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Men’s fight moves to hire ground

With H&M selling a £14.99 tuxedo jacket, what are mainstream menswear retailers and hire businesses doing to compete?

As the festive season kicks off, menswear retailers are pushing their occasionwear out front. While a trip to the local hire shop for that all-important tuxedo has traditionally been the modus operandi of party-bound men, high street retailers are offering increasingly tempting offers to persuade shoppers to buy rather than rent.

Asda launched a dinner suit at £49 in November, and all 25,000 of its £35 tuxedo jackets sold out within a week. At H&M, a tuxedo jacket at £14.99 has also sold out at all of its London stores.

Meanwhile, the likes of Moss Bros have struggled to keep sales figures pepped up this year, with the supermarket and value retailers’ offers cited as the main reason for the specialists’ declining performance. But occasionwear for men has never been more popular, thanks to the increasing number of events such as balls and civil ceremonies that require men to wear formal attire.

One industry observer sums up the seriousness of the threat to menswear specialists: “Men can now buy a suit for £25 or £49, so they don’t need to hire any more,” he says. “This not only decimates the hire business, it has a big effect on footfall in menswear stores, damaging the core business as well.”

Moss Bros has traditionally been one of the first ports of call for hirewear. Chief executive Philip Mountford acknowledges that offers from the supermarkets and value players have put increasing pressure on his business to up its game in the occasionwear and hire markets.
Mountford says: “There’s no doubt that it has an impact. We have to concentrate on more ways to make customers happy. We are one of the only high street hire businesses that offer instant hire. We have offers where we add a shirt and tie to a package and one free suit hire for more than four suits hired.”

He adds that Moss Bros is also planning to add more premium options to its hire departments to mirror its retail offer, which has been moving more upmarket. Brands such as Hugo Boss, Ozwald Boateng, Ted Baker and Ben Sherman will be introduced to the hire department to give customers more choice.

“A lot of our hire customers go for the higher end of the market and want something a little bit different,” says Mountford. “Also, a lot are professionals or corporate employees whose company will pay for the hire, so they are less motivated by price.”

William Coe, managing director of independent chain Coes, has offered hire for 90 years. He says that although he believes the overall hire market is roughly static, his business has seen demand rise by about 5% in the past year.

Whereas originally shoppers would simply have chosen to hire a standard dinner jacket, budgets are now rising to £100 or higher as customers opt for fancier waistcoats and Prince Edward jackets. “The budgets are being blown and the parents are willing to pay,” he says. “People will pay for something a bit different.”

Added value
However, Coe still expects ultra-cheap tuxedos to have an impact. “The effect in the long run will be on people’s perceptions of value. We do a student hire rate of £25, but if shoppers think they can pay a similar price to buy a suit, it could change things.”

Steve Bishop, director of menswear independent Hugh Harris in Woking, Surrey, says the effects of cheap men’s formalwear will be felt most by the multiples such as Moss Bros and SRG-owned Young’s hire chain. He says that like most independents, his business specialises in the premium end of the market and that by catering for tastes for more fitted jackets and greater formality, his company’s wedding hire business is thriving.

He adds that most mass-market players still expect people to hire their outfits two or three weeks in advance and that this is also creating a niche for retailers that offer short-notice hire options.

Paul Slater, managing director of Slater Menswear, which launched its hire business two and half years ago, says he has yet to see the impact of low-priced tuxedos, and believes that the hire market is actually increasing in size, fuelled in part by more lavish weddings with a larger number of ushers.

“For my first marriage it was just myself, my best man and a couple of ushers who were dressed formally. But now you get parties of 10, 15 or even 20 men all getting outfits to match,” he explains.

On top of this, end-of-school US-style proms have become increasingly popular, not just among pupils from wealthier families at fee-paying schools but also among state school pupils. Coe says the eveningwear market has been boosted by the trend for these US-style events, which he says have become more popular over the past 10 years.

Menswear trends over the past couple of years have also taken inspiration from more formal eveningwear looks. Tuxedo jackets and dress shirts are being worn with jeans to add a touch of glamour to a typical Saturday-night outfit. If dresswear is set to become a more common feature in the male wardrobe, it is no wonder that fast fashion retailers and value players will move to take their share of the market.

If the sell-throughs at Asda and H&M are to be believed, then lower-priced eveningwear looks could be here to stay. Traditional eveningwear retailers will then be forced to look for new ways to make their offer attractive to shoppers.

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