to stock SKU’s that did not add to the positioning of Dux as a retailer on whom you could rely on to deliver quality and differentiated specialist food products along with a level of service well beyond the usual expectation. This confuses and devalues the brand. Thomas Dux is like any other brand in a development phase, it requires absolute focus on what makes you different and better. So why can I buy Kelloggs Corn flakes and Blend 43 coffee there?


It takes time


Dux has been around for a while now, perhaps 10 years? That should have been enough time to establish a defensible place in consumers minds when it is clear there is a segment looking for an alternative to the mass market supermarkets. I suspect that the financial pressure has increased markedly over the last few years as Woolies excursion into hardware drained group profitability. The net result was that the quarterly numbers mattered more than the long term, so savings were made by management, the sort of savings that delivered me the rubbish grapes the other day. If the grapes were not good enough to justify the price, they should not have been on the shelf. That sort of challenging culture requires time and continual effort to reinforce, and a reversion to a quarterly focus removes the management incentive to not sell grapes this week because they are not good enough, they need the margin today at the expense of tomorrow.


Meanwhile Harris Farm, the original target of Dux appears to be powering along. Perhaps Woolies will rue the day they did not buy Harris Farm when they were still young and vulnerable. I understand they tried, but were given the finger by the venerable Mr Harris.  Perhaps they should have tried again, it would have been less costly to both their coffers and their reputation.


What do you think?


Allen Roberts is a guest contributor to Australian Food News. He is the Director of Strategy Audit www.strategyaudit.com.au and has worked in the food sector for more than 35 years. To read his full biography click HERE.