Since taking over womenswear at House of Fraser last year, Allan Winstanley has been applying the same winning formula that made its menswear a success.
Allan Winstanley is a man with a plan. Almost 10 months after switching from House of Fraser’s menswear department to lead its womenswear division, he already has a clear sense of how to turn around the business to become a real contender again.
Winstanley added womenswear to his accessories and beauty brief last autumn after Stephanie Chen - who had been responsible for the division for nearly four years - announced her departure for Marks & Spencer.
HoF does not break down its results by department but its recent annual figures show a 3.3% rise in like-for-likes to £1.2bn for the year to January 26, 2013. Winstanley says womenswear underperforms menswear, although it is in “modest growth”.
Gross profit, which rose to a record high of £403.8m, is stronger thanks to improved stock management, but Winstanley is focusing on autumn 13 as the moment for change.
Winstanley believes the department has suffered from a lack of focus for many years. “I’ve always been critical of how our womenswear business was run,” he says. “It’s always been tracking behind our other fashion and beauty areas and, being in the business as long as I have, I already had a fair idea of the changes I wanted to make.”
He isn’t the only one who saw the need for improvement. The chief executive of one concession tells Drapers he has “a real challenge on his hands”.
“Allan’s big job is to define why you would shop at HoF. Strategically it’s quite disjointed, and the proposition is quite out of touch with the vision of how women shop today. She doesn’t shop by age, she doesn’t see herself as a ‘classic’ woman, and they need to adapt to that.”
Winstanley appears to agree. He gave himself 90 days to forge a clear direction but it became apparent within a fortnight. “There was no point waiting - I wanted to get on,” he says.
When he first took on the brief he began “to assess where I felt structural blockages were”. This prompted staff moves and redundancies, notably for concessions director for womenswear Sue Dunn, who had been at HoF for 16 years, and Marie Jones, design director of womenswear and accessories.
In their place, a new team emerged. Claudia Battistel has been promoted to director of external brands for womenswear, while Anna Rogoza has joined from Oasis to become buying manager for womenswear house brands.
Chris Pitts has moved up to director of merchandise and Jakki Pay was promoted to head of womenswear design.
Within accessories, Samantha Henworth is buying manager and Susan Campbell is director of merchandise,with Sandy Rayner as design manager.
“Everyone now is accountable for their own areas,” Winstanley says. “In the past there was a lot of grey, where it could get a bit muddled. Fundamentally, the structure wasn’t particularly customer-focused but now it’s very simple.”
House brands have similarly been tackled, with pricing a prime focus. From autumn 13 the 10 brands - which include Pied a Terre, Linea and Biba - will all feature lower entry prices.
For example, Biba handbags typically started at around £160; from next season, the cheapest will be £89, something Winstanley says was “key to getting volume in the business again”.
The Mary Portas range, which has dresses costing around £150, will see roughly 30% of the collection come in below the £100 mark.
Quality is not being compromised, Winstanley insists, but the move will result in a more defined “good, better, best” offering.
“The analogy I always use is that we were ‘all icing and not much cake’. We still need that top tier but it just wasn’t driving the kind of volumes we wanted, unless we discounted,” he explains. As a result, he also hopes the department store business will resort less to deep discounting, using promotional activity far more strategically than in the past.
He shrugs off the impact of competitors such as Debenhams, whose heavy discounting often sets a trend that the rest of the high street is compelled to follow. “We’ve been slaves to promotional activity and partly it’s been a situation of our making,” he says.
As well as pricing, work has been put into better defining the brands. There is now one designer per label to improve focus and clarity.
Winstanley expects these changes to boost the business, which last year outperformed the branded side, but adds it is unlikely to become a more dominant part of HoF’s proposition.
“I don’t foresee our house brand business taking more than 20% of floor space, although it’ll probably drive 25% of sales,” he says. “We’re a branded business first and foremost.”
This side of the company is also set for an overhaul, with more than 20 new brands being added to the mix this autumn.
None of the existing labels are being dropped for the time being. Winstanley says concessions are being “squidged” to add more product density to the shop floor but “natural selection” will see some of the more “sluggish” performers edged out over time.
He avoids citing names but notes “our older, classic brands are definitely in decline” and need a serious shake-up if they are to reverse their fortunes. But it is clear that he believes HoF’s future lies with the style and trend-led labels.
Autumn will see HoF introduce German lifestyle brand Hal Huber, MaxMara’s sub-brand SportMax and Hugo Boss Woman, among others. It will also feature a Paperdolls concession - the new short-order, slightly older brand from the people behind women’s young fashion brand Little Mistress.
Winstanley is conscious of the need for HoF to “give ourselves a point of difference, a reason for women to come”.
While there is enthusiasm for the future under Winstanley, some remain sceptical.
The chief executive of another womenswear concession told Drapers the strategy was still unclear and that the new brands being brought in “don’t seem to have much cohesion”.
“They go from one extreme to the other - some of them are quite bizarre - and it doesn’t seem to hang together in any strategic way,” she says. “I don’t really see any real quality of management within that business. Is it a downmarket Selfridges or is it an upmarket Debenhams? I don’t know.”
Nevertheless, Winstanley is confident in his plan, which largely applies the same strategy that made HoF’s menswear such a success: breaking the discounting cycle, dropping out-of-date profiling methods for a more modern approach, ramping the typical brand profile up to a more premium level and tightening adjacencies.
Currently these are “all over the place, the zoning of our stores is a muddle”, he admits. So from autumn 13, HoF’s three flagships - London Oxford Street, Manchester and Glasgow - will all be rejigged around three new profile categories: fast fashion, contemporary and lifestyle. If the trial is successful, it will be rolled out further.
All of this means autumn 13 is make or break time for Winstanley but he is brimming with confidence. “We’re bringing in 20-odd new brands to womenswear, 50 into accessories. We’ve completely re-engineered our private label business from a price and product point of view, so I’m really expecting to see traction in the second half of the year,” he says.
“I’m feeling quite confident that will happen. In six months I expect to be smiling from ear to ear - and perhaps [with] a look of relief.”