Supermarket clothes were a bit of a joke 10 years ago: cheap, and a bit nasty. Wander into Leeds or Croydon this week, however, and the biggest, and by far the most successful own brand developed by a food retailer is strutting its stuff on the high street alongside established players such as Next and New Look - and taking their business.
The rise of George - the brainchild of Next founder George Davies, has been nothing short of meteoric. From a standing start in 1990, the brand is now worth a staggering £1bn-plus in the UK alone, and has been rolled out to Wal-Mart stores in Germany, Canada, the US, South Korea and Mexico.
The jewel in Asda’s crown, and a personal favourite of Wal-Mart CEO John Menzer - looking snappy in a George outfit at the Wal-Mart convention - George is now the second largest clothing retailer by volume behind Marks and Spencer and number one for kidswear.
But can it cut the mustard when you take it out of the supermarket and stand it on its own two feet? And more importantly for the bean counters at Bentonville, can George make any money if it is charging Asda prices from a high street cost base?
George MD Andy Bond is quietly confident as the doors open at the first two standalone George stores, in Leeds and Croydon. “When we started, we couldn’t have offered these prices at high street locations. Today we have the confidence and the scale to do it. By keeping the same IT systems, the same fixtures and fittings and the same approach to staff training, we are keeping costs to an absolute minimum by operating a mirror image of George in an Asda store. The challenge will be driving the sales.”
Early indications are good. Takings on the first day at Leeds were almost double sales forecasts, and analysts and consultants alike reckon Asda is on to a winner. Cap Gemini Ernst & Young head of retail Richard Hull says that putting George on the high street is a “no brainer”.
“When you have a brand identity as strong as George, running it on the high street in concurrence with the offer in the main stores is a practical and entirely logical move. It’s not beyond the wit of man to wonder if Tim Mason [at Tesco] is looking at the economics of doing the same with Cherokee. Having said that, George is a far stronger brand at the moment.”
From a strategic point of view, the timing is right to take George into the centre of town, says Bond. “Historically, the industry was polarised between the high street, which was about high quality and high prices, and value retailing out of town. Today, that distinction need not apply; value retailing is growing up.”
Three years ago, the conversion rate [of Asda shoppers buying into the George range] was 13%, points out Bond. “Today that figure is around 40%. The brand has real momentum behind it.”