They say the Chinese only buy the cheapest or the best. It’s simplistic, but it is the direction all retail markets seem to be headed in. The British market has been evolving into this for a while, now, and those stuck or stranded in the middle are suffering or dying.
The middle has been squeezed or forced to choose their direction of travel as we all race to the bottom or top.
The cheapest often requires huge volumes and multinationals and the best requires a perception of quality, luxury and good service.
As a brand or retailer, you have two questions to ask yourself, today: are we the cheapest? This can be split into different categories depending on where the brand sits and, are we the best? This is more complex and can mean many different things and is subjective. If you can’t say yes to both or either, they you need to start making some serious changes.
Imagine a Venn diagram: two circles, one the cheapest, one the best and price running up and the down the side axis. Any brand coming into the area where the two circles overlap is in a safer and strong position. Those within one of the circles has a focus, while those floating somewhere out of either need to work out which one they want to be in, and fast.
Let’s look at the cheapest option. This is why Sainsbury’s is getting into bed with Asda. The larger scale promises savings of around 10% to the consumer, and will help them compete with Booker/Tesco and the German food retailers, Aldi and Lidl. It’s an example of mid-market retailers needing to pair up or die.
In fashion, New Look revenue to the year 24th March 2018 was down -7.3% to £1,347.8m. New Look has not only announced store closures, but it’s also just said in its recent financial report and turnaround plan, that ‘Pricing (will be) lowered to offer significantly better value with 80% of product to retail under £20’.
Eighty percent of product under £20 will really put the brand toe-to-toe with Primark and, I think, it’s the right move for them. You have to go down fighting, but they’ll going to have to shift more product at these cheaper prices. Before, New Look wasn’t the cheapest, and it wasn’t the best in terms of being the most fashionable or desirable fast-fashion retailer. It used to be one of the cheapest, but then Primark came along.
It tried to be more fashionable, but at a time Boohoo, ASOS were growing and offering high fashionability at ridiculously low prices.
New Look says it wants to 'return to (a) value-led fast fashion and wardrobe basics offer with full price focus’. The margins will be so small they’ll need all the full price they can get.
H&M, long one of the darlings of fast retail, has seen its shares down nearly 20% this year and the company has said it will need to slash prices to reduce inventories, damaging profit margins. It has an $4.3 Billion in unsold stock and needs to be careful that its size won’t be its downfall.
It also explains its focus on different, ‘best’ sister brands like Arket and COS. H&M isn’t in the same position as New Look, yet, but they need to make sure it’s still seen as one of the best in terms of affordable fashionability and also offering value.
Marks & Spencer is another one trying this new best and cheapest approach. The clothes have arguably got much cheaper and the food is still perceived as the best, but it’s this balance that is hard to achieve within the same brand, especially knowing what consumers come to you for.
House of Fraser’s recent announcement to close 31 stores is a reflection of the growth of John Lewis both offline and online. John Lewis has continued to open in towns, in or near those House of Frasers, and House of Fraser isn’t cheaper or better. It probably explains the closure of the huge Birmingham store as John Lewis opened a shiny new shop at the railway station just a couple of years ago.
House of Fraser will need to pair up with somebody (maybe Debenhams?) or disappear altogether. Sports Direct, Mike Ashley, has shares in both and will no doubt be pushing for it and then they really can compete on price and dominate their local markets.
So, who is getting it right? Zara, for the best in fashionability and speed and John Lewis in customer service and being ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’. But, like a game of musical chairs, it’s changing all the time.
As for the ‘best’, this is what many luxury brands rely upon. This could be quality, use of materials, origin etc. Many ‘luxury’ brands have lost control of these in the race for large quantities and bigger margins. They have to be careful because a few poorly made, overpriced products will ruin the perception of any brand.
But, you can also find the cheapest within this market. For example, Johnstons of Elgin, one of the best Scottish producers of scarves and blankets. It makes for everybody from Hermès to Burberry. While a scarf from them is not cheap, say £100, it’s far cheaper than one with a designer name on. They are also the best at what they do and the reason why these brands use them.
Or, a brand like Paul Smith. When looking at a multi brand website like Mr Porter, it feels like one of the most affordable brands on there. I think its recent troubles has seen it get more competitive and tread that fine line between affordable and exclusivity. They are also the best at colour.
Or, you could can look at the total top, at the most expensive and exclusive. This is the pinnacle of the market and to be true to both would only be made in very limited numbers. This is chasing a very small number of big-fish consumers and, as such, it limits the size of the business. But, this can also to used to sell ranges of cheaper products, such as perfume or sunglasses, but even these categories are harder, now that people aren’t so hung up on brands.
This simplistic approach to the market cuts through some of the wood to see the trees in a highly competitive and changing retail landscape. So, the next time you look at your own brand or somebody else’s, you know which two questions to ask.
Part of the Topman sponsored ‘MAN’ show, Stefan Cooke, in his second outing here, went from his super-tight, Gaultier style AW18 season to something, while still fitted, that played with hype-colour tartans, half ruffs on the necks and small mirrors dotted randomly across the pieces. Winner of the H&M designer prize in 2017, Cooke, from the UK, is a designer to continue watching.
Part of the BFC showrooms and also with a presentation at Charing Cross Library, Bethany Williams took inspiration from all those books and book binding and managed to thread real, physical paperbacks into her SS19 collection. Working with The Quaker Mobile Library, which lend books to people with no fixed address, her collection showed the hand-ons, painstaking craft element to fashion.
Mullins is on a roll. His AW18 collection was one of the best of the season and, this, the new SS19, had plenty of ideas to keep you wanting more. Standouts include rock shaped portfolio bags and asymmetric slashed shirts showing just a glimpse of the shoulder. 2019, the year of the male shoulder, maybe?!
Day - What Did TheChicGeek wear? Credits - Suit - Arket, T-Shirt - Oiboy, Cap - Arc'Teryx, Sunglasses - Illesteva
If expensive looking black bin bags are your thing, then Berthold could be the place to look. I’m just joking, but the fascination with anything black and shiny seems to be taking hold within menswear and Raimund Berthold is running with it. He showed plenty for AW18 and, now, this was the summer version. Think parachute light black coats and matching accessorises in a sport-luxe - there, I said it! - collection for those who like fashion as uniform.
Martine Rose took us to Norf London, St Leonards Square in NW5 to be exact, which looked perfect for street parties and carnivals. This was working class Victorian square with no fancy greenery in the middle, no even Albert Square sized.
The catwalk was the road and the neighbours looked on, perched on their front garden walls or down quizzically from an upstairs window while doing the tea-time washing up.
This was the show of the week for a designer that waited for fashion to come to them. Now, with her own label and working on Balenciaga’s menswear, Rose has become a chief exponent of fashion’s obsession with bad taste.
There was plenty here, but it’s done in a way that’s still desirable. How much it has left to run is anybody’s guess, but I don’t think the retailers are getting bored. I saw a new ‘hybrid’ - because we all love one of those - a half-jean, half-trackie trouser - rodeo at the front, scally at the back!
Rose’s 90s ‘Geezer’ was going out, out; clear plastic trousers, squared-toed snakeskin chain loafers with no backs and Motorcross trousers with loud taping will definitely get you noticed. This was ‘Out-On-The-Tann’ man, probably down to his local boozer, looking to impress and living it up with gold chains, tucked in shirts and smart-ish shoes. I still want in.
Evening - What Did TheChicGeek wear? Credits - Suit - Pretty Green, Shirt - ASOS, Sunglasses - Kaleos, Shoes - Vintage Alexander McQueen
See LFWM Day 1 - here
See LFWM Day 2 - here
When Banana Republic decided to chuck in the towel, leave the UK and move out of the H&M-owned, old Dickins & Jones flagship building on Regent Street, it made sense, to H&M anyway, to fill it with their own house brands, especially at a time when you could struggle to fill such a large, flagship space.
Left - Upstairs at Arket, Womenswear
The space has been split between Weekday, which already has stores across Europe, and Arket, which is brand new and this is the first one in the world.
The big question is: does the world need anymore H&M brands? It makes sense for the companies. Put your eggs in lots of baskets, aimed at lots of different sectors and consumers, and not only do you have all bases covered, you can weather the ups and downs of fickle consumers better: as one brand is going down, another one can be coming up.
What with COS, & Other Stories, Cheap Monday, Monki, as well at the main H&M brand, they are pushing out, much like the Spanish Zara owner Inditex, with many consumers unaware or past caring about who owns what. It’s the fashion equivalent of a one operator food court.
Anyway, let’s talk about Arket. They’ve gone London grey - Scandinavian pink perhaps?! - with the shop fit. It looks a bit like a stage fit of a shop in “1984”. The top half is empty and looks like a cheap wardrobe carcass waiting for the doors. The floor is Valentino-type grey terrazzo and it is lacking, somewhat, in personality. This looked like the template for every future store and you wouldn't know where you were. Are brands still in that mind set of rolling out the same shopfit the world over? I thought we were done with all that.
Right - Café with a shop attached
The product is good. The knitwear feels substantial and of good quality. So good, in fact, I think you’ll have to buy it two sizes bigger just to get into it. The ground floor is split between men’s at the front and back, homeware in the middle and a café to the side at the back. Upstairs is womenswear and childrenswear.
Branding is minimal and it’s all very plain and Scandi - can we ever get enough?! - The women’s has more colour and it does flow.
Arket likes a serial number on things. I think the target customer is the trendy mum, she wants clothes for her, her children, a café to sit down in and some little treats in homeware, plus she’ll be buying the menswear too, which is why there are Breton stripes - every woman loves a man in Breton stripes, don't they?
Left - Using brands such as R.M. Williams & Tricker's to elevate the branding & clothes
When this rolls out to the big shopping centres all over the country, depending on how successful it is in London I guess, then she’ll in there with her stroller, smugly mocking the Cath Kidston nappy bags. (If she’s buying the clothes, she’s probably washing them too. I’d like to see how those knits fare).
As for the hubby, there’s nothing he won’t be happy with, there’s nothing not to like.
Like Weekday, there is a sprinkling of other brands: they are using quality shoes like Tricker’s and R.M. Williams to elevate the clothes. The price points are £80 for a jumper and £45 for a pair of good quality long-johns, which to me feels more like a Swedish customer used to paying for quality and not a London or U.K. customer hooked and satisfied on cheap clothing.
There was a very nice Black Watch tartan mac, which won’t hang about for long, and, like all stores, you cherry pick the best pieces and ignore those that are over-priced or not special enough.
What Arket lacks in personality it makes up for in quality. This feels like a store for Millennial milfs and dilfs, which was perfectly illustrated by two dads proudly feeding their babies on the opening night, probably while their wives were busy shopping.
To call it a recession is maybe a little extreme, but let’s call it a contraction. Menswear is struggling. Some are mouthing the word #brexit but this was coming way before that and affecting international markets too, most notably America.
Like everything that goes in cycles, you have your ups and you have your downs. We’re definitely in a down cycle as brands merge their men’s and women’s and reduce the amount of labels within their brands.
Left - Inside menswear is screaming
Many are private companies so they don’t disclose profits, but when you have menswear giants like Armani and Ralph Lauren losing labels - Collezioni and Armani Jeans in the case of Armani and store closures - in the case of Ralph Lauren - then things are clearly unsustainable.
Why is this happening? The first big answer is a saturated market. Do we need much more ‘stuff’? When Ikea’s head of sustainability, Steve Howard, said we’d reached “peak stuff”, he hit the nail on the head. We’ve seen expansion online and offline and our wardrobes are bursting with clothes at every price point.
Designer fashion isn’t coming up with many new ideas and this has lead to the high-street bringing the new ideas and offering improved quality that many men are happy with. I think companies like ASOS are doing well because people are trading down to cheaper and more fun fashion and don't really wear it long enough to care about the quality.
Brands like Topman have got more and more expensive and are not reactive enough to trends and the latest gimmicks and fashions. They’ve believed in their own ‘cool’ which is dangerous for any brand. Arcadia, Topman’s parent company, has seen many high profile departures lately. Craig McGregor left his role as retail director at Topshop/Topman, after eight years, and Topshop/Topman global commercial director Matt Brewster is leaving the company. Wesley Taylor left his role as managing director of Burton and Yasmin Yusuf left as creative director of Miss Selfridge, both after more than 10 years at the business. Which all suggests the epic growth Arcadia has experienced over the last few decades has now ground to a halt. They are no longer the darling of the British high-street.
Another reason for the men’s downturn is competition is fierce and this had lead to a discount environment. People know they can wait for the sale or search the internet for a discount code. This makes margins smaller for companies which then need to sell even larger volumes. We’ve also seen growth in companies like TK Maxx that offer people the brands they want, but with heavy discounts.
Fashion has changed too. It’s very sportswear/dress down driven. These are cheap or old clothes. Looking ‘expensive’ has gone out of fashion. Brands like Balenciaga and Gosha Rubchinskiy have pioneered this style of fugly fashion and while not cheap they have prices that are more realistic and attainable.
Millennials are all about ‘experiences’ and are less materialistic, or so we’re are told. All those selfies tell a different story, but I think they want to eat out and wear something new, which ultimately means spending less. This big group of young consumers is squeezed by rents, student loans and low wages and this isn’t going to change for the foreseeable future.
In the Evening Standard on Monday, Net-a-Porter/Mr Porter boss, Alison Loehnis, said when they measured “zeitgeist buying” in the Mr Porter team they discovered the number one item was socks. “Followed by Ray-Bans and trainers.” Socks?!! Now, that is worrying. Unless Mr Porter is selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of socks, which I doubt, then it’s a signifier of the market. It’s too expensive and they are the cheapest things they sell. It’s also one of the main gifting items and something you don’t need to try on.
Online is still only 10% of the retail market so has huge potential, but that still means 9 in every 10 pounds is spent on the high street.
Net-a-Porter/Mr Porter call their top customers ‘EIPs’, (EXTREMELY IMPORTANT PERSON) and these EIPs are the two per cent of customers who account for 40 per cent of NAP revenue. It’s dangerous to have all your eggs in a few baskets, particularly a fickle customer which many others are chasing. They’re now offering a service where the driver waits while these EIPs try things on. It’s a gimmick, but at least it shows they’re trying. These EIPS are the people shopping in Selfridges and Harrods too, while the rest of us have seen our wage packets shrink or not go as far and designer prices continue to rise. #Brexit will make imports to the UK more expensive, temporarily, but fashion will just find somewhere cheaper to make it, but it’s true the weakest wont survive this price hike or margin cut.
Brands have been trimming the fat over the last few years and many are down to the bare bones. The recent christmas was good for retailers and I think that kept many afloat, for now.
Jaeger just announced its bankruptcy. I don’t think there’s much hope for it to survive as it is, but it’ll become a brand within Edinburgh Woollen Mill or the like. It’s the sign of the times and also the cycle of brands. There are times when a brand runs its course and no matter how much investment or time, it’s just time to let it go.
Okay, enough doom and gloom. On a positive note from a down you have an up and when a gap appears something new will come into fill it. But, our addiction to cheap clothes isn’t going anywhere which will make it very difficult for new, smaller brands or labels to compete. I think short term we’ll see more closures and less choice or a choice masked by the fact it’s a sub brand from a big retailer. H&M is just about to launch Arket.
One thing is for sure, fashion is unpredictable and that’s why I love it.