George at Asda’s brand director was set the target of making the supermarket brand the UK’s number one in clothing volume market share by 2011 - and she is confident of hitting the bullseye
George at Asda had a go at recapturing the success it enjoyed in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the darling of value fashion by bringing in a new management team in 2005, but as market share figures suggested, something wasn’t quite right. The supermarket’s answer was to bring in Fiona Lambert.
Having moved back and forth between mid-market retailer Next and George over a 22-year period, Lambert rejoined the supermarket brand (she was part of founder George Davies’ team in 1989) as brand director in 2007. Three months later, former Marks & Spencer head of retail operations Anthony Thompson took over from Angela Spindler as managing director. Together with merchandising director Andrew Moore, who was also at M&S as director of general merchandise planning, the three make up George’s new dream team.
Their efforts are paying off, with George having knocked Tesco off its perch as number-one supermarket - one of Thompson’s two major goals, which were set a year ago. The other is to take the top spot in volume market share for clothing by 2011, an ambition that could soon become a reality after George increased its share by 10% for the 12 weeks to February 1, according to industry sources.
“We will only get to number one in 2011 if the product is right, and that’s my part of the bargain,” Lambert says. While Thompson sets the targets, it’s down to Lambert to deliver on merchandise. “I love the challenge and I don’t mind the responsibility being on my shoulders,” she jokes.
A product person through and through, Lambert is well placed to handle the pressure. Julian Kilmartin, former menswear trading director at M&S, who also worked with Lambert in a previous role at Next, says she is a real asset to George. “Fiona is very commercial and has the sort of experience that is quite rare today,” he explains. “But I’m not sure she gets the opportunity to be creative enough at George.”
Quite the opposite, says Lambert. “George has always been a market leader and one of the reasons I returned is because I enjoy being entrepreneurial,” she says. “Launching the mid-size jeans, for example, shows how important it is for George to be first to market. People had been crying out for them.”
The launch in February of mid-size jeans, which come in in-between sizes 11, 13 and 15, is one example of how Lambert has stuck to her side of the bargain. She has improved the quality of George’s collections and refocused on its core 25- to 45-year-old age group by streamlining its sub-brands and ensuring the mainline represents 70% of the total offer. She also launched two sub-brands - Moda for women and Boston Crew for men - both for customers aged 45-plus.
Late last year, George’s website became transactional and more than a quarter of a million customers are visiting the site each week.
“We’ve grown market share both in value and volume, and Moda in particular has been a great success,” says Lambert. “When I came back to George, I felt we did fast fashion well but not necessarily at very good quality, or we did great quality but the clothes were boring. It’s important to deliver both.”
Lambert puts the success into context by saying George’s returns rate reduced last year by 15%, saving £10 million. As a result, the business has invested £30m into upgrading the quality of the product, which, according to Lambert, should be in line with Next and M&S to satisfy George’s customers.
But not everyone is convinced the quality is up to scratch. “There is no way George is competing with Next and M&S on quality,” says one value clothing boss. “And it shouldn’t be, otherwise it would have to put its prices up.”
Lambert disagrees: “Hand on heart, I think we offer the same quality as Next and M&S. We use a lot of the same factories that they do, and factories can’t change their quality standards.”
To prove her point, Lambert shows Drapers two men’s shirts - one from the spring 09 range and one from last season. “You can see that last year the collar was quite floppy, this year’s is stiffer,” she says. “On men’s T-shirts, I wasn’t happy with the cotton weight of 140 grams, so I’ve upped it.” George has also used a more tightly woven fabric on men’s white shirts to make them less transparent.
Last summer, Thompson launched an aggressive back-to-school campaign, undercutting the price of M&S’s school uniforms. Sources suggest that George is now the top kidswear retailer by volume, above Next.
Lambert admits the supermarket is seeing bigger growth in kidswear than adultwear. “One recession-proof sector is kidswear,” she says. “We’ve also significantly grown in babywear.” George carries out 11 fabric tests on its babywear, from pH testing to print durability.
But with quality so important to the George customer and the weak sterling raising supplier costs in autumn 09, how will George protect margin and keep prices low? “I can’t discuss profitability, but we’ve spent a lot of time working with our supply base,” Lambert explains. “We’re using similar fabrics across a number of lines, so we’re buying in bulk. We’re growing our business by using fewer suppliers who can give us the best quality.”
Lambert would not be drawn on the assumption that by delivering the same quality as Next and M&S but at lower prices, it could be stealing some of their customer base. “I don’t know about that,” she says. “I know we get 17 million customers coming to Asda every week and not all of them shop at George, so they’re untapped potential.”
Lambert’s passion for George on a professional level extends to her personal wardrobe too. “I wear a lot of George. I want to be its brand
ambassador,” she smiles, modelling a Grecian-inspired maxi dress from the supermarket’s spring 09 range. Clearly, she already is.
- 2007 Brand director, George at Asda
- 1999 Womenswear product director, Next
- 1998 Design director, George at Asda
- 1989 Senior buyer - womenswear, George at Asda
- 1987 Buyer, Next
- 1985 Trainee designer, Next
- 1982 BA in Fashion Design, Trent Polytechnic
Who is your fashion mentor?
George Davies [founder of George at Asda]. I worked with him for 15 years and was involved with George’s launch. He’s an incredible entrepreneur, with a real focus on the customer. Whatever the price, he sets a high standard on design and development. He started me on that route and I owe him that.
Which is your favourite retailer?
It would have to be Selfridges. It has a really broad selection of product but it edits it very well. I like the way it almost creates different shopping environments. I also like shops that have nice architecture, like the Paul Smith and Colette stores in Paris.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
George’s little black coat, which we launched in October. I’m very proud of the volume we sold on that - we sold 250,000. The quality was great and we probably could have sold even more. In the first two hours alone, we sold 15,000.
What has been your proudest achievement?
I’m really proud of launching the Moda sub-brand because it was something that our customers wanted so much.
What would be your dream job (apart from your current position?)
I’ve always wanted to be in fashion and since the age of 11 I said I would be a fashion designer. But if I had to choose, I would go to the other end of market and do couture eveningwear. If I had a bit of extra time, I would also do a bit of lecturing. It would be great to get the best out of British talent.