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IMC sets out a survival strategy for menswear

The classic menswear indie market is sure that if brands and retailers stick together, it can beat the recession

Last week, some of the leading retailers in the classic menswear market from across the UK got together to discuss the future of the sector.

The gathering, at the House of Commons in London, was made up of members of the 80-strong Independent Menswear Company (IMC) buying group, and included a mixture of single-store operators, department stores and suppliers, including trouser brand Meyer, tailoring brand Magee and shirt manufacturer Seidensticker. The topic up for discussion was how menswear retailers and suppliers could best see out the recession and beyond.

According to figures from retail research firm TNS FashionTrak, total menswear sales for the year to March 1 were down 3% on the previous year to £9.46 billion. Sales at independents were also down 3%, while department stores, supermarkets and mail-order businesses all increased their menswear sales.

But while the downward sales trend was more marked in the younger menswear market, the over-35-year-old category was different. Although the total value of sales fell 3%, indies’ sales in this sector fell the least (except for mail order), dipping just 1% to £515.6 million, suggesting that classic menswear indies could be more resilient.

Dave Seed, managing director of classic menswear indie Hellewell in Preston, Lancashire, and an IMC member, says retailers are determined to step up a gear and maintain market share. He says: “The mood among retailers at the meeting was that although things are a little tight at the moment, it could be worse. The general theme was that independents have to raise their game and do things as well as the big boys - quarterly newsletters, special offers, great websites, and the enthusiasm to get up in the morning and be the best.”

Independents have had to battle with an increasing amount of discounting on the high street, but Seed says there is a growing realisation that trying to compete with that is not an option.

Working in partnership

“We should not focus on outside issues that we have little or no control over, but should all be analysing our businesses and take a hard look at making some changes with regard to targets and selling techniques,” he says.

Partnership between retailers and suppliers is key. Seed says the most forward-thinking retailers work well with their suppliers and will be well placed to ride out the hard times, leaving them in an excellent position to take full advantage when the economy improves.

One supplier at the event was William Heaton, joint managing director of Saville Heaton, which owns the Oakman, GB Clothing and Life & Limb brands.Heaton says retailers and suppliers in the classic menswear sector are determined to work closer together to get through the economic downturn. “Our costs have gone up because of the exchange rate, but we have not passed all of it on to the retailer,” he says.
“We’ve taken a long-term view. We have long partnerships with some retailers stretching back decades, and you can’t just suddenly say this was £10, now it’s £12.50. You have to gradually ease in any necessary price hikes.”

The classic menswear independent market is resilient, with in many cases loyal and regular customers built up over generations. And with many businesses owning their own freehold, they hold a strong advantage over larger chains which have big rent bills.

Heaton believes the sector is one of the most determined to ride out the economic downturn. He says: “The menswear indie doesn’t have anywhere else to go [outside of the business], and that’s a big incentive for them. In the end that’s good because it forces them to work really hard at it.”

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