Tom Morris: the rise of Home Bargains and the lure of the treasure hunt

Despite the digital revolution, piling it high and selling it cheap on the high street remains a profitable strategy. Ask Tom Morris and family, now worth more than Philip Green and Mike Ashley combined.

The pandemic is often said to have spelled curtains for high-street chains failing to keep pace with the digital revolution. But there are still fortunes to be made “by piling it high and selling it cheap,” says The Times. The rise of so-called variety discounters – selling everything from homewares to toys, tools, toiletries and food at knockdown prices – is one of the unsung retail stories of the past decade, as the rapid growth of Home Bargains has shown. 

Doddy’s rummages 

The shift has proved lucrative for the chain’s low-key Liverpudlian founder, Tom Morris, and his family – now reckoned to be worth more than retail tycoons Philip Green and Mike Ashley combined. Indeed, you might say that Home Bargains is “one of the biggest things to come out of Liverpool since the Beatles”, says The Guardian. But if Morris is now worth some £4.1bn, he doesn’t flaunt it. True, there’s a private jet, with M-ORIS spelled out on the tail. But the family are described as “down-to earth” people, who “would not want to alienate their customers and staff by living a flashy lifestyle”. Even celebrity customers have bought into this ethos. An early fan of Home Bargains, which has now grown into 500 stores across Britain, was the late comedian Ken Dodd who, as the Liverpool Echo noted in 2016, “would often make the trip from his home in Knotty Ash to stock up on life’s essentials. Legend has it he would rummage to the bottom of the toilet-roll basket to make sure he got the biggest for his money”.

Shopkeeping runs in Morris’s blood. Born in 1954 into a family of seven children, his father, Tom senior, ran a store called V’s – named after his wife Veronica and standing for “value”. Tom junior was just 21 when he opened a shop of his own in the Old Swan area of Liverpool. As the chain expanded several siblings joined in, says The Times. One brother, Joe, runs operations and acts as Tom’s spokesman; another, Ed, designed the computer systems; a third brother, graphic designer Anton, devised the company’s red and blue logo. But Tom still owns 90% of the business. 

The chain’s mantra is “top brands at bottom prices”. Indeed, the Morris philosophy is simple: “If we can’t sell it cheaper than the competition, we wouldn’t sell it,” Joe once observed. Tom himself is credited as “a canny buyer who negotiates hard” and he has built the business “prudently”. A preference for freehold store ownership means Home bargains has £741m of property on its balance sheet and little long-term debt.

Filling Woolworths’ shoes

Having established itself as a haven for Merseysiders on a budget, the catalyst for Home Bargains’s growth was the 2008 financial crisis, “which opened the eyes” of Britons “from all income groups to the bargains to be had in discount stores”, says The Guardian. The demise of Woolworths soon after left a big gap that needed filling. “A lot of people are time-rich, money-poor and shop around” – all truer than ever thanks to the pandemic. What also drives footfall, as retail consultant Anna Thal Larsen of Bain & Company recently told the Financial Times, is the lure of the “treasure hunt”: what special deals are on this week?

As the group plots expansion, investment banks have been knocking on the door, keen to sell the idea of a float. So far, they’ve been rebuffed. But international expansion has long been mooted, says the Liverpool Echo. “It can’t be too long now before the trendiest types on the Champs-Élysées” are stocking up “on bleach and biscuits on their way home from café society”. 

Recommended

Five online retail stocks to diversify your portfolio with
Share tips

Five online retail stocks to diversify your portfolio with

Professional investor Tancredi Cordero, founder and CEO of Kuros Associates, selects five of his favourite online retail stocks to buy now.
18 Jan 2021
Moderna’s Stéphane Bancel: the maths nerd who struck vaccine gold
People

Moderna’s Stéphane Bancel: the maths nerd who struck vaccine gold

A decade ago, Stéphane Bancel took a gamble and joined a fledgling start-up working on an unproven new technology. The gamble paid off with the rise o…
17 Apr 2021
Will Shu: Deliveroo CEO and its first delivery rider
People

Will Shu: Deliveroo CEO and its first delivery rider

City analyst Will Shu was sick of working long hours at Canary Wharf and having to make do with what was left on the shelf in Tesco for dinner. So he …
10 Apr 2021
John and Patrick Collison: the nerds who conquered Silicon Valley
People

John and Patrick Collison: the nerds who conquered Silicon Valley

John and Patrick Collison, a genial pair of young Irish brothers from a humble background, had a simple idea – to launch the next PayPal. Just ten yea…
3 Apr 2021

Most Popular

China owns a lot more gold than it’s letting on – and here’s why
Gold

China owns a lot more gold than it’s letting on – and here’s why

In a world awash with money-printing, a currency backed by gold would have great credibility. And China – with designs on the yuan becoming the world’…
21 Apr 2021
“Joke” cryptocurrency dogecoin goes to the moon. What’s going on?
Bitcoin

“Joke” cryptocurrency dogecoin goes to the moon. What’s going on?

Dogecoin – a cryptocurrency created as a joke – has risen by more than 9,000% this year alone. Saloni Sardana looks at how something that began as an …
19 Apr 2021
House prices in the UK are still surging – here’s why it’ll probably continue
Property

House prices in the UK are still surging – here’s why it’ll probably continue

The latest UK house price data shows no letup in the country’s booming property market, with the biggest yearly rise since 2014. And there’s no end in…
22 Apr 2021