Jacqueline Gold, chief executive of Ann Summers

The Gold Standard

Published:  01 August, 2004

The chief executive of Ann Summers has fought – and mostly won – the battle to have the ‘passion-fashion’ retailer accepted in Britain’s shopping centres. Jacqueline Gold talks to Pat Morgan

Mention the name ‘Ann Summers’ in retail property circles and, even today, it’s almost certain to provoke a snigger, a few less-than-amusing jokes about Rampant Rabbits, maybe even an embarrassed harrumph or two from the male-dominated company.

Come on lads, get a grip; you’re living in the 21st century. Women form by far the greatest part of your consumer base; women call the shopping shots; and women want Ann Summers.

The lingerie-to-sex-toys chain has undergone healthy expansion in recent years and its fascia has appeared in many a shopping centre and high street, yet chief executive Jacqueline Gold still encounters the odd pocket of resistance. “You get the occasional landlord who’s not pro-Ann Summers,” she admits. “It’s ridiculous considering surveys show that Ann Summers is one of the most sought-after stores by customers in shopping centres.

“Usually with these things it’s just one person who holds everybody up.”

There were well documented problems in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, where objections delayed the opening for a long period of time but where the store’s phenomenal success has led to a second Irish opening, in Cork. “Dublin is our third most successful store or thereabouts, and Cork is doing extremely well, beating all of our targets,” says Gold. “We would certainly be looking to get into all the major locations in Ireland.”

To protect the not-so innocent, I’m naming no names here, but there have been problems in the UK too. Gold says she would love to open in a very well-known shopping centre in southern England but has been frustrated in that ambition, and she harks back to another occasion when a less than enlightened landlord had her scratching her head in disbelief.

“They would only let us open a store if we didn’t use the Ann Summers name,” she recalls. “We dug our heels in and refused to do that. Several years later, they’re approaching us and saying ‘we want you in our centre’. Attitudes do change.”

There’s certainly a greater understanding of what Ann Summers is about now than there was a few years ago, she reckons. “In Ireland, people had preconceived ideas, and the sort of challenges I came across there were the problems I was experiencing in England 15 years earlier.

“We battle on, and we will get there.”

Ann Summers – not forgetting the company’s Knickerbox operation – is most certainly getting there. With help from its agents Knight Frank and Mentor, the company has been expanding its portfolio steadily, with recent openings in Harrow and Staines to be followed soon by a store in Gateshead’s MetroCentre. That major opening, in 2,500 sq ft, will take the number of Ann Summers stores in the UK and Ireland to 120, while Knickerbox boasts 25 stores plus concessions in many an Ann Summers outlet.

Will the expansion continue at the same rate? Gold says it’s slowing because the company is obliged to be more selective as it nears its goal, which she feels is between 135 and 150 stores in these islands.

As for ventures overseas, Gold has high hopes for Spain, where a store in Torrevieja will be followed soon by another, probably in Barcelona. “The only way to test the market is to go with a high-profile store,” says Gold. “I’m really excited about that. Valencia, Barcelona, Malaga – those will be the sort of areas we’ll be targeting. We’ll see how that goes and then we’ll consider other countries in Europe.”

Still, the heart of the business is in the UK, and here the search is still on for locations in major towns. Stores of between 1,200 and 2,000 sq ft are required and Gold insists they must be in prime locations, whether they’re on the high street or in shopping centres. Footfall must be high and the store must be sited near other major retailers.

Ann Summers, she says, acts as a destination store as well as a provider for impulse shoppers. Who are those shoppers? It’s not uncommon to see three generations of women at the parties, and the range of ages in stores sometimes surprises Gold.

“Everybody’s very curious about Ann Summers, so you do see quite a varied age group,” she says. “Because of where we’re located, it’s often the younger end of the age spectrum but, having said that, I’ve seen all types of people in our stores: mothers with their daughters, wheelchair users, builders … it’s quite varied.”

When Knickerbox first joined the Ann Summers stable, its customers tended to be of the younger variety, but since concessions have opened in parent stores the age profile has gone up.

Gold says she has no preference for the high street or shopping centres, but it’s plain she’s not about to join the exodus of high-street retailers towards the new generation of shopping parks. You get the feeling that life in big boxes wouldn’t be the Jacqueline Gold style.

The Jacqueline Gold style, it’s often said, is to be open, honest and straightforward, and those traits come to the fore when the discussion gets around to whether the retail property industry gives Ann Summers value for money. She has no particular problem with service charges but a frown appears when the fairness of rents is debated. “I don’t think rents are fair at all,” she pronounces. “That comment probably won’t have come as a surprise to you.

“I think that’s why you see such a high number of retailers closing down. So often the rents are ridiculous, and then there are often premiums, which are ridiculous too. Then you get a rent review slapped in that’s outrageous as well.”

Ann Summers stores, she stresses, are in demand, and the concept is pretty much unparalleled in this country. OK, there’s the German Beate Uhse empire which has outposts in Sutton and Wandsworth, but Gold questions the success of those stores. A 6,000 sq ft Hustler Hollywood UK store, based on an American model, is to open in Birmingham later this year, but she has doubts about that too.

It’s said that Hustler will target men and women equally, but Gold says: “From what I’ve seen of it in America, it’s a very male business. Ann Summers is very much aimed at women. It will be very difficult to appeal to our market when they’re renowned for being a very male-orientated business.

“I don’t take competition lightly. But, touch wood, we’re fortunate that we have found ourselves a niche and we’re well established. Those are key things where shoppers are concerned.”

Those shoppers will find within an Ann Summers store a wide range of merchandise, probably best summarised by the headings on the annsummers.com home page: toys, dressing up, lingerie, fun stuff, oils and lotions, hen night, books and videos, bondage and ‘Ann Summers Uncut’, for those of a more, shall we say, adventurous bent. This kind of stuff is available through all three channels of the business – parties, internet and stores – but Gold is insistent that there is minimal conflict between the three.

“The parties are women-only; they’re girls going for a fun night out and being able to try things on,” she says. “In retail, men go into our stores, couples visit and people come in just to book parties. Internet and mail order are for people who want to buy something quickly and can’t get to a store.

“The only area where we could threaten ourselves would be in retail, if we open stores too close together, but that’s the same for all retailers.”

True, all retailers are not like Ann Summers, but there’s no denying it has found a place in the affections of the populace – and most of the property industry.

ANN SUMMERS, with its Knickerbox component, is just part of a group that spreads from the Sport newspapers to Birmingham City Football Club, via the executive airline Gold Air International. The Gold family, from brothers David (Jacqueline’s father) and Ralph down to Jacqueline and sister Vanessa, is estimated to be worth £495m.

The Golds bought the failing Ann Summers chain – named after a secretary, Annice Summers – in 1972 and Jacqueline started work there, in a junior role, seven years later. Invited to a Pippa Dee clothes party, she saw the potential for a similar operation based on sexy underwear and sex toys, and after persuading the board of the idea’s merits, she saw the Ann Summers party plan take off.

She became chief executive in 1987 and presided over the expansion of the party, retail and annsummers.com operations, with the addition of Knickerbox in 2001. There are now 7,500 party organisers, 120 Ann Summers stores – many containing Knickerbox concessions – and 25 Knickerbox standalone outlets.

Gold has been named one of Britain’s 10 most powerful women by Cosmopolitan, and described as “the woman responsible for bringing sex to the high street and liberating thousands of women between the sheets,” by OK magazine.

HOW DOES Jacqueline Gold spend her time when she’s not following the sales progress of the Shagasaurus vibrator? She’s a keen shopper with a fondness for Bluewater and the area around London’s Bond Street.

“One of the great things about shopping in the UK is that it’s all very contained,” she says. “It’s quite unique to have high streets with the shops all very close together, and shopping centres with such a great choice.”

Otherwise, much of her time is taken up by socialising with friends and family, indulging her passion for football (Birmingham City is, of course, a favourite but her appreciation of the beautiful game doesn’t end at St Andrew’s) and enjoying her garden – “but not gardening!”

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