Thought leadership

Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley has said he is “deeply apologetic” for a series of blunders in the way his chain has reacted to the coronavirus lockdown. The retailer lobbied the government to keep his shops open, arguing they were an “essential service”, but backed down after a backlash from staff and media.

Mr Ashley admitted his request was “ill judged and poorly timed” and said he would “learn from his mistakes”. The retail tycoon also offered to lend the NHS his delivery trucks.

In an open letter, Mr Ashley also admitted the firm’s communications to staff and the public were “poor”. “I am deeply apologetic about the misunderstandings of the last few days. We will learn from this and will try not to make the same mistakes in the future,” he said.

Sports Direct had argued that it provided an essential service. Bosses at the company said the sports equipment it sells can be used to exercise at home at a time when gyms have been closed.

The chain’s initial plan to stay open drew a widespread backlash on social media.

Ian Lavery MP, chair of the Labour Party, told the company’s founder and chief executive Mike Ashley to “take some responsibility”.

Exactly what qualifies as an “essential business” has caused confusion in some quarters. Many firms “do not know whether to stay open or to close”, the director general of the CBI business organisation Carolyn Fairbairn has said.

Sports Direct also owns Evans Cycles, which is regarded as an essential retailer. But it has currently closed all those stores too, pending review.

Businesses that are allowed to stay open under the strict new guidelines include:

  • Supermarkets and convenience stores
  • Off-licenses
  • Banks
  • Pharmacies
  • Post offices
  • Market stalls selling food
  • Restaurants and cafes that offer a takeaway service
  • Bicycle shops

Several other firms came under fire this week after saying that some of their stores would stay open.

The Halfords bicycle and auto repair chain drew criticism after saying it would keep some stores open after being named by the government as an “essential provider of services”.

Meanwhile, housebuilder Redrow has said it would suspend work on all sites after construction workers cited fears for their safety.


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