Thomas Cook

Thomas Cook, the travel agency brand that has been a regular feature of the British high street since 1851 has this week collapsed under the weight of £200m of debt. The business which started by offering rail travel packages in the Midlands, was also one of the first businesses to offer tours of Europe. Many reasons have been cited for its difficulties, including overcapacity issues in the airlines, recent reputational issues and uncertainty over Brexit. There was another challenge – last year 64% of its business was through its online channel. I’ve heard some people argue that service providers rather than product-based retailers are less susceptible to e-commerce disruption. That needs to be unpacked. Where service is an important element of overall consumer benefit (e.g. tailored clothing) or where that service absolutely has to be provided in person (e.g. hairdressing), then yes service providers have a strong defence. Where, however, the service is in providing a facilitation function, then quite the opposite is true. Firstly, the economy of information goods favours digital delivery. Secondly, the rise of ‘compare-the-x’ sites has created a culture of decentralised trust, in which we instinctively prefer aggregators and user ratings, whereas previously we have defaulted to an expert advisor. Expert operators like Thomas Cook have struggled in this new environment (on or off the high street), whereas other service providers like the retail banks, have been quickly shifting their business model towards digital delivery (1/3 of bank branches closed last year according to a study this week by Which).