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Confident collections, not heavy discounting wins over shoppers

Last week, I spent a couple of days ‘undercover’ in Watford, analysing the autumn 12 collections of 15 high street retailers.

I won’t give too much away – all will be revealed in the first of our seasonal Hit or Miss series next week – but it was interesting to see how recent commentary on in-season discounting played out on the high street.

I visited Watford on September 19 and 20. For me, and I suspect many other shoppers, this marks the start of new season shopping. I make a mental list of everything I need (ok, everything I would like) and buy it over one or two shopping trips, then top up as the season progresses. As such, I always expect to pay full price. And, so far, I have.

But in Watford I needn’t have. In French Connection, every single item was on Sale. Two, huge ‘up to 75% off’ signs shouted from the windows, which failed to display a single piece of clothing. To me, that suggests you have no confidence in your product and that discounting alone is how you lure in shoppers. And some were tempted. In the 30 minutes or so I spent in the shop, two or three shoppers came in but no one purchased anything. The merchandising was generally poor, comprising mostly of category-led rails. Several heavy, embellished dresses had been reduced from about £260 to just £60. Come next season – if the pricing strategy remains the same – why would any shopper believe a French Connection dress is worth more than £60, if the retailer doesn’t? Luckily, as French Connection announced on the day I visited the store, when it fell into the red for the first half of the year, it has some good initiatives in place to improve the situation. It will allocate an additional 20% of budget to in-season buying and work closely with its factories to ensure quicker reaction to trends and best-selling lines. It will also review pricing.

At Gap, the situation wasn’t as bad, but still in need of attention. At least about half of the shop had full-price, new season product. The knitwear, in particular, looked great. But I was the only person browsing the new collection; everyone else was busy rifling through the eight-metre-long Sale rails. I’m looking forward to seeing what Rebekka Bay plans to do with Gap when she joins on October 1 as creative director and executive vice-president of global design. Her experience at Cos and Bruuns Bazaar – and her own personal style of combining quality fabrics with a minimalist aesthetic – shows that she’s a perfect fit for Gap and could help the retailer rejuvenate its product offering. In turn, that should help to reduce the level of discounting.

The retailers to fare best in the Hit or Miss feature were those that were on full-price (some had one-off discounts). Their collections were confident, on-trend, merchandised with care and appropriately priced. And that is how it should be.

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