When asked why her fashion empire decided to pay back, rather than pocket, $3 million worth of the government’s JobKeeper funds, Universal Store chief executive Alice Barbery doesn’t blink.
“I’m a youth fashion retailer, and this debt is a young person’s debt,” she says. “If COVID gets bad again, and people are sent back out on the public purse, we felt that the just thing to do for our business … was to do what we thought was morally right.”
“We no longer require those funds, we didn’t need them. It was the responsible thing to do.”
Her response comes as a refreshing contrast to those of some of Barbery’s fellow retail CEOs, whose excuses for holding on to the government stipend whilst posting profits and paying dividends have ranged from the convoluted to the absurd.
It’s reflective of Barbery’s position as a leading member of the raft of new-age retailers that have hit the ASX boards in recent months. The retailer, which boasts veteran Brett Blundy as a major shareholder, hit the ASX in mid-November. It’s since soared to a market capitalisation of over half a billion dollars, with its share price gaining 50 per cent to around $8.
Alongside the likes of Adore Beauty, MyDeal and Booktopia, Universal Store is a retailer that unashamedly focuses on Australia’s younger demographic, for which online shopping is second nature and keeping up with the latest trends is more important than a two-for-one sale.
COVID has changed this somewhat, Barbery says, as the pandemic put a stop to many of the concerts and music festivals where Universal’s customers would show off their purchases but she’s been impressed by the resilience of young shoppers.
“It’s the indomitable spirit of young people, that when you take away their typical occasions that they would attend, they just invent new ones,” she says. “There’s been more localised parties and group gatherings of a different kind.”