Is Brexit taking a bite out of the hospitality and retail sectors?

Anna Thompson and Douglas Hawthorn consider whether the consequences of the Brexit vote have contributed to the recent trend of insolvencies in the hospitality and retail sectors.

Throughout 2018 the news has carried a continuing stream of stories about high-profile retailers and restaurant businesses that have faced financial difficulty. Michelmores' Restructuring & Insolvency team has advised a number of struggling businesses (and their creditors and other counterparties) within these sectors. Can the blame be laid at Brexit's door?

A common theme in matters reported in the press and those in which we have been directly involved is that the effects of Brexit are increasingly being cited as a factor in why these businesses have failed.

While the UK remains a member of the EU more cynical observers may remark that Brexit is simply a convenient excuse to cover other failings of those businesses (see for example recent comments made by Dominic Raab MP concerning John Lewis and Bernard Jenkin MP concerning Jaguar Land Rover), encouraged by the media fanfare on the topic. However, Brexit has been linked to the falling value of the pound and lower consumer confidence, both of which have caused difficult trading conditions for retail and hospitality businesses.

Hospitality

A large number of high-profile hospitality businesses have been reported to be under pressure or failing, including:

  • Byron Burgers, which announced the closure of up to 20 sites following approval of a CVA (Company Voluntary Arrangement) in January.
  • Barbecoa, which appointed administrators and, in the same group, Jamie’s Italian, which announced the closure of 12 sites following approval of a CVA, both in February.
  • Prezzo, which announced the closure of almost 100 restaurants following approval of a CVA in March.
  • Carluccio’s, which was reported to have sought advice from restructuring experts in March.
  • Casual Dining Group, owner of chains including Café Rouge and Bella Italia, reported a £60m loss, despite a small rise in sales.

Michelmores' Restructuring & Insolvency team has acted in relation to a number of insolvency-related matters in this sector, including the sale of a local restaurant and bar business via a pre-pack administration deal. We have also advised a multi-site operator on how it might capitalise on the failure of stressed restaurant businesses to acquire new sites.

The 'casual dining crunch' is not just a 2018 phenomenon. According to accountancy firm Moore Stephens, 984 restaurant businesses entered insolvency proceedings in the year to September 2017, a 20% rise on the same period a year earlier.

Commonly cited reasons for financial difficulties in these cases include falling revenue due to poor consumer confidence, and the rising price of imports due to the weakened pound. Both can be linked back to Brexit. The cost of imports has hit mid-market Italian chains particularly hard as, in search of authenticity, ingredients are often purchased from Italy in Euros.

Staffing is another key issue. The rising minimum wage may not be attributable to Brexit, but Brexit is a factor in the shortage of staff due to high levels of employment and the decreasing numbers of economic migrants from the EU. The falling number of EU workers has been widely blamed on the outcome of the Brexit vote and has also been cited as causing significant difficulties in the agriculture sector.

Other important factors in the poor health of the hospitality sector include rising business rate liabilities and over-competition for sites (driving up rents). The saturation of the casual dining market is now also being hit by the increasing popularity of takeaway and delivery food services.

Retail

Within the retail sector notable businesses battling financial difficulties have included:

  • Toys "R" Us, and Maplin, which both entered into administration in March
  • New Look, which announced 980 job cuts and 60 store closures following confirmation of a CVA in March
  • House of Fraser, whose creditors approved a CVA in June, only for the chain to appoint administrators in August
  • Mothercare and Early Learning Centre, whose creditors approved CVAs and their fellow group company, Childrens World, entered administration
  • Debenhams was reported to have called in KPMG to help the retail chain to assess how best to adapt to a changing and challenging market place
  • Moss Bros, B&Q, Homebase and Laura Ashley, all of whom have been reported to be wrestling with falling profitability.

Whilst pure or predominately 'bricks and mortar' retailers have struggled to keep up with online and more forward-thinking multi-channel retailers, a number of retail businesses and commentators have cited Brexit-related factors such as the cost of importing goods and falling consumer confidence as leading to ever tougher trading conditions.

Some fashion retailers have also reported stock shortages as a result of changes made to the way clothes are now being sourced by retailers looking to off-set Brexit-driven inflation costs. There has been discussion in the media of the 'just in time' principles under which many businesses now operate. This practice is not just employed by car manufacturers, but also by fast fashion retailers such as Zara.

Our Restructuring & Insolvency team has advised insolvency professionals, major landlords, creditors and group companies in relation to a number of recent retail insolvencies, including some of those mentioned above.

Our involvement has been not just with businesses who are struggling in a difficult market. We have advised a number of key suppliers to House of Fraser in relation to their negotiations with Mike Ashley's successor business, for example in relation to retention of title, concessionaire staffing and brand reputation management issues.

Conclusion

It is clear that the sole blame for the failure of these businesses cannot be laid at Brexit's door. However, the consequences of the Brexit vote appear to have compounded the problems of many businesses within the hospitality and retail sectors.

Earlier in the year the EU and the UK agreed the main terms of a transition deal, which will largely keep the current status quo until the end of 2020. It is not yet clear whether this will help to allay consumers' concerns and assist businesses which rely on European imports. It seems more probable that the current uncertain trading conditions will continue until the terms of the final Brexit deal are known, and possibly for some time thereafter.

Our Restructuring & Insolvency team regularly assists businesses and individuals affected by a company’s insolvency. This includes struggling companies themselves, their creditors, their insolvency advisers or other interested parties. Should you require any advice in relation to a business which is struggling and/or at risk of insolvency, if you have been appointed an office-holder of an insolvent business, or if you are concerned with the solvency of your own business, please do not hesitate to get in touch with the team.

If you would like more information on this topic, please contact Douglas Hawthorn, Partner, or Anna Thompson, Associate in Michelmores' Restructuring & Insolvency team.