Carsten Skovgaard is shaking up John Lewis’s branded menswear with a focus on younger labels.
Recently back from Pitti Uomo and soon to embark on a trip to Berlin for more trade shows, Carsten Skovgaard, branded menswear buyer at John Lewis, is slap bang in the middle of buying season when he meets Drapers. And buying for spring 13 is set to be busier than usual as the department store chain attempts to buy in brands that will seduce a younger customer.
“We’re trying to move our customer from a classic John Lewis man, which is mid-30s to mid-40s, to the 20s. So we’re introducing the Diesels, the Firetraps, the Franklin & Marshalls to try to bring the younger guy in,” says Skovgaard. “We know the marketplace has a lot of young guys out there who will buy a TV or an iPad upstairs in John Lewis but never go to menswear. So we are trying to take some of their wallets.”
There is certainly an affluent customer out there that John Lewis is already attracting with its electronics department. “The first two to three days that we launched the iPad, we sold about 15,000 of them,” he says. “It’s amazing the numbers we can shift.”
In order to draw the customers down to the menswear department, John Lewis has been shaking up its brand mix and will open a 1,500 sq ft Ralph Lauren shop-in-shop this week, a brand which Skovgaard says will be on par with its best-seller Gant by the end of the year.
“What we’ve been doing in the past couple of seasons is cleaning up our brand portfolio,” says Skovgaard. “So we’ve been cleaning out the likes of Fat Face and White Stuff, Marc O’Polo – all those brands that have not been very high on any department stores’ target list lately, because they’re mainly high street brands – and bringing the right brands in.
We’re doing special brands online such as Merc, Nigel Hall and Farhi by Nicole Farhi.”
Andy Tompsett, head of the UK at young fashion brand Merc, says John Lewis’s success on sales of technology products, notably iPads, has an important link to men’s clothing sales. “What they’re doing is driving quite wealthy men and different aged men into the stores [with technology],” he says.
Brands such as Merc are just the sort of labels that John Lewis is looking to court as it attempts to make bolder choices. “In the past we have probably been a little bit too boring. We should probably start taking a few more chances now and be a bit more daring.”
When looking for a new brand, Skovgaard says John Lewis’s Never Knowingly Undersold price promise and its commitment to quality are never far from his mind, with pricing and quality his top two priorities: “The brand is important. It needs to be a brand people have heard of. The John Lewis customer is not very good with something he doesn’t know; people [need] something that is instantly recognisable for them.”
Sales in the branded business have grown 76% in the past four to five years. “We’ve increased the average selling price [of the branded collections], which was bound to happen when we introduced more premium brands and got rid of the lower priced stuff.
The consumer is actually reacting to it, and that is being proven in the numbers. Also we are constantly taking more market share,” says Skovgaard. Menswear sales are “considerably up on last year and ahead of budget”.
John Lewis’s menswear business is made up of 25% own-brand product with the rest dedicated to branded, but Skovgaard says this is changing. “It has grown slightly on own brand, but it is also in the plans to grow own brand further because it is much more profitable. It’s higher margin,” he adds.
Due to the margins being better on own brand, Skovgaard says that in the next four to five years the retailer is looking to shift the ratios to 30% of the menswear business being made up of own brand and 70% branded.
But even on the branded side, Skovgaard is also gunning for better margins: “We have in the past few seasons started to look at something we call a high-margin strategy within the brand business. So we’re looking at brands that can do that job for us.”
Skovgaard says the male customer has changed over the past few years and will now shop around instead of buying into one brand. As a result, individual pieces, rather than just the brand name, are also key.
“[As buyers] we need to say: ‘We need this in the collection. If you can’t give us this then we will walk away’. I think that is very important. Sometimes the brands dictate everything and the buyer just spends the money. We don’t dictate much, but we’re not having that anymore. Those days are over,” he insists.
He highlights both Wolsey and Scotch & Soda as two brands that are ahead of the curve at the moment due in part to their diverse and large collections. He adds, however, that there is not much out there that “jumps through hoops”, with many brands being careful and producing tight collections.
But Skovgaard believes that producing smaller collections is not the way to go. “What you end up with is all of the department stores looking exactly the same because the buyers go in and pick their 50% of their collection. What I want to do is to go into a showroom and pick 20% of the collection and leave the rest to the other buyers. There needs to be that differentiation and excitement, so I always encourage them to do more, but everybody’s costs are under scrutiny at the moment.”
With the spring 13 buying season now underway, Skovgaard has been scrutinising many brands’ collections at trade shows.
For spring 13 he has noticed some brands like Lyle and Scott, Ralph Lauren and Gant bringing some prices down. “I think it’s because when the market was so buoyant two to three years ago, everyone was putting their prices up by a fiver every season. Now they’ve realised this is not going to carry on.”
He adds: “There’s a very fine level within each of my classifications where the sweet price point is. I know the perfect number – you can go up or down slightly – but [if you go up too much then we don’t do the volume] it becomes another brand that sits there and doesn’t churn. You want to have the highest stock churn you can have so you can buy more.”
And what will John Lewis be offering its customers for spring 13? “The trend is still there on the colourful denim and chinos and it’s really exciting to see men being a bit more daring – I love it,” says Skovgaard. “It makes my job a bit more interesting rather than just navy and stone all the time, which is great for the continuity business but it makes the shop floor dance a little bit more.”
For the coming season Skovgaard has bought into coloured blazers, which he believes will sell well in John Lewis’s Knightsbridge store Peter Jones. “We do a lot on the colourful bottoms at Peter Jones so, hopefully, we’ll do quite a bit on the blazers there; they love a bit of colour the Sloaney Ponies.”