Argos is perhaps the archetype catalogue merchant, and has long been one of the key features of the great British high street. Launched in 1973, they now have over 700 stores nationwide, as well as a booming online arm of the business. The stores became noted early on thanks to their unusual layout – in order to maximise profits and minimise the cost of having to restock shelves, the majority of floorspace is dedicated to a warehouse, and customers have to pick their items from a catalogue at the front of the store. Once they’ve been paid for, warehouse staff go and pick the items and deliver them to the consumers.
Founded by Richard Tompkins, he came up with the idea for the store while on holiday in the Greek city of Argos – rebranding his previous business, the Green Shield Gift House catalogue under the Argos brand in July 1973, with the first purpose-built store opening in Canterbury later that year. Since then, they have grown to be the largest retailer of their kind in the UK.
The company has also launched many of their own brand ranges, too. Elizabeth Duke was perhaps the most notorious – the jewellery arm of the company, it became synonymous with cheap, tacky rings and unwanted Valentine’s Day gifts, one of the many reasons that Argos have stopped using the brand. Unbeknownst to many, Argos are also the company behind both the Bush and Alba electronics brands, children’s toy maker Chad Valley and various others, most of which are sold exclusively in Argos stores.
As well as their core business of normal Argos stores, the company also runs a number of spin-off brands, all with differing degrees of success. Perhaps the biggest failures have been ArgosCompare and Argos TV. In a change of direction for the company, ArgosCompare was launched as a financial services price comparison website in conjunction with BeatThatQuote.com, but was taken offline in 2011 as it was decreed that it contravened guidelines by the UK Financial Service Authority. Argos TV seemed a more logical step, attempting to break into the home shopping market that QVC has long had cornered. However, it closed in May 2013, in order to Argos to divert funding to other areas of the business. HomeStore&More was a trial store, based around the concept of a set of Irish stores of the same name that Argos had taken over – however, the 5 launch stores have now ceased trading. Argos Credit Card has been the most successful, running in conjunction with Barclays since 2006.
Though at one time there was a large amount of competition in the catalogue market with Argos, the advent of online shopping has dwindled those in the marketplace. For a long time, Littlewoods – and their Index brand -were considered their equal, having launched in 1923 and built a similar format for their retail stores. However, Argos managed to outmuscle them and their physical operations closed in 2005, leaving an online store of the same name in its place. Many of the Index stores were bought out by Argos after their collapse.
Many argue that the strength of Argos has historically come from the wide range of niche products that the company has available, previously making it the only one-stop shops on the British high street. However, as supermarkets have moved more into non-food markets and the internet – particularly Amazon – have dominated internet shopping, the future of Argos in the long term looks bleaker than it has done for a number of years, especially if it loses more ground in the online battle.