People love good shops. It might not be cool to admit it, but watching the hordes of people flocking after each and every lockdown to their local high-street is testament to this being true. While online shopping has seen record growth over the past year, nearly £7 in every £10 is still spent offline. According to the UK Government’s Office of National Statistics internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales (ratio) (%) hit a record 36% in November 2020. Online had been growing steadily towards 20% of total retail sales, but, thanks to lockdowns and the COVID outbreak, it has leapt to above 30%. But, eventually the growth with slow and then will plateau. So, where is the optimism around physical retail?
Left - Do we need a national campaign to remind people how good shops can be?
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Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? That’s a question surrounding the announcement that Harrods, arguably the most famous shop in the world, is opening a network of beauty stores.
The new concept is going to be called ‘H Beauty’ in a move away from the green and gold of the familiar Harrods branding. The first store will launch in spring 2020 at the Lakeside shopping centre in Thurrock, closely followed by a second store in Milton Keynes.
At the same time, Harrods has also opened an ‘H Café’ in Henley-on-Thames. Opened last month, it aims to be somewhere you can enjoy the Knightsbridge department store's food whilst also having a selection of food, drink and home accessories to shop from. You can also shop on the Harrods website and use click and collect to pick up your purchases.
Left - H Beauty is new for 2020
What both these concepts have in common is the lack of the Harrods name, arguably their greatest asset. Is this a branding mistake?
Eric Musgrave, fashion industry commentator and former editor of Drapers, says, “Apart from its less-than-impressive airport shops, which always seem like upmarket tourist boutiques, Harrods has resisted the chance to open stores beyond Brompton Road. I am sure the airport shops take loads of money, but the strategy of maintaining just one “real” Harrods seems eminently sensible.
“Harrods did not open regional satellites like its direct upmarket department store rivals, Harvey Nichols (six UK regional stores plus one in Dublin) and Selfridges (three regional stores, including two in Manchester). If you want the Harrods experience, there is only one place to go. It’s a compelling argument.” he says.
“With reference to its two ventures into beauty and into a café, it is significant it is not using the Harrods name.” says Musgrave. “It is using H. That seems sensible to me. Will the connection to consumers be obvious? These are clearly an experiment that could be quietly closed down if they don’t work and gently extended if they do. On the face of it, it is a curious move, but I do not think it is danger of diluting the main Harrods brand.” he says.
The new beauty boutiques will host new brands to Harrods and offer services such as blow-dries and facials plus a “coffee-to-cocktail” bar for the complete shopping experience. Harrods said the launch is part of its efforts to “disrupt the UK beauty retail landscape” by bringing its brand to a wider audience across the UK. No doubt they’ve looked at the demise of the traditional department store and the success of Sephora globally, but not in the UK.
Annalise Fard, director of beauty at Harrods, said: “Nobody is doing or investing more to showcase to customers what is possible in the world of 21st-century beauty than Harrods. H beauty is an opportunity to bring our mission to more beauty lovers across the UK. This investment demonstrates our belief in the strength of our beauty authority and the opportunities within the beauty industry here in the UK and represents a major extension to our current beauty business.”
Right - H Café Henley on Thames
David M Watts, Industry Consultant, says, “It’s potentially a great money spinner as beauty is fast becoming the entry into luxury (whereas it was accessories and fragrance) both designer brands (Chanel/DIOR/GUCCI) and celebrity Fenty Beauty and professional Pat McGrath and Charlotte Tilbury have sold out in stores like Bergdorf Goodman in NYC. Beauty is a smart way to engage with customers with try before you buy, makeovers and allowing experimentation in store.”
“H Café is a good idea for brand extension again if done right. Ivy Club/Restaurant have done it and VOGUE Magazine has created there cafe brand in overseas territories like Dubai, Moscow and Berlin.” says Watts.
Is it a mistake not to use the full Harrods name? “Possibly, but one assumes it will ally itself to the Harrods brand in some way with branding-colour design. Plus they want to identify with a new market so a rebrand of the new offering is not a wholly bad idea.
“Beauty is an exciting category with big margins. The recent GUCCI lipstick in vintage packaging is estimated to have sold 1 million lipsticks in its first month of launch at £34 per unit.” he says.
What advice would you offer them? "Include men's beauty - hugely growing sector underdeveloped and a perfect opportunity to test customer reaction. ‘Men's Beauty’ (not grooming) is estimated to be 1.14 billion dollars in 2019.
“Develop new experiential in-store concepts for men’s and women’s that gets customer engagement and generates buzz, allowing customers to create assets for Instagram and other social media platforms.” says Watts.
Julien Sheridan,J Co-Founder &CEO www.sheridanandco.com, a global retail design agency, says, “I think it is a great idea. People like to buy luxury products in luxury surroundings, and I imagine that this will be a great success. They are extending an offering that they are already excellent at, not “having a go” at something new.
“The brands that they sell can only be delighted, as they know that Harrods will have studied intelligently in the data they hold before deciding to take this step.” she says.
“I like H Beauty. It gives them an opportunity to do their thing a little differently in here without upsetting the brand guidelines that they have in Knightsbridge. Harrods is Harrods, and H Beauty will be a little “lighter” perhaps and a plus side of being out of Central London and with parking at Intu this may be being positioned with a different customer in mind.
“Beauty, as a category is flying, and a career in beauty is now a very respectable, highly paid, arena to be in. I love the fact that they will be offering training, a beauty concierge and masterclasses.” she says.
“The advice I would offer them is “carry on Harrods, you know what you are doing, and you do it brilliantly” so do not listen to the doubters. Beauty belongs to beauty, it is it’s own category, and a buying it in chemist shops does not “do it” for a lot of people.” says Sheridan.
Other retailers will be watching what and how Harrods does here. Globally, the Harrods name is as strong as other great British luxury brands, regardless of ownership, such as Rolls Royce and Cunard, but, until now, and apart from the airport stores, it hasn’t tried to expand its footprint.
Why now? It’s a tough time in retail and many people say the beauty market, particularly the colour segment, has become saturated and is struggling.
Left - Recognisably Harrods?
Many people may wonder why Harrods isn’t putting its efforts into harrods.com. This has the potential to be a huge global player in e-commerce rather than a shop window for the Knightsbridge store.
“They have tried I understand, but inside sources tell me that it's so political and departmentalised that the e-commerce has always faced insurmountable obstacles.” says Watts.
“In terms of the business doing more online, I would counsel against that.” says Musgrave. “Except for a tiny bit of own-label merchandise (and more in food, obviously), Harrods sells only third-party brands. What it sells – and this is unique – is the Harrods experience that requires a visit to the store at Knightsbridge. I’d leave it at that.” he says.
With so much bad news in retail it will be very welcome, especially for the regional shopping store owners like Intu, to have a new successful chain, regardless of the name. Harrods aren’t the first people to think of this beauty idea though, you only have to look at the new fancy Boots in Covent Garden, which has become something of an unofficial centre of beauty brands in London, with its beauty hall and YouTube studio, to prove how people are piling into specific beauty retail.
While there is scope to pick up the slack from the closing department stores, offer something fresher and more contemporary than say Space NK, and get in there early before the rumoured relaunch of Sephora in the UK, it is becoming more competitive. The Harrods' H could just swing it.
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If things weren’t getting hard enough for ‘fast-fashion’ retailers along comes ‘Extinction Rebellion’ (XR). Protests the world over are warning of impending doom and trying to ram home and ostracise those who continue to shop at brands and retailers vilified for producing clothing that is deemed to be disposable.
While the traditional high-street has struggled, both here and in the US, Forever 21 filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, for example, the winners of the fashion internet, such as ASOS and Zalando, appear to be slowing. Recent profit warnings and falling share prices have put a wobble in this bright spark of retail.
Left - An impromptu anti-fashion show in London's Oxford Circus
While ASOS is expected to show an uplift in revenues this week, could this be the peak for these types of retailers? Is the much publicised message of Extinction Rebellion cutting through to the buying public and will this prove to be a tipping point for ‘Fast-Fashion’?
Morgan Stanley recently said the volume of clothes shoppers buy has plateaued, "we suspect it's primarily because consumers are now buying clothing in such large quantities that they get very little marginal 'utility' from any additional items.” they said.
Retailers such as Primark, H&M and Boohoo rely on large volumes with small profit margins. Is this slowing more a result of saturation rather than the start of a boycott of ‘fast-fashion’ brands for environmental concerns?
“There is some very muddled thinking around the debate on how to make the 21st-century world more environmentally-friendly.” says Eric Musgrave, fashion industry commentator and former editor of Drapers. “I am sure the fashion industry is wasteful, but I’d like to know which large-scale industries are not. Who, for example, ever talks about mass-produced furniture, or pots and pans? I am not an apologist for the fashion business, but it is seen largely as a frivolous unnecessary luxury, not a necessity, hence it is an “easy” (or some would argue “legitimate”) target.” he says.
“I see no desire from the mass of the British public to change their buying habits. It would be wrong to confuse problems that may have risen at individual companies like Quiz and ASOS with overall trends.
“Too often overlooked in all this analysis is that the UK is a very troubled economy, with little sign of it improving any time soon. We have had 11 years of austerity and many people do not have much money. Asking them to forgo the pleasures they derive from cheap fast fashion is the epitome of wishful thinking.” he says. “Fast fashion is here to stay for decades to come – within the sector there will always be winners and losers.
And ask yourself, seriously, what lasting impact on fast fashion did the grim Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka in 2013 have?”
“The fast fashion firms will not adjust their model. If some disappear, others will appear to take their place.” he says. “Finally, I await the explanation from Extinction Rebellion and the like about what all the many millions of people who earn a living in the fashion supply chain will do if it were to shut down tomorrow.”
Fast-fashion retailer Quiz, a fast growing newcomer to the market, recently announced lower sales in the first half of the year in the face of a “very challenging” high street. The retailer said its stores and concessions had suffered weaker-than-expected sales over the six months to September after a slump in footfall. Quiz reported that total group revenues slipped 5% to £63.3 million during the period, as online growth (7%) failed to offset its high street decline.
The entire fashion industry seems quite content to push all the heat onto these ‘fast-fashion’ retailers. Now public enemy No.1, ‘fast-fashion’ has become a scapegoat for the fashion industry in general. Arguably, all fashion is fast and in its nature it is disposable. People are being forced to question their purchases and asking themselves if they really need it, but is it significantly changing behaviour?
As part of Extinction Rebellion’s #XR52 weeks of direct action, they are urging people to #BOYCOTTFASHION for a whole year, in order to disrupt business-as-usual and send a message to government, industry and public alike that enough is enough.
Olly Rzysko CMO + Retail Advisor, says, “It will take something big for there to be a significant shift, eg the ‘blue planet’ plastic straw moment.”
Kathryn Bishop, Deputy editor - LS:N Global, says, “On Question Time last week, an audience member said David Attenborough spoke to her more than XR activity did. Sadly…”
It appears people are still buying clothes in volume, but we reached a peak a few years back. Kantar data suggests consumers in the UK are buying 50 items of clothing a year, up from 20 items in the 1990s but down from 52 three years ago. In the US the figure is estimated to be as high as 65 items a year, compared with between 40 and 50 in the 1990s and almost 70 in 2005.
"Put simply, consumers would rather spend their marginal dollar on, say, going out for a meal, than on buying a 60th item of clothing in a year,” Morgan Stanley analysts Geoff Ruddell, Kimberly Greenberger and Maki Shinozaki said in their report.
"It is our contention, therefore, that the apparel markets in many developed countries may now be entering a lengthy period of structural decline.” they said. The main catalyst for increased consumption was falling prices. "If clothing volumes are plateauing in developed countries, the only way the apparel markets there can grow is if clothing prices go up," the report said. "But (potential US tariff impacts aside) we think it more likely that they will continue to fall ... as production continues to shift from China to lower-cost countries in the region (such as Vietnam and Bangladesh)," it said.
US clothing prices have fallen by 0.8 per cent a year since 2001, while UK prices fell for 13 consecutive years until 2010. Volumes in the UK have more than doubled since 1998 and US volumes have grown almost 50 per cent since 2001, driving 28 per cent market growth. "Expecting consumers to buy clothing in ever-larger volumes, in response to ever-lower prices, was never likely to be sustained in the very long term," the Morgan Stanley report said. The allure of buying has also gone with consumers already own so many clothes that each new item they purchase doesn't spark happiness the report also said.
Personal stylist Elsa Boutaric with a focus on sustainable fashion and helping people build a sustainable wardrobe, and spend less, says with regards to the #ExtinctionRebellion movement, “I think it is definitely raising awareness of the issues surrounding fast-fashion, and putting it into the minds of the consumer. Publishing reports, stats and figures of the actual effect that the message is having has the potential to be more valuable in driving change.” she says
Is this the tipping point for fast-fashion?
“Consumer behaviour patterns are changing and though we still live in a generation of convenience, consumers are looking for more sustainable and ethical options than a cheap pair of jeans and shoes.” says Boutaric. “People shop on ASOS because it is a viable option compared to other online shops, so when their customer base moves away to look for sustainable alternatives, they don’t have anything to fall back on.
“ASOS is middle market, combined with high street and doesn’t really have a place in the future of fashion unless it learns to adapt, and this is what it is going to have to prove it can to do both its customers and its investors in order to secure its future.” she says.
“The disadvantage they (fast-fashion retailers) have is that they deliver huge volumes on low margins, so would need to change their business model drastically. This isn’t easy to do when you have developed a position in a market place and it would mean working with new designers and increase their prices. This not only has the potential to reflect badly on their own brand, but also the designers that they work with." she says.
Right - Are you ready to boycott fashion for a year? #ExtinctionRebellion
“They would need to introduce charitable angles or work with ethical designers without damaging their reputation or losing their market. Also, they would need to manage their stock and not have so much go to waste sitting in warehouses waiting to be sold. This could mean a change in manufacturers and distributors which could prove costly and time consuming. There are several factors that businesses would need to consider, and not all of them will survive.” she says.
“There has certainly been a shift, and it is being driven by consumers and some brands are struggling to keep up, but others are adapting and thriving.” says Boutaric. “I don’t think it’s a case of reducing their consumption, it’s more consumers buying more ethical options. More people are only buying what they need, or shopping charity shops, or attending clothes swaps. Buying new seems to be a new slur, unless it’s from ethical brands and designers.” she says.
We are constantly told that young people are the most engaged in these types of environmental movements and it’s their future we are ruining, but they are also fast-fashion’s target demographic and consumers. There’s a big disconnect here.
There could be a perfect storm brewing for fast-fashion with XR. If it connects with young people’s behaviour it could be significant. A swing away from this type of consumption could be detrimental to these giants of fashion.
Fast-fashion retailers are starting to make green noises with second hand stores - Read more here - popping up and others like H&M and Next moving into selling other brands to off-set the malaise in their own - Read more here - but investors think long term and will need to feel confident that these retailers will continue to grow and be profitable. One thing is certain, brands and retailers will want to distance themselves from the term 'fast-fashion' and its negative connotations. There needs to be a groundswell from the people passionately protesting at Extinction Rebellion to the average British consumer.
'Fast-Fashion' is the OxyContin of the fashion industry. Going cold turkey could have some serious side effects.
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As nearly as delayed as the Elizabeth Line, well, not quite, the new Flannels on the eastern side of Oxford Street has been the most anticipated addition to London’s busiest retail thoroughfare this year.
Sandwiched between Marks & Spencer’s Pantheon store and Matalan, this four storey, 18,000 sq ft store, selling designer clothes and accessorises, has been 3 years in the making. The entire building was purchased for £108 million in 2016 by a Sports Direct subsidiary and doubles as office space for its parent group. Part of Mike Ashley’s growing empire, it is the debut of Flannels in Central London.
Left - Veja display inside the new Oxford Street Flannels
This is Flannels' 44th store in the UK, after a lightning expansion, with a further 15 stores coming this year alone. In 2012, sportswear giant Sports Direct bought a majority 51% stake in Flannels and in September 2017 they acquired the brand in full and began investing in and opening stores.
It is worth noting Sports Direct also own other premium fashion chains such as USC, Cruise and Van Mildert, but, it is Flannels which has been chosen to lead the designer crusade to “elevate” the company. Sports Direct currently has an obsession with moving from discounted sports to full price branded.
Mike Ashley said at a recent shareholder meeting regarding Flannels, “I think they are better than any other stores in the market. Now, I might have rose-tinted glasses but one of the reasons is because I have absolutely nothing to do with it. I just sign off the money. It has nothing to do with Mike Ashley.
“It’s not just a few show stores. When you have a pipeline it takes time. I’m telling you – this is for real. The reality is, I’m telling you it is real and the proof of the pudding will be when they start to roll out. It’s happening, it’s coming. It’s just not as fast as I would like it.
“I’m going to do the same with House of Fraser and get around to elevating. The modern-day consumer – that’s what they want. It could be Stone Island, it could be Nike and Adidas – it’s all about the branded world.
“Maybe I was late to the party, I accept that. Maybe my son-in-law should’ve gone out with my daughter when she was 12, but now we’re on it, nothing’s going to get us off it.”
Oxford Street is their new flagship and is a physical testament to their ambitious intentions of becoming “the biggest global luxury retailer,”. This is what Sports Direct Group’s head of elevation, Mike Murray, Mike Ashley’s daughter’s boyfriend, told Drapers in March. He went on, “We’re in the early stages, but we have a clear vision for Flannels, we have ambition and we are willing to invest,”.
Right - Art on the second floor
The £10 million new store has been designed by Italian studio P con P, and you can see the Gucci influence in the rugs, over blown William Morris type screens, 1970s brass changing rooms and waiting areas and contrasting use of materials.
The store is split into women’s accessorises on ground, womenswear in the basement, men’s designer on first and men’s accessorise and sportswear on the second, though there wasn’t much difference between the latter two. The second-floor will also house the first ever UK retail space for US footwear brand Flight Club and the store offers services such as Click & Collect and personal styling.
One notable difference was the huge amount of staff, all dressed in black. I was told 50 members of staff currently work there. I visited on a late Tuesday afternoon and the only people seriously buying were a group of Asian tourists in the Gucci men’s section. They’d probably never heard of Flannels before.
I expected to see the usual chav labels such as Off-White and Burberry, which were there, but, interestingly, there were also brands such as Barena, Brioni, Alanui and JW Anderson. There was even a diamond necklace for nearly £60,000. I did ask how many they’d sold that week?!
Cire Trudon candles, Acqua Di Parma fragrances and Ganni dresses were also spied, and while nothing particularly revolutionary, it is difficult to pick holes in.
“His whole plan for 100 Flannels stores is bonkers. Knock a nought off, mate!” says Eric Musgrave, former editor of Drapers and fashion industry consultant. “It will be a ghost town for 5 or 6 days a week. Wrong location. Too big. Offering nothing you can't get in the West End or Knightsbridge already.” he says.
“My guess is that they will leave it as it is for two or three years, then reorganise it, making the Flannels area smaller and bringing in USC and SD. But, I believe Ashley owns the building, so he can run it as a vanity project.” says Musgrave.
Left - Display in collaboration with artist, Alec Monopoly
The simile I would use is, it’s like an Essex nightclub, which, if playing the right music, you’d have a good time in. And that’s what the clothes and buy is, the music.
(The security guards do look a bit like bouncers though, and one made me delete a picture I took on my phone of the new store *eyeroll*).
There’s nothing to fault in the design and money spent, it feels premium and everything is nicely presented, but Flannels has a problem with the snobby stigma London has towards Mike Ashley. He needs to distance himself like he says above.
People will need persuading to part with their cash here, unless it is product they can’t get anywhere else. Flannels needs to change perceptions so people are happy to be seen swinging a Flannels bag when they leave. It’s just not cool right now. They need to turn into leaders rather than just flogging the same old mega brands to punters.
Right - That £60,000 necklace
They own the building here, so are here for the long haul, but it will be interesting to see how it develops and how long they stick to this initial format. Flannels recorded sales of £173.9 million in its latest financial year, up 12 per cent from 2018. It’s growing because it is rapidly expanding, it obviously wants to get to the point where is it more powerful than the brands, rather than the other way around currently. I can imagine many luxury brands, currently, being cautious about choosing them as a stockist, but watch this space as they grow.
Flannels will also struggle with some of the quality of the product, and disappointed consumers. Read Gucci Quality Is Rubbish - here - which isn’t their fault.
Left - Flannels Oxford Street exterior. Sports Direct own the entire building
Sports Direct want more elevation than the Wright brothers, but it’s going to be expensive and I can't help think that 100 stores is too many, especially when you’re trying to sell £900 Gucci hoodies. Even though this is on Oxford Street, it needs to become a destination. It feels like the kind of store going against the retail tide, but I certainly admire the ambition.
Below - Interior shot of the new Flannels Oxford Street store