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Why retailers are rebooting their own-label ranges

Modern rarity john lewis look 1

Debenhams, John Lewis, House of Fraser and Shop Direct are among the retailers rebooting their own-label ranges – and enjoying a direct impact on sales.

When Debenhams boss Sergio Bucher gave the first hint of his long-awaited strategy for the department store at the end of last year, he revealed plans to inject fresh blood into its long-standing Designers at Debenhams series. To kick off the changes, womenswear designer Betty Jackson’s eponymous collection was dropped and the menswear range produced by Warehouse co-founder Jeff Banks reduced to formal suits and shirts, leaving space for newer faces.

Debenhams is not the only retailer reviewing its in-house fashion offer. Towards the end of last year, House of Fraser shrunk its portfolio of womenswear house brands, axing four own labels in a bid to boost flagging sales. Both retailers have emphasised their commitment to own labels, but they have recognised the need to shake things up to compete in an increasingly crowded market.

More and more retailers are looking to own brands to drive customer loyalty and provide a crucial point of difference. Luxury retailer is poised to open its first store for own brand Raey in Notting Hill this spring, and Amazon has also been mulling the opportunities in private brands, launching new menswear label Buttoned Down in the US towards the end of last year. John Lewis and Shop Direct have also ramped up their offers within the last twelve months. 

We have to constantly evolve the offering, whether it’s adding new designers or reacting to trends

Debenhams group trading director Suzanne Harlow

While Debenhams is axing some of its designer collaborations, it is building on others. The Nine by Savannah Miller range, which launched 18 months ago, has since expanded into footwear and lingerie. It is also building on its collaboration with contemporary label Preen. Previously part of its smaller Edition concept, Preen will become a permanent part of Designers at Debenhams through new sub-brand Studio by Preen for spring 17.

Today’s customers are looking for “constant newness”, explains Debenhams group trading director Suzanne Harlow. “We spend a lot of time making sure each brand has its own design handwriting and that the price positioning is correct. What has happened recently is that the customer’s desire for newness, across all categories and all ages, has accelerated as people find inspiration from the internet and social media. We have to constantly evolve the offering, whether it’s adding new designers or reacting to trends, like moving into separates in our occasionwear.”

She points out that successful house brands can be sold through third parties, helping retailers to tap into a different customer base. For example, Debenhams’ Star by Julien Macdonald range is sold on Lipsy and H by Henry Holland and swimwear from Butterfly by Matthew Williamson are both available through Asos.

“It felt like a natural evolution,” Harlow adds. “We started to sell Faith footwear on Asos three years ago and we’ve developed a good relationship with the team. We learned a lot of lessons through the footwear connection and, because we have a strong designer swimwear business, Asos was really keen to take Butterfly.

“The customer profile on Asos is younger, so we don’t see it as competing. We’re also selective about the brands that appear on there and they’re selective about what they take.”

Modern rarity john lewis look 12

Modern Rarity

Modern Rarity SS17

A “unique proposition”

John Lewis has been building its own-brand fashion, launching affordable luxury label Modern Rarity in September last year. It already had men’s and women’s wear range Kin and heritage menswear line John Lewis & Co.

The collection seeks to offer an alternative to fast fashion and is founded on the principle of buying fewer, but better pieces, designed to last more than one season. Prices for the spring 17 collection range from £60 for a silk camisole top to £360 for a leather coat. 

Although the retailer has not released exact sales figures, John Lewis chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield said investment in the label had “really delivered”, adding that own-brand fashion will be a key focus throughout 2017. 

A strong own-brand fashion offer is increasingly important for John Lewis, explains head of womenswear buying Jo Bennett, who created Modern Rarity alongside head of design Iain Ewing: “We’re absolutely focused on developing and differentiating the John Lewis womenswear proposition. Combining our own labels alongside new and emerging brands is key to this, and provides us with a unique proposition that you can’t find anywhere else on the high street.”

Harlow agrees: “Half of everything we sell is exclusive to us and Designers at Debenhams is 20% of UK turnover. Exclusive product gives retailers a point of difference and a reason for customers to shop with you.”

It’s about investing in good-quality but highly relevant styles with more longevity

Shop Direct group product director Matt Dixon

Identifying a gap in the market and recognising a shift in how customers shop was key to making Modern Rarity work when it launched, explains Bennett: “Along with our teams, Iain and I put a great amount of time and care into the brand. We ensured it was a focused collection with surprising elements. Working collaboratively with our supply base, we focused on the design of each individual piece, considering every stitch, every cut of fabric, as well as the silhouette and the texture of each item.”

Luxury off season etailer the Outnet launched its house brand Iris & Ink in 2012. Chief merchant Shira Suveyke agrees that filling a gap in the market is key for an own brand: “Quality, accessibility and positioning are essential to the success of any house brand. An in-house label allows you to control the product lifestyle – everything from the brand concept to upload on the site. By working with directly with factories and fabric suppliers, we’re able to offer amazing quality while also making strong margins.”

Shop Direct, which operates ecommerce site Very, used its encyclopaedia of customer data to launch its own line, V by Very. The range encompasses womenswear, menswear and kidswear and launched in September last year.

It is already on track to become one of Very’s biggest brands within the next financial year, says group product director Matt Dixon: “We’re famous for brands but we didn’t want to just be famous for other people’s brands. We’ve had a number of disparate own-label brands for some time but none of them were very broad or deep.

Studio by preen £65 resized

Studio by Preen

Studio by Preen

“We have huge amounts of data, and we’ve really been able to motor with that and use it evaluate how our customer likes to buy clothes, how she views them, how much she wants to spend. We can tell quite easily when she’s likely to buy. With the biblical weather we’ve been having, it’s a real advantage to be fleet of foot.”

As with John Lewis’s Modern Rarity, Dixon adds that a strong brand handwriting has helped V by Very get off to a flying start: “It’s important that an own label is consistent and high quality, so the customer knows what she’s buying and what she’s going to get every time. Our customer isn’t chasing as hard for constant newness, it’s more about investing in good-quality but highly relevant styles with more longevity than some of the other brands online.”

The raft of new in-house fashion brands from department stores, etailers and luxury brands shows there is still an appetite for own label fashion. In an increasingly competitive environment, a strong in-house brand can help retailers lure customers away from their rivals.

House brands by numbers

  • 25% of John Lewis shoppers have bought John Lewis & Co in the past year
  • 19% bought Collection by John Lewis
  • 32% of M&S shoppers bought into M&S Collection and 20% bought Autograph
  • 16% of Debenhams customers bought Red Herring
  • 20% of UK turnover is from Designers at Debenhams*

Source: Verdict Retail survey of 2,000 UK consumers in November 2016, except for *


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