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Close up: James Brown, head of clothing, Sainsbury's

Sainsbury’s head of clothing is determined to prove that supermarket value doesn’t mean disposable fashion.

Walking into Sainsbury’s new concept store in King’s Lynn in Norfolk leaves you in no doubt about where clothing lies in the grocer’s grand retail scheme. Out of a total 70,000 sq ft floor space, a sizeable 30,000 sq ft has been dedicated to non-food, of which clothing is dominant. Clothing isn’t quite centre stage of course, but it is certainly playing a major supporting role.

With fully accessorised mannequins, themed collections, fitting rooms and a handful of shop assistants, you could almost forget you are in a supermarket. And that’s exactly what James Brown, head of clothing at Sainsbury’s, is hoping for.

“We are creating what you would expect to find in a high street store,” he tells me. “We are not just creating the dream at the front of the section, we are following it through.”

He counters that food remains Sainsbury’s number one priority, but adds: “More than 20 million people a week come to Sainsbury’s for food, but the compelling non-food offer, and clothing in particular, is paramount to growth.”

Visiting on a cold February morning, I’ve been invited in to talk through Brown’s plans for Tu, Sainsbury’s clothing own brand, and they are impressive, as you’d expect from a division that has been growing three times quicker than the wider business for several months now.

Much of the changes being introduced have come from extensive customer research - both through the supermarket’s Nectar loyalty card scheme and via customer focus groups and forums - as well as Brown or store staff just chatting to customers informally.

The day Drapers visits also marks the launch of another Gok for Tu collection - the supermarket’s collaboration with TV personality and stylist Gok Wan - which this time takes its influence from the sports luxe look. Sitting alongside it is Sainsbury’s own nautical and monochrome collections, as well as basics, lingerie, a denim bar, accessories, swimwear, footwear and further towards the back of the store, kidswear and menswear. All in all, the visual merchandising is impressive and it’s no wonder that customer “participation in clothing”, as Brown calls it, in this store has doubled.

King’s Lynn is the jewel in Sainsbury’s crown and Brown admits there is plenty of work to be done on the rest of the supermarket’s estate. “The way we visually merchandise our product has moved on considerably, but we’ll continue to do more. We have really ambitious growth plans - we’re going to invest in non-food and that means space as well.”

It’s a work in progress - as well as King’s Lynn, a similar concept has been created for Northampton’s Weedon Road branch. An extended trial across about 10 additional stores is planned for this spring and plans for a further roll-out are now being discussed. Sainsbury’s is also readying a relaunch of Tu this autumn, with a major marketing campaign aimed at “bringing to life” the brand. “2013 is going to be a big year for Tu,” says a confident Brown.

Despite this multimillion pound commitment to clothing , Sainsbury’s has no plans to launch a transactional website for Tu. Brown says his focus is “very much on getting the store proposition right”, but not everyone agrees that’s the right tactic.

Verdict Research retail analyst Kate Ormrod praises the business for its recent “boost” in the design and quality stakes, noting it has given the supermarket “an edge” over competitors, but warns that without an online presence, Sainsbury’s could lose out.

“The last couple of years have really seen an improvement in terms of quality and more fashionable product. But what’s crucial is to get online - we feel it’s a priority for [Sainsbury’s]. Online is key to growth, especially considering its rivals are doing it - there really is no excuse when you’ve got the likes of Tesco already there. It feels like such a missed opportunity.”

Independent analyst Nick Bubb meanwhile argues improvements still need to be made in store. “The in-store merchandising and fixturing for Tu is a bit scruffy and basic,” he says.

Brown has clearly taken this on board, but the look and feel of the brand is just one part of the puzzle. For him, getting the style and quality of the product right is the first priority.

In the past 18 months the supermarket has expanded its design team to around 30 people across men’s, women’s and kids’, and taken new larger offices in Coventry. The team also looks increasingly to the catwalks for inspiration on the premium tier range of clothing.

And Sainsbury’s isn’t stopping there - this year will see it up the frequency of its drops from every 10 weeks to six to eight weeks in a bid to offer the “newness” that high street rivals deliver.

“We are starting to see customers buying a whole outfit,” Brown says. “They love the fact we are creating it for them, with a clear palette and key items that drive the look.”

Sainsbury’s also has a further four collections lined up with Wan this year, and Brown enthuses about how much time the stylist dedicates to the range.

“For someone who is so busy he gets awfully involved,” he says. “We spend a lot of time working with him on the designs, the shoots, the fabric, which is really key and where we are investing a lot.”

Launched in October 2011, Gok for Tu has been Sainsbury’s most successful collaboration ever and has contributed to a 17.1% sales increase for all clothing during its debut year, helping Sainsbury’s steal a march on its rivals at a time when for many, growth is muted at best. In the 14 weeks to January 5, clothing sales rose 10%, compared with 3.9% for total sales.

The supermarket now takes eighth position in terms of UK womenswear sales by volume and 14th by value - having overtaken John Lewis and Bhs in the past couple of years, according to Kantar Worldpanel. In menswear it is 10th and 22nd respectively, while in kidswear it is sixth by volume and 10th by value.

It’s not just Tu’s style credentials that Brown has been upping - quality has been a key component in the business’s growth.

Sainsbury’s customer research shows its shoppers put quality and style ahead of price, which means the team has developed a three-pronged approach -good, better, best - with the upper end introducing premium fabrics such as lace, embellishment and prints.

Brown says the feedback Sainsbury’s gets via its Nectar card scheme is that the days of disposable clothing are now gone. “People are looking for a reason to buy, and that’s why we have hung our hat on quality. It’s important they get value for money but equally you have to give them a reason to buy.

Now is the time to invest in quality, in design, and make sure we are offering that differentiation.”

Brown has also shifted Tu’s sourcing by using manufacturers in Turkey to supplement those in China, Bangladesh and India, and plans to increase the amount from that country to benefit from shorter lead times. He has simultaneously moved to a direct relationship with the factories in the supply chain.

“It gives us more control over how the product is handled, we get closer to the ethics of how the clothes are made, and at the same time they get more clarity over our long-term view,” he explains.

At present Sainsbury’s doesn’t make any of its clothing on these shores, but Brown is mulling over the decision of potentially producing Sainsbury’s jersey products in the UK in order to transfer some of the Made in Britain magic that works so well in the supermarket’s food division.

“If we can make that happen it would be brilliant. I would love to get a bit of British back in our clothing. In food it absolutely resonates with the customer, and I believe it could be the same at Tu.”

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