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Go back a couple of decades and there was only one place on the high street to get a special box of chocolates. Thorntons.
"Chocolate heaven since 1911," this high street staple boasted shelves lined with boxes of the finest chocolates in all shapes and sizes.
A counter, brimming with loose chocolates, allowed you pick your favourites and make a pick-and-mix bag for grown-ups (and kids as a special treat). Gorgeous boxes of their flagship Continental range flanked the store, along with boxes of Special Toffee and the ever-popular personalised hollow chocolate models. Plus, who can forget the wonderfully indulgent Continental Nougat Casket Cake? Not to mention the free samples that awaited most visits.
This was at a time when the company sought the finest fruits, nuts and spices to produce flavoursome filled chocolates. It was in an age when buying a box of chocolates meant visiting a Thorntons store and receiving a box of Thorntons chocolates meant you were very special indeed.
Thorntons was, back then, where trendy "more cocoa less sugar" brand Hotel Chocolat is today.
A Rocky Road
But then things started to change.
The once luxury chocolate brand slowly shifted towards becoming a Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) brand. For investors, this presented a golden opportunity of untold riches.
But for customers, it meant you'd have less reason to visit Thorntons' stores (which used to be the only place you'd find their products) as you'd find their boxes in most supermarkets, discounters and even pound shops.
Over time, the products morphed too, with flavours becoming more bland and sugar replacing cocoa. After all, when you are producing chocolates on a massive scale to ever-tightening margins, something has to give.
In the Naughties, Thorntons turned to Woolworths to begin its journey of placing its products on supermarket shelves.
The next decade proved a roller-coaster of a ride for the brand. No amount of stunts - such as creating the world's biggest chocolate box with 175,000 individually-wrapped Thorntons Moments at a weight of two tonnes - would help.
By 2011, investors were growing impatient at poor growth performance. Thorntons planned to close 180 outlets across a three-year period as part of a major cost-cutting exercise. Even former chairman Peter Thornton weighed in, blaming the company's woes on owning too many shops and offering a poorer quality product, not helped by a tough economy.
In 2012, the chocolate business eyed up America for its expansion, in addition to Australia, the Middle East and Africa. It came at a time when the firm acknowledged there were serious "structural problems" with Britain's high streets. Meanwhile, the firm planned significant investment in its online operation, which becomes key a mere nine years later.
In 2013, their supermarket ranges significantly boosted growth for the chain, becoming its strongest performing division. In the same year, Thorntons’ brand and customer director Hannah Legg told The Drum "the brand had become a little bit tired and was lacking relevancy all year round."
In 2014, a cost-cutting drive proved successful and saw pre-tax profits leap. It saw less-viable shops close, and more focus on supermarket trade. It wasn't enough to convince investors and the share price tanked.
In 2015, mega-brand Ferrero snapped up the troubled Thorntons brand. It was the Italian firm's biggest investment in 25 years and high hopes were pinned on its growth.
Despite best efforts, losses continued to mount for the Thorntons brand, topping £130million in 2020 according to The Grocer. In March 2020, the first Coronavirus lockdown came into force and for over a year, rolling lockdowns and restrictions have played havoc on business operations right across the country. Britain's high streets have taken the brunt of this, with supermarkets often spared from such harsh trading conditions.
Thorntons Moves Online
Perhaps it was inevitable that in March 2021, after a year of struggling through COVID-21 restrictions, Thorntons made this surprising announcement:
Honestly, it caught me off-guard. It's surprising, shocking, and saddening, especially as Thorntons has been a high street staple for decades. It will have deep ramifications for the livelihoods of 600 staff across its 61 remaining stores, many of whom risk losing their jobs.
Adam Goddard, retail director at Thorntons, told me:
Like many other companies, we have been operating for a long time in a tough and challenging retail environment. Unfortunately like many others, the obstacles we have faced and will continue to face on the high street are too severe and despite our best efforts we have had to take the difficult decision to permanently close our retail store estate.Adam Goddard, retail director at Thorntons
Despite this out-of-the-blue announcement, the writing has been on the wall for a while. Ferrero's ownership has afforded the company to expand its supermarket offerings and you'll find boxes of Thorntons chocolates in corner shops, petrol stations and supermarkets across the land. With a box being so easy to get hold of, the need to visit a Thorntons shop diminished. When was the last time you visited a Thorntons store? I've conveniently ordered gifts online in recent years but can't recall the last time I stepped foot inside a Thorntons outlet or café.
Ongoing rolling COVID-19 restrictions shuttered shops in high streets countrywide over the past 12 months and, unsurprisingly, that has fuelled phenomenal growth in the online world. We still have an insatiable appetite for chocolate and many chocolate makers, chocolatiers and chocolate shops have turned to the digital world for survival. That's partly why I built this handy local chocolate finder, to help you discover gems near you.
Thorntons stores are currently closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown and the company tells me they have closed with immediate effect and shall not reopen when the current wave of restrictions end.
The Thorntons brand isn't disappearing though. While this may have been the road for other brands, Thorntons, backed by Ferrero, is moving online in a new digital-first strategy. Before March 2020, digital sales accounted for 18.8% of the company's sales, claims Goddard. He boasts that they saw a "71% increase in online purchases, with over three million customers accessing products online throughout the last 12 months."
The canny move makes sense too in the current climate. You can now pick up a box of Thorntons chocolates when you nip to the corner shop, or you can order a box of goodies online. The stores, while of nostalgic importance, don't add value in today's Thorntons brand. Without the bricks-and-mortar bills, the considerable cost-savings can be ploughed into eCommerce growth. It should also help the brand to become regain its footing.
For a long time I've felt there's an untapped synergy between Ferrero and Thorntons. In time, I would hope to see the two brands more closely align, with Ferrero's products being made available on the Thorntons website to make it a one-stop shop for gift buying.
It'd be great to buy a box of Continental and Special Toffee for the grown-ups and Kinder products and novelties for the kids in one single order. Integrating bespoke and exclusive products by Kinder, Nutella, and Ferrero onto the site could turn the Thorntons digital platform into a more lucrative proposition.
Other brands have successfully achieved this very goal. One that springs to mind is Cadbury. On its website°, you can buy Cadbury treats alongside Maynards Bassetts products and Toblerone items, either individually or grouped together in gift bundles.
What Next For The Vacant Stores?
61 high streets are about to look very different, but to be fair, they already bear little resemblance to their pre-2020 selves. The high street is fundamentally broken.
The move to online-only is perhaps great news for Hotel Chocolat who retains a physical presence in many high streets, and will now become the only chocolate shop in many towns.
However, sky high rents and rates means many fledgling chocolate businesses that would be a perfect fit for former Thorntons stores will find themselves priced out of an exciting new opportunity.
So, I expect to see these 61 stores remain largely vacant, especially as economic uncertainty persists. In due course, I would love to see these snapped up by local chocolatiers looking to expand their businesses, but I fear that without significant reform, this won't happen.
Who knows, maybe in the next decade we'll see high streets return to their former glory, lined with independent shops affording each town and city their own identify. The homogenised nationwide offering no longer seems fit for purpose.
What do you hope will happen to these stores next? Let me know your thoughts in a comment below.