‘Thorntons says it’s closing stores – but we’re still open’
Mark Rees and his wife Katy run a chain of gift shops with the Thorntons name in big letters above the door.
And they pay £7,000 a year for the privilege.
So imagine their shock when the chocolate maker told them it would be issuing a global press release announcing its plans to close all of its 61 stores.
What that announcement didn’t say is that Thorntons’ more than 100 franchisees – who, together, account for the bulk of its High Street presence – have no intention of closing.
‘Rode roughshod over’
Thorntons said: “We proactively communicated with all our franchise partners this morning to reassure them that we remain committed to supporting them and continuing to supply their business with our Thorntons range.”
But the couple have faced questions from staff who thought they were losing their jobs and customers who thought their shops would not reopen after lockdowns are lifted.
For Mark, it is the latest blow in a relationship that has seen him “rode roughshod over” for 15 years by Thorntons.
His parents started the chain of shops 30 years ago when they spent tens of thousands of pounds to become a Thorntons partner.
And it wasn’t easy. To this day the chocolate maker has absolute say over what lighting Mark uses to illuminate its products and even what he puts on the floor in front of them.
But for his parents, it was worth it. Then, Mark says, it was a privilege to stock Thorntons products and it made their stores a destination for chocolate lovers.
But that changed in 2004, shortly after Mark took over the business.
‘Rule by fear’
The chocolate maker took its franchise partners by surprise by announcing that it would start selling its products in supermarkets and beyond. That meant Thorntons’ loyal customers could get their Continental Selection boxes elsewhere – and for less.
While Mark says he had to adhere to strict rules about how the product was displayed and how much he could charge, those same boxes were being “bunged on to shelves” at petrol stations and discount retailers.
“And yet, we are actually policed,” Mark says. “We could have our franchise agreement taken away, if we do not abide by the rules of the contract.”
“They’ve ruled by fear in many ways,” he says.
Meanwhile, Mark was able to walk into Wilko and buy Thorntons products for less than he was paying to the chocolate maker itself.
“It’s damaging for us because customers see us as expensive, but we just simply cannot afford to sell the product any cheaper,” Mark says.
Last year, he was selling Easter eggs for £8 that he was buying from Thorntons for £5. At Wilko, that same egg was being sold for £3.
That meant Mark was often forced to stock up at the discount retailer, rather than his “supposed partner”, which is how he refers to Thorntons.
‘Hurt and damage’
“You can imagine the damage and the hurt that that causes you,” he says.
Katy thinks the franchise partners, who are often family-run businesses that helped build the Thorntons brand in the 90s, have been “completely forgotten and now left to fight for their survival”.
Meanwhile, she accuses Thorntons of “flooding” supermarket shelves with its chocolates and cheapening the brand that franchisees like her and Mark pay so much to buy in to.
As a result, the couple have decided to rebrand their stores to Henry & Co, named after their son.
“We have decided that the alliances that we have with these brands, is actually damaging us and not benefiting us at all,” Mark says.
“We’re going to break away from the shackles of dealing with these big brands and the onerous contracts and constraints that that brings with it.”
A Thorntons spokeswoman said: “In addition to our own retail estate, we work closely with around 100 other franchise stores that sell Thorntons product within a broader retail store environment – such as cards stores, gift stores and post offices.”
“Our franchise partners, alongside our grocery partners and e-commerce, remain a key part of our strategy for the future of Thorntons. The Thorntons website store locator will continue to reflect the franchise stores available to customers.”