The Very Group CEO has said his firm is “definitely in growth mode” after lockdown sales soared – and commented on the company’s rivalry with global giant Amazon.
Henry Birch spoke to BusinessLive weeks after the online retailer announced annual revenues had topped £2bn for the first time, and said the Merseyside firm is currently recruiting for around 150 vacancies.
Pledging Very’s “complete commitment” to Liverpool, the city in which it boasts an illustrious history, Mr Birch was buoyant about the company’s future.
That includes facing up to the challenge of going up against biggest rival Amazon, and Mr Birch was adamant that “there’s plenty of room to compete”.
While most sectors struggled throughout the lockdown, many online retailers experienced increased demand and success, with people unable to use physical shops and the high street.
The company reported 36% growth for its Very.co.uk sales during April, May and June, with annual revenues having topped £2bn for the first time.
Mr Birch said: “We are definitely in growth mode, which is fairly significant now.
“Given that the high street was closed during that [lockdown] period, we’re unlikely to see growth levels of that order going forward, but we’re definitely continuing to perform well, and we’re very optimistic about not only current trading, but also about the future. We are thriving as a local Liverpool business.”
Tracing its roots back over a century to the Liverpool-based Littlewoods pools, the company’s previous identity Shop Direct was established in 2005, incorporating the Littlewoods and Very retail brands, among others.
The firm, which now sells everything from clothing to furniture alongside financial services, rebranded to the Very Group earlier this year.
In June, Very announced plans to cut 141 roles amid a tech-driven restructure that would also create 100 new jobs, which also meant closing its Aintree contact centre, with staff moving to the Speke head office.
Mr Birch said that, at present, the firm is recruiting for 150 vacancies.
He said: “We’ve been growing in different areas. We’re hiring for a lot of roles in technology and data. We’re seeing the shape of the company changing.
“We’re not a company like Tesco who can hire 10,000 people. We are lower on the radar than that, but yes we are growing.
“One of the things that Covid has done is sped up digitalisation and as part of that we’ve identified that we can do that more efficiently with fewer people.
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“It was more about that journey that we’ve been going on which is becoming a more digital, more technology, and data-led company.
“And it’s paid off. It’s early days, but we are operating more effectively and efficiently.
“We never remove a role lightly. Particularly where it’s long-serving colleagues, we make sure that we look after people if they have to exit. But I think it was definitely the right thing to do.”
Very’s activities throughout the pandemic have also included opening a new automated warehouse – its fourth site – in Castle Donington, Leicestershire, where orders can be processed within 30 minutes of being placed.
The opening means the firm has “the best of the best” in terms of delivery capability in the UK, Mr Birch said.
Unlike most UK companies, Very did not use the Government’s furlough scheme, and at the outset quickly switched 2,000 of its 3,000 employees to work remotely from home.
Despite the relative success, he said the “constantly evolving” situation during the pandemic had been a “significant challenge”.
With that experience under the firm’s belt, Mr Birch is confident that should a second wave of coronavirus hit the UK, Very will continue to thrive.
He said: “We feel confident that having been through the first wave successfully, that we could definitely cope with that all over again, and probably more
“We’ve got every confidence that were it to materialise, we continue to operate and continue to keep our people safe.
“We are constantly looking at all eventualities.”
Mr Birch, who has been chief executive for just over two years after leaving casino firm Rank Group, said his firm is “completely committed” to Liverpool.
“I genuinely am a massive advocate for Liverpool. Both as a place to live but also as a place to work and hire people. It’s got two cracking universities, it is a beautiful city with amazing heritage and history and period buildings, and a culture to it.
“We’re definitely a business that’s completely committed to Liverpool who are thriving and will continue to thrive here. We are first and foremost a Liverpudlian business. We’re proud of that, and it pulses through our veins.”
In terms of competition, Mr Birch said Very is the largest digital-only retailer second only to market giant Amazon.
Mr Birch said: “If you look at the market share Amazon have in the UK, it’s about 20% and we’re at about 4% or 5%. So yes, Amazon are massive. They’re a great company, a challenging competitor.
“We actually offer a very different model from Amazon. They’re more of a marketplace, while we work very closely with brands, we curate what we sell with an integrated credit model. That allows people more flexibility – allowing them to spread the cost of what they buy.
“We’ve got a very dedicated customer base of around 4m, many of whom have been with us for decades. So we are a very different model from Amazon.
“We’re flourishing, Amazon’s flourishing – but there’s plenty of room to compete.”