IF THINGS HAD GONE to plan, the iconic logo – blue letters on a background of Brigitte Bardot pink and plain white gingham tiles – would not have said ‘TATI’ at all.
In 1948, when Jules Ouaki opened a small textile shop in Boulevard de Rochechouart in the 18th arrondissement of Paris he wanted to call it ‘TITA’ after the nickname of his mother, Esther, but that name had already been registered by someone else and so by rearranging the letters, ‘TITA’ became ‘TATI’.
The iconic TATI logo
Jules Ouaki was born in Tunis in 1920, the eldest of nine children. He arrived in Paris at the end of the Second World War penniless but not without ambition. He found work in the ‘rag trade’ selling lingerie but, like others before him, Jules Ouaki was not content to be a small time salesman.
In the second-half of the nineteenth-century, the new and phenomenally successful Parisian department stores revolutionised the concept of retailing. All of them had grown from very humble beginnings to become successful retail giants thanks to great entrepreneurs like Aristide Boucicaut at Le Bon Marché, Ernest Cognacq at La Samaritaine, Jules Jaluzot and Jean-Alfred Duclos at Printemps and Albert Kahn at the Galeries Lafayette. Jules Ouaki was an entrepreneur and he too would seek to grow a giant retail business.
In 1948, Jules Ouaki opened a 50 M2 shop on the Boulevard de Rochechouart in the Barbès district of Paris selling mainly textiles and clothing. This first TATI self-service store emulated the by then well-established retailing principle of ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ but Ouaki also needed to differentiate his business in what was becoming an overcrowded market. To do that he decided to position TATI not only to sell its goods at low prices – but at the lowest prices. And thus was born the advertising slogan still proclaimed today from on top of the site of the original store – ‘TATI – Les Plus Bas Prix’.
This slogan, ‘TATI – The Lowest Prices’, attracted customers and served Jules Ouaki well. He was able to expand his enterprise turning the original 50 M2 shop into the sprawling 2,800 M2 retail space we see in the Boulevard Rochechouart today. In the 1970’s TATI expanded even further opening new stores in Paris in Place de la République and Rue de Rennes as well as beginning an expansion into the provinces with stores opening in Nancy, Lille, Rouen, Marseille and Lyon.
So the TATI success seemed assured – but there was a sting in the tail for this family business founded on the mantra of ‘TATI – Les Plus Bas Prix’.
In 1982, Jules Ouaki died leaving his wife, Eleanor, and five children but no clear plan of succession for the running of the business. Who was now to take up the reins and lead the business? It was left to Eleanor to choose a successor. Her choice was Fabien, the youngest of the five children and he, after much vacillation, agreed ‘but only to please his mother’ he later said.
Under its new leadership TATI continued to expand through the 1980’s and 1990’s adding more brands, an increased product offering and a wider geographical presence.
As well as selling textiles and clothing, TATI now offered household products, cosmetics, wedding dresses, sweets, jewellery, spectacles and even a travel agency. It also began to expand outside France. Stores were opened in Europe, South Africa and the United States, including one store on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Fabien Ouaki became the largest shareholder in TATI in 1995 and by then he was heading a successful enterprise that had 29 stores and well over 1,000 employees.
But, remember the sting in the tail …
In the early days, Jules Ouaki had differentiated TATI not only by selling at low prices – but at the lowest prices, a formula that worked well and led to great success. But commercial differentiation only works if it does what it says and actually differentiates an enterprise from its competitors. Once competitors muscle in and copy a successful commercial model the enterprise faces serious trouble unless it acts quickly and decisively.
At the turn of the millennium TATI faced exactly this problem. Competitors like H & M , Babu and Zara were striking at the very heart of the TATI business, the discount textile market. TATI was over-diversified and overstretched and couldn’t respond. The company eventually ran out of cash and on 28th August 2003, TATI filed a petition for bankruptcy with the Tribunal de Commerce de Paris.
The court gave Fabien Ouaki some breathing space to try to right the ship but to no avail. At the end of 2004, the Ouaki family decided that after fifty-six years of trading they were going to pull out and let the business go.
Soon after, TATI was bought by a subsidiary of Groupe Eram for €10 million payable in cash plus €4.5 million for the store inventories. Since then, the new owners seem to have been able to breathe new life into the enterprise.
Today, TATI has 129 outlets in France and is making a rapid expansion into Eastern Europe. Its central focus is on the 25% of households earning less than €20,000 per year across Europe whilst attracting a significantly higher proportion of French consumers. To that end it has to some extent moved away from the former ‘bazaar’ type presentation of its products to a more formal in-store presentation and it now has a presence on the internet. Yet, despite this slightly more up-market approach, the average selling price of items in a TATI store is €5.
I went to explore TATI in the Boulevard de Rochechouart the other day and walking round listening to the soundscape inside the store I couldn’t help pondering its history, its near death experience and its subsequent revival.
Inside TATI on the Boulevard de Rochechouart:
Jules Ouaki founded TATI in 1948 as a lowest price retailer. Whatever his motives, the effect of what he did was to democratise shopping – to make at least some of the essentials of life, clothing in particular, accessible to the poorest in society.
We will never know whether Jules Ouaki, the entrepreneur, could have weathered the storm of competition that descended upon TATI at the turn of the century or whether he would have been ahead of the game and foreseen the challenge and responded to it before it happened.
It seems to me that the old TATI suffered from a condition common to many failing businesses – a myopic view of the world unadorned with any semblance of reality coupled with ambitions exceeding the depth of its pocket.
Groupe Eram appear to have secured TATI’s future for the time being but they have done one thing that seems to me at least to be completely inexplicable. They have allegedly done away with the iconic TATI logo. The Brigitte Bardot pink and plain white gingham tiles have completely gone and the blue letters have been replaced with letters in, can you believe it, raspberry!
The new TATI logo
Groupe Eram may be anxious to shed the image of the former failed TATI but I’m sure the original logo will live on in the minds of many Parisians as one of those things you just don’t mess with. Anyway, although introduced in February 2013, I for one am delighted to see that news of the new logo has yet to reach the TATI store in the Boulevard de Rochechouart!