British billionaire Sir Philip Green is looking to create the same buzz in North America that his cheap-chic fashion chain has generated in a score of countries.
As he inspects his first Canadian Topshop store in Toronto, his hands-on approach is unmistakable: He shakes his head in disapproval when he spots a top hidden behind others on a rack; it will never sell, he warns his staff. But he nods with enthusiasm as he holds up a black suede bootie with a five-and-a-half-inch animal-print heel ($140), betting it will be a hit among his 20-something hipster customers.
The owner of the company that runs more than 2,500 stores around the globe is making an even bigger bet in a market that has caused other British chains – among them the well-known Marks & Spencer – to stumble. Sir Philip opened his first American Topshop store in April of 2009 in Manhattan, and didn't launch another U.S. outlet until last month. He plans to launch Topshop in Australia in December and Brazil in February. Already Topshop is dotted across Europe, the Far East and the Middle East.
"I'd love to have another New York store," he said. "I haven't found anything that I felt was the right price for us. It was all too expensive."
Still, he's learning his lessons from the Manhattan store, which he said is meeting his targets or "thereabouts." The past quarter has been strong, he said. So why such slow expansion? "These are not cheap to set up. These are $10- to $15-million a pop. So you don't want to make too many mistakes."
As well, the New York store failed to build up sales in the critical holiday season after the U.S. Thanksgiving in November, he said. He thinks it needs to speed up shipments of new merchandise, which arrives two or three times a week compared with Britain, where new stock comes in daily. The U.S. store has also cut back on jeans, because many customers already have a favourite brand. Instead, the North American stores stock more slim-fitting men's suits, for example.
Despite those changes, Sir Philip remains cautious in his outlook. He envisions just 15 to 20 flagships in the U.S., compared to reports in the past that have predicted as many as 100. In Canada, Ms. Brooks has talked about opening as many as 50 Topshop and Topman outlets, but Sir Philip said he currently foresees three or four big flagships, backed by strong Internet sales, which in the U.S. have outpaced those in bricks-and-mortar outlets.