What now for Jenners as Chinese take over?

As of last weekend, Jenners is now owned by Chinese conglomerate Sanpower. Picture: Lesley Martin
As of last weekend, Jenners is now owned by Chinese conglomerate Sanpower. Picture: Lesley Martin
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IT was founded on a wager at Musselburgh Races and grew to become a jewel in Edinburgh’s retail crown.

But could the famous Jenners department store find itself jockeying for position against rivals from within its own stable?

Since the weekend, the Princes Street landmark has been majority-owned by the Chinese conglomerate Sanpower, which completed a £480 million deal for 89 per cent of parent company House of Fraser.

The much-publicised 
takeover contrasts sharply to Jenners’ humble origins, which owe as much to chance as business acumen.

The story goes that a lucky flutter on the horses provided sufficient capital for Englishmen Charles Kennington and Charles Jenner to ditch their jobs in a draper’s shop and purchase the lease on a converted townhouse on the corner of Princes Street and South St David Street.

It became the oldest independent department store in the world and an unfaltering symbol of Edinburgh.

Under its new stewardship, lucrative markets in the Far East have opened, but will Jenners’ distinctive identity be preserved?

And with a sister outlet a few hundred yards away, experts say the logical strategy may be to contract to rather than compete.

Which would survive? House of Fraser in the West End or Jenners in the East? It may come down to which premises has the most room to expand.

In today’s globalised marketplace, branding is king and it could be naive to assume heritage will trump pragmatism.

When House of Fraser acquired the Princes Street landmark almost a decade ago, its enviable title as the world’s oldest independent department store was lost forever as Jenners ventured into unfamiliar territory – as a cog in a billion-pound franchise.

What had endured as a family heirloom for 167 years was catapulted into the corporate world and the FTSE index.

Perhaps surprisingly, Jenners avoided being subsumed into House of Fraser branding and its familiar gold-coloured hallmark remains fixed to the sandstone building’s lavish facade – in direct contrast to the firm’s 60 other UK stores.

But what now for the grand dame of Edinburgh commerce? Will its new majority owners seek to exploit heritage or homogenise branding?

It is said the new owners have plans to open up to 50 branches in China.

Gemma Goldfingle, analyst and senior reporter at Retail Week, believes Sanpower will see Jenners as an “important flagship” for House of Fraser’s global brand and may choose to invest to showcase the “best representation of the brand”.

And she believes a hugely profitable marketplace has edged into view.

“House of Fraser has done well to find a buyer, especially one that seems keen to invest and has global retail experience,” she said.

“Sanpower has already indicated that it wants to bring House of Fraser to China – a lucrative market – but one that has proved notoriously difficult for UK retailers to crack.

“Sanpower’s local market knowledge should prove a vital key to getting this right and House of Fraser’s premium positioning should sit well with China’s rapidly growing middle classes.”

But the commercial conundrum of two sister stores holding positions on opposite ends of a premium retail street is vexing for some business experts.

“It doesn’t make sense commercially,” said Professor Leigh Sparks, of the Institute for Retail Studies at Stirling University. And as new owners I think they will look at that.

“You would like to think they would look at Jenners – the name and history – and see that as an integral part of 
Edinburgh.

“But I’m not sure how much sense it really makes to have two stores on one street.

“It’s an anomaly to have two stores so close together, one trading under one name and the other trading under a long-standing Edinburgh name.

“It could depend on what extent Sanpower want to play a consistency argument with House of Fraser, uniform across the UK, in which case Jenners is more at risk.

“Or whether they want to play on the heritage element in which case Jenners is the prize and House of Fraser in the West End drops away.

“It’s difficult to say from the little we know about that Chinese group whether or not they are very much into heritage but that will come out in the wash at some point.”

From family business to corporate franchise, Jenners has remained an illustrious Edinburgh institution and is held in deep affection.

Could residents forgive any company – however large – if it were to disappear?

Unlike our English drapers, I wouldn’t bet on it.

NO CHINA CRISIS FOR CAPITAL

TIES between Scotland and China have strengthened in recent years, with many wealthy families from the Far East buying homes in the Capital – attracted by the city’s academic prestige.

Edinburgh is the most popular Scottish destination for Chinese property investors, with visitor numbers soaring by 210 per cent on previous years. The Capital’s reputation for excellent universities has been a major draw for Chinese students, who also believe it compares favourably with Oxford and Cambridge.

The number of Chinese students taking up places at Edinburgh University rose from 992 in 2010-11 to 1600 in 2012.