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Battle for brands leaves buyers playing spot the difference

Caroline Nodder

River Island’s decision to explore brands within its womenswear offer this week raises an interesting issue and highlights the way the sector has evolved in recent years according to both consumer behaviour and the financial pressures of the recession.

Where there used to be a clear divide between the branded offers in indie retail and the predominantly own brand clothing on the high street, that line has in recent times blurred. In part this has been driven by the consumer love affair with brands, and indeed the power a brand can have to command a premium price.

There is also the issue of risk. In times of recession managing risk is key, and for a high street retailer bringing on board a branded offer can at least mitigate that risk, particularly if a concession specialist is involved that can offer a wide selection of brands, both short order and forward order, that can be flexed according to what is selling. This brings a good element of reactivity to the offer and should ensure better sell-throughs over time.

It can also enable the retailer to introduce a different mix of product to widen its consumer appeal to different age groups or categories (like accessories and lingerie, for example) without needing to employ a lot of new people within its existing buying and merchandising teams.

Speaking to other high street retailers this week about the River Island move, it is clear many of them feel the retailer is actually quite late to this particular game, with others like Topshop having offered brands within their stores for some time.

The danger now is that if all the main high street players offer brands, with many stocking the same brands, that point of difference becomes less obvious. 

For indies, there is also the issue of added competition within the branded sector, and indeed certain brands that have been picked up by the high street are likely to lose wholesale accounts as indies seek to keep their offer different and their brands unique.

Underlying all this seems to be the fact that many brands are having to make a difficult choice between their wholesale and retail routes to market. When the pressure is on, indies in particular need to maintain their USP with a different brand mix their customers can’t get elsewhere, so when a brand like Superdry, for example, decides to push the product through its own retail channels the wholesale channel is directly affected. This is particularly pronounced when a brand fails to differentiate its product ranges for both channels and consumers can do direct price comparisons for the same T-shirt, for example, in an indie and neighbouring high street retailer.

It all goes to show how on top of their game both indies and multiples need to be. The best buyers will certainly be worth their weight in gold right now. 

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