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Laura Ashley 'misunderstood' by owners

Laura Ashley has “suffered” under owners who misunderstood how to use its heritage to take it forward, industry experts have told Drapers.

The retailer this week revealed it is in talks with one of its lenders to secure fresh working capital so the retailer can continue to trade. Group sales at Laura Ashley fell by 10.8% for the 26 weeks to 31 December to £109.6m, which it blamed on “market headwinds” and “weaker consumer spending”.

The former CEO of LK Bennett, Erica Vilkauls, said the business has a “true heritage” that had been misunderstood by its current ownership: “It is perhaps, another example of a brand whose owners haven’t understood its ethos and how to use the heritage to take it forward.”

“Laura Ashley could again be a great British brand that would work well internationally if the right owner and creative head use its archives, listen to customers and get back to creating original ranges that chime with its heritage.

“This will work across clothing and home as long as it has one creative with the vision to fully understand the brand and how it can leverage its history in today’s market where customers want originality.”

One high street supplier said retailers such as Laura Ashley need to offer something more aspirational to keep customers coming back: “If you need to tighten your belt as a consumer you need to drop down in price and the middle’s the bit that gets squeezed. You’ve got to offer an experience at their level of the market, or a lifestyle. And if you’re not aspirational enough, then a lot of people will keep their money in their pockets.” 

Retail analyst Richard Hyman agreed that a lack of vision had contributed to the business’s drop in sales: “Laura Ashley has a particular look and doesn’t comfortably lend itself to any other. It has suffered from a lack of innovation and leadership with vision and ambition.”

Analyst Richard Lim added that a failure to adapt had contributed to the brand’s difficulties: “It’s a crying shame. This is a retailer that was arguably ahead of the game 10 years ago and they had a fabulous brand and distinct proposition and really knew their customers and worked really well in the market.

“It’s another example of a retailer that hasn’t kept up with the times and adapted their proposition to take advantages of the opportunities offered online. They are suffering the consequences of those actions.”

Speaking on the lending talks, chairman of Laura Ashley, Andrew Khoo, said: “We acknowledge that recent trading conditions, in line with the overall UK retail market, have indeed been challenging. There is, however, a robust plan in place to turn the business around and the board of directors is confident and optimistic that the recent appointment of Katharine Poulter will enable the business to execute this broad-based strategy.”

Drapers has approached Laura Ashley for comment. 

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