In February, the world of fashion descended on the capital for London Fashion Week. In the front row (or the Frow, as it’s known in the trade) sat Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, the most powerful fashionista of all, who gazed on through enormous dark glasses as supermodel du jour Cara Delevingne sashayed along the catwalk.
Also present was the fashion scout from Asda, furiously scribbling notes. Tesco and Sainsbury’s scouts were there too, eyes peeled for inspiration, although they were sat further back than the magazine editors, influential bloggers and celebrities. Haughtier fashion cognoscenti may even consider them déclassé, but the supermarkets will comfortably sell more clothes than almost anyone else in the room.
“As soon as trends come off the catwalk we get them in front of customers. We are dictating what they want to wear”
Supermarket clothing sales have grown 6.2% in value over the past year, more than double the rate of the overall fashion market, up just 2.7% [Kantar Worldpanel]. Price is a key factor: the average cost of a supermarket item is £4.21 versus £9.95 on the high street. But Kantar says long-term trends indicate the cheap and cheerful market is beginning to plateau. Customers have started buying less per trip and are opting for quality over quantity.
More worryingly, supermarket clothes seem to have lost some of their kudos, no longer commanding the column inches they once did in the fashion pages of the national press. So what should the supermarkets be doing to get back on trend with clothes shoppers?
Asda started supermarket fashion in the UK back in 1990 when it launched George at Asda. It’s developed the brand since, shortening the name to George and adding several sub-brands. “We are a fashion brand in our own right,” says a spokeswoman for George, pointing out that it advertises seasonally like high street retailers. It also acquired Turkish sourcing operation GAAT last year so it could turn the latest catwalk trends into keenly priced clothes in under six weeks, at least twice as fast as it used to take.
The high street vs the supermarkets:
Asda George black blazer
River Island black blazer
Tesco F&F laser cut blouse
Next laser cut sleeveless top
Tesco F &F boyfriend jeans
Gap 1969 sexy boot jeans
Asda George stud trim boots
Zara flat cowboy ankle boots
That means value versions of what Delevingne was wearing in February are already on sale in Asda. “As soon as trends come off the catwalk we get them in front of customers,” she says. “That’s what customers expect from us. We are dictating what they want to wear because we are a fashion brand.”
Asda also sponsors Graduate Fashion Week, which helped launch the career of Stella McCartney. The multiple gets first option to work with the overall winner, but while the first launched a George collection in 2011, Asda only got a year out of him before he left to join MaxMara. Perhaps he felt he wouldn’t be able to make the kind of clothes he dreamed about within the confines of supermarket fashion. Undeterred, Asda has just whisked some of its trendspotters, including some of the crop from last year’s Graduate Fashion Week, to NYC to spot trends and feed ideas back to turkey.
Dabbling with high fashion can backfire, though. Tesco’s attempts to launch a couture range in 2010, with a price tag to match, certainly didn’t have a long shelf life, getting the axe after less than two years, although Tesco maintains it was never meant to be permanent. “As with any clothing retailer, we continually review ranges and introduce new collections,” a spokeswoman for Tesco says. “F&F Couture was launched as a small, limited edition range within the wider F&F collection.”
SPA Future Thinking analyst Noreen Kinsey is less forgiving, saying F&F couture didn’t work because, in the main, supermarkets just aren’t on trend. “Primark is doing a better job of appealing to a wide range of people by delivering fashionable items that reflect the catwalk at a really accessible price point,” she says. “It’s where the grocers should be. With their buying power they should be able to deliver off the catwalk replicas and undercut the high street, but they’re not.”
While Kinsey praises the work the supermarkets have done on children’s clothes, rapidly securing official licences and bringing clothes to market to capitalise on short-lived kiddie favourites, she cautions that even this could be a double-edged sword.
“Children’s clothing has almost become a staple at the supermarkets, it’s become bread, milk and cheap t-shirts for the kids. Unfortunately that lends itself to adults thinking: ‘I might get a t-shirt or cheap holiday gear, but I’m not going to buy a signature piece.’”
In a bid to boost its fashion credibility, Sainsbury’s teamed up with soi-disant fashion expert Gok Wan in 2011 to design a collection for its TU range. It claims the move has produced “excellent” results and confirms the partnership has been extended for another year.
But Kinsey believes the choice of Gok Wan is an “odd one, in that Sainsbury’s is going for a lowest common denominator route. Using Gok Wan is like saying ‘come and get dressed here, we understand the average woman of Britain’, as opposed to saying ‘we are ahead of the fashion curve’.”
Can M&S arrest its clothing decline?
M&S still does a nice line in ready meals but its clothing has suffered in recent years. Its most recent set of results, leaked in January, revealed a 3.8% dip in sales of non-food.
Despite the work it has done on its range, introducing brands such as Per Una, Autograph and Limited Collection, the criticism has continued unabated, key complaints being that the clothes are frumpy and not that cheap.
Industry analysts also highlight other issues. M&S did some work on its store layouts a few years ago, but it still groups clothes in categories rather than throwing together outfits and grouping clothing by style or trend, they point out.
It also has a creaky supply chain operation, with inefficient warehouses and old fashioned IT systems. The turmoil at the top hasn’t helped either, with head of general merchandise Kate Bostock leaving “by mutual consent” in 2012.
Marc Bolland has pinned his hopes on a new clothing senior management team to replace Bostock, headed up by John Dixon, who recently invigorated M&S Food. Former Jaeger and Debenhams boss Belinda Earl has been appointed style director.
Per Una head of design Carole Boyes-Weston left M&S in January after only five months in the role and Daily Telegraph fashion director Hilary Alexander has been drafted in as a consultant.
Bolland assures that the team will have made an impact by autumn. They have their work cut out, but if M&S can get up to speed logistically, modernise the merchandising and give its customers well-made, affordable and on-trend clothes, M&S could come back into fashion yet.
She also argues that before they get the clothes right, they need to sort out the shop floor. Although supermarkets are improving the segmentation of fashion from food, more distinction is needed, she argues. Ideally this means standalone stores, but if that doesn’t happen, supermarkets need to do the next best thing, which is to “hide the masterbrand completely”.
“You want customers to see fashion, not tins of beans. You don’t want to see the name of the supermarket anywhere near the clothes,” she elaborates. “So they need to make excellent use of mezzanine levels and create an environment that makes you feel like you’re in a high street store with completely different fixtures and fittings, low ceilings and different lighting. They need to make sure the environment speaks to fashion shoppers.”
The supermarkets are trying. Asda has introduced ‘Concept 21’ stores that emphasise the separation between fashion and food. Interactive TV screens show catwalk footage and the George section of the store has wooden floors, is more spacious and is festooned with mannequins and low-hanging chandeliers. “People don’t shop for milk and bread in the same way that they shop for clothes,” explains an Asda spokeswoman. “There are some essentials like socks that people might pick up, but when it comes to fashion, even kids’ fashion, you have to treat it differently.”
Sainsbury’s and Tesco are also attempting to create distinct environments in store. Sainsbury’s says its stores offer a “premium department store feel” with “spacious, tidy and well-staffed changing rooms, specialised lighting, fashion-trained staff, mannequins and outfit ideas”. It has also launched two concept stores to further improve the TU customer experience.
Tesco is concentrating s on its ‘Next Generation’ store concept, where different branding provides a “distinct look to the rest of the store”, according to a spokeswoman. Fixtures and fittings are lower so customers have a better view across the collection and the department boasts a dedicated till and specially trained fashion staff, she adds.
While both Asda and Tesco are opening standalone franchise stores abroad under the George and F+F brand respectively, the supermarkets claim they have no plans to launch - or in Asda’s case relaunch - standalone stores in the UK, despite the record high vacancy rate on our high streets.
Tesco was rumoured to be looking for a flagship property in the West End in 2010. It never materialised. And having closed its standalone George operation in 2008 five years after launching it, Asda says it has no intention of doing a u-turn. Times have changed, says a spokeswoman. Customers love shopping for clothes online and the focus for the time being is the rollout of George to 24 European countries online and increasing the number of overseas franchises to 35 countries.
PatelMiller analyst Richard Hyman believes the supermarkets are right not to try and develop a standalone bricks ‘n mortar fashion presence in the UK. “On the face of it, there is an opportunity on the high street but strategically, I’m not sure,” he says. “The market does not need any more value clothing retail space. Even more intense competition between the value retailers will take place and the market is overcrowded. Peacocks’ demise is a symptom of that.”
The supermarkets have to accept the glory days of having the value market to themselves are over, he adds. “The supermarkets have enjoyed a very substantial share of the value market, but the opportunities to take it further are limited within the confines of the existing model,” he says.
“The prerequisite is to run the business as a clothing business, not as a food business that sells clothing. You cannot use grocery criteria and food metrics and apply them to clothing. Food and fashion are polar opposites. I know several fashion people that have run supermarket clothing and drowned in the food culture and management environment because they are expected to live by grocery metrics.”
Hyman concedes this is changing, slowly, highlighting Asda’s appointment of M&S clothing veteran Andrew Moore. Tesco adds that many of its “senior team are from a fashion background, with a wide range of experience across many established fashion retailers.” Sainsbury’s has Gok Wan and Morrisons’ first director for clothing, Tim Bettley, used to run Peacocks.
Morrisons is the last of the big four to enter the world of fashion, launching its Nutmeg brand of children’s clothes and “adult essentials” this Thursday into 100 stores. Bettley was hired for his “strong commercial experience and clothing expertise”, it says. However, it seems Morrisons is firmly in the food camp and clothing will have to fit in with that. “We are a food retailer and we want people to begin to buy clothing as part of a weekly shop,” said Bettley earlier this month.
That strategy might have to change if Morrisons gets into adult fashion, but Morrisons CEO Dalton Phillips can probably call on advice from the outfit he used to run. Canadian supermarket Loblaw provides a glowing example of how to separate fashion from food. Its clothing label Joe Fresh offers a core range of affordable fashion staples, available in its supermarkets but also in standalone stores. Although it sells it cheap (the January sale offered 100% cashmere sweaters for £20), it doesn’t pile it high. It sells fashion like fashion.
The flagship Joe Fresh store stands on New York’s Fifth Avenue. As well as high street labels like Zara and Gap, Joe Fresh’s neighbours include Prada and Gucci. At the launch party, almost a year ago to the day, New York Mayor Bloomberg called Joe Fresh “the greatest Canadian export since Justin Bieber”. Influential New York fashion blog Racked.com called it “ultra-affordable” and “amazing”. Most impressive of all, a curious American Vogue sent model Lily Kwong to pick up an outfit for under £100 and report back. She loved it.
No amount of money can buy that all important nod from Vogue. Maybe all the UK supermarkets should call Joe Fresh for some fashion tips if they want to join Anna, Posh and Donatella on the Frow.