The thrill of the monthly delivery of a dark assortment from Hotel Chocolat, after the company floated on London’s AIM market in 2016, could not have been greater.
The price of the subscription may have been on the luxury side but here was an organic successor to Cadbury, sourced from its own cacao plantation in St Lucia, which filled an important need in my life.
Hotel Chocolat, along with FeverTree, Joules, Cazoo and Ocado, are among the super-cool brands and websites, beloved of the privileged middle classes, which captured the imagination over the last decade.
Pressure: Hotel Chocolat boss Angus Thirlwell has seen shares drop 74 per cent this year
A combination of brilliant merchandising, word of mouth and investor opportunism saw the stock market value of the firms climb into the stratosphere, allowing the founders to join the ranks of the super-rich.
Now they are in meltdown. Amid the Covid-19 supply chain and Ukraine war legacy of soaring energy prices and ‘greedflation’, even well-heeled consumers are battening down the hatches. Nationwide’s latest consumer spending report found that ‘every non-essential spending category’ fell month-on-month in June.
Some £3bn less was spent and there were 5m fewer transactions. Among the first things to go are the subscriptions – such as my own – for luxury confectionery. When Hotel Chocolat went public, the shares looked to be a sure-fire winner.
As the company expanded, it looked as if its founder Angus Thirlwell – who confided in me that he had bought a new Porsche 911 – had discovered a fresh route into the hearts of newly prosperous Britain.
Joules, a favourite of suburban middle-class women, yummy mummies and their partners, is to be found on Britain’s more elegant high streets from St Ives to Oban
He created a superior chocolatier which could satisfy the needs of those looking for something a little classier. Some six years on, shares have plunged 74 per cent this year as the gloss came off the packaging.
Among the upstarts stepping into a marketing space foolishly neglected by overseas-owned Schweppes is the mixer champion Fever-Tree. With a boom in designer gins, there was not a respectable home in Britain without a case of the upmarket tonic.
As Fever-Tree shares soared, questions remained as to why such a giant of the trendy drinks industry was on the As well-heeled shoppers tighten their purse strings… junior AIM market rather than the main London Stock Exchange platform. Now we are learning the answer.
The shares, which have plunged 60 per cent this year, were held up by a lot of fizz. As one asset manager told me this week, they were what is known in the investment industry as ‘pump and dump’ stock.
As quickly as investors drove the share price up in the bull market – buying into the ingredients mythology – so they dropped from portfolios when the gin bottle was removed by central bankers. Joules, a favourite of suburban middle-class women, yummy mummies and their partners, is to be found on Britain’s more elegant high streets from St Ives to Oban.
After three decades in the fashion game, it looked niche enough to survive. Earlier this month, it called in advisers to see what could be done with its debt mountain. If the share price – down 78 per cent this year so far – is to be believed, the omens are not good.
The biggest of all the emblematic middle-class companies is food delivery outfit Ocado, founded by Goldman Sachs alumnus Tim Steiner. In every respectable, curtain-twitching, residential neighbourhood in the country, the grocer’s brightly coloured, boxlike vans can be seen trundling down the streets every hour of the day. Hailed as a great British tech success story as the robotic warehouses and unique software has been rolled out across the world, the much-vaunted promise has never been properly fulfilled.
As much as suburban shoppers may love the meticulous food, prices at Tesco, Lidl and Aldi are, in current circumstances, more enchanting. As a result, there has been a 45 per cent subsidence in the business’s share price. In better times, sales at the luxury middle-class brands held up strongly.
They were as much a lifestyle choice as anything else. Now that the old enemy of inflation stalks the country, it is becoming trendier to trust in dour bargain-basement own-brands. Even much disparaged Poundland may have a future.