Once upon a time, Pumpkin Patch was a runaway success story. At its peak in 2007, the kids' fashion label founded by New Zealander Sally Synnott was valued at $830 million, with hundreds of stores across the globe. Nine years later the clothing empire is worthless, with its receivers unable to find a white knight willing to take on the basket case of a company after it was placed into administration, owing $76 million. Chairman Peter Schuyt and managing director Luke Bunt last month admitted the company had virtually no equity left after talks with its lender, ANZ Bank, fell through. By February, Pumpkin Patch will be no more, leaving its 1600 employees in the lurch and shoppers frustrated by news that gift cards will only be honoured for up to 50 per cent of their purchases amid receiver KordaMentha's liquidation sale. Spokesman Brendon Gibson said the receiver had wanted to sell the business, which posted a $15.5 million loss for the year to June, as a growing concern, but had no option but to liquidate after no serious expressions of interest were put forward. He flagged a potential sale of the Pumpkin Patch name, in a similar fate to Dick Smith; Kogan bought the electronics retailer's brand when it went bust earlier this year, while leaving its store network on the scrap heap.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Pumpkin Patch was established in 1990 by Sally Synnott, a former childrenswear buyer and mum who spotted a gap in the market. She launched the business with a mail order catalogue that proved so popular that she opened first one, then eventually hundreds of retail stores. Her first big break came in 2002 when she signed a deal to stock Pumpkin Patch at United States department store Nordstrom. The company's share market float two years later was a spectacular success, with its share price jumping from $NZ1.25 to $NZ2.76 within a year. Ms Synnott stepped down from the board, leaving the directors to "find people with fresh skills to navigate the company through the new omni-channel retailing environment". Before she knew it, her beloved label had stores in the Middle East and Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa and Pakistan. By 2015, Pumpkin Patch had closed all stores outside of Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. As it turns out, the label's international expansion may have played a big part in its demise.
TOO BIG, TOO FAST
After raising $NZ61.3 million in its share market float, Pumpkin Patch was off and running. But commentators have pointed to its too-fast expansion into the US and UK, and over reliance on debt, as fatal to the company. Pumpkin Patch's debt to ANZ rose from $NZ39.1 million ($36.4 million) to $NZ46 million in the year to July, and it posted a loss of $NZ15.5 million in the same period. But the beginnings of its downfall came much earlier, with the company's fortunes tumbling from its 2007 post-IPO high after a number of strategic missteps. "The company neglected its New Zealand and Australian operations as it focused on its international expansion. Store locations in Australia and New Zealand were poor," investment columnist Brian Gaynor wrote in the Herald. "The company was slow to respond to increase competition, particularly the entry of offshore operators into the Australian market, while Pumpkin Patch's clothing designs failed to keep pace with changing fashion trends." He said directors and management believed the Pumpkin Patch brand was "so strong that it would protect the company from mistakes, regardless of their magnitude"- an assumption he labelled "incredibly naive". And, he said, the IPO had left the founding shareholders - who floated the company with just $NZ10.9 million of capital - with "minimal equity to fund its ambitious expansion plans", then paid out $88.2 million in dividends over a seven-year period that returned profits of $90.6 million.
A TOUGH MARKET
It's no secret clothing retailers have struggled in Australia over the past few years, and kids' fashion is no exception. According to Ibis World's latest report on the nation's $3.3 billion industry, Pumpkin Patch faced competitive pressures from all sides. Despite being the nation's biggest player, the company lay claim to just 4.2 per cent of the highly fragmented sector. Parents now have the option of shopping at not just department stores like Target, where low-priced kids' clothing designs have come a long way since the 1990s, but a plethora of small boutiques and brands like OshKosh, Seed, H&M and Cotton On Kids. "Infants' and children's clothing retailers face strong competition from department stores - particularly cheaper department stores like Kmart and Target," the report said. "These stores generally provide cheaper alternatives for price-conscious parents particularly among infants' clothing." Pumpkin Patch's pricing combined with weak retail conditions "caused demand for its products to fall as customers sought cheaper products", the report said. Further competition came from online shopping, with many small independent labels promoted through social media platforms like Instagram, where mummy bloggers post images of their "brand ambassador" kids wearing the latest styles.
BRAND 'STUCK IN THE NINETIES'
One person who saw Pumpkin Patch's demise coming is Melbourne mum Bella Katz. The New Zealand-born marketing strategist has been blogging about the retailer for years, lamenting a brand that "had lost its way". "Parents thought the designs were dated, the quality was poor and prices were only good when the sales were on," Ms Katz wrote. "Over the years, buyers have walked away from Pumpkin Patch, not only - as they keep saying - because of the tough retail market. "For a long time, Pumpkin Patch has felt like a brand still in the nineties. While parents' tastes changed, Pumpkin Patch designs did not." Ms Katz said she sat down with then chief executive Maurice Prendergast to air her views in 2014, after being introduced through a business contact. "Let's just say the meeting did not go well," Ms Katz wrote of the meeting. Her advice was that Pumpkin Patch needed to focus on positioning itself as either a "true premium" brand, or go down the low cost, fast fashion route. Its "middle-of-the-road" designs were too expensive, she said, with price tags "more comparable to Country Road than Cotton On", advising a "total product redesign, smaller stores, hugely consolidated product lines, slightly higher prices but a complete experience that justifies that".
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
Pumpkin Patch's short-lived new managing director Luke Bunt vowed to invest in better designs while detailing the company's turnaround mission in its latest annual report, "The review has underscored that Pumpkin Patch's focus must come back to its customers, the style of clothes they want to buy for their kids, the experience they want to enjoy in our stores and how they want to communicate and engage with us," Mr Bunt said. "To achieve this, investment will be required in product design, all our channels to market and on various customer communication mediums." Sadly it proved to be too little, too late.