The sun is out and trading has picked up, imbuing fashion retailers with a renewed sense of optimism. Consumers seem reassuringly eager to spend despite the uncertain political climate, spurred no doubt by the summer Sales.
Over at 50-plus value womenswear retailer Bonmarché, however, the forecast is cloudier. This week it revealed a disappointing set of full-year results and admitted that it has not modernised its product, stores and systems quickly enough to combat external pressures.
Chief executive Helen Connolly is rightly cautious about dramatically overhauling Bonmarché’s product, for fear of alienating its existing customers. Having said that, fashion today is much less defined by age and if she does not evolve its offer, it will founder.
Last Friday I caught a train to Coventry to visit Sainsbury’s commercial director James Brown. During a wide-ranging conversation about the current and future direction of the supermarket’s clothing brand, Tu, he said it does not design clothing for a specific age group or customer profile. Instead, it interprets the same trends for all of its customers, in ways that suit different age groups.
Of course, Bonmarché is less concerned with the latest catwalk trends than Tu. Nonetheless, it could learn from this approach: think design first, age second.
Brown gave me a sneak peek at Tu’s autumn 17 collections. Shorts, embroidered jeans, blouses, smart jackets and chunky-knit cardigans were layered in together to offer a smart-casual, trans-seasonal mix that caters to the unpredictability of the British weather. Similarly, Bonmarché has identified that its product is too casual and therefore too weather dependent, and is shifting its mix to become more trans-seasonal.
Similarly, Bonmarché has identified that its collections are too weather-dependent, but its solution is to introduce more smart-casual elements into the mix. The sooner Connolly can move Bonmarché away from the model of fixed-season and age-led design, the better. External market pressures notwithstanding, the 50-plus market is still forecast for growth, so there is ample opportunity for Bonmarché if it can crack its product.
The full interview with Sainsbury’s James Brown will be published on 7 July.