Tesco’s clothing chief may have only been in the job a year but he has already repositioned the F&F brand to win back core customers - and insists this is only phase one of his plan.
Richard Jones has kept a low profile since joining Tesco in March 2010. Yet he’s been incredibly busy getting to grips with the retailer’s £1bn clothing business.
Having completed an extensive period of gardening leave following his defection from rival supermarket Sainsbury’s, Jones has spent his induction finding out exactly what customers want from its flagship clothing brand F&F.
In his first interview since taking up the role, Jones tells Drapers he has taken the focus back to its core customers - mums aged 30 to 45 with young families. The result is the F&F spring 11 collection, promoted with a new-look TV and press campaign, which launched last week.
“The spring campaign is the culmination of a lot of work to bring the focus back to our core customers,” says Jones. “We had to recognise the complexities of what goes on in her world, that time is precious but she wants to look good.”
Jones, 44, explains that F&F had previously moved towards a younger consumer, which led it to stray away from its core customers. “We need to be on trend to be credible, but to have enough of the core product to make our traditional customers feel comfortable. We need to have the right fashion, but it should be fashion for living.”
His comments echo new Tesco chief executive Phil Clarke’s admission that the supermarket’s clothing ranges were “not quite right”. In the second half of the year to February 26, Tesco’s UK like-for-likes across clothing, electricals and general merchandise fell 3.3%.
Clarke said non-food started to suffer last November as it had lost momentum. Clothing had not sold as well as hoped, but he insisted “it’s not structural and we know what we need to do”.
Fixing the performance of clothing is a priority for Clarke, and Jones is in the hot seat. Luckily, the charismatic MK Dons football fan is more than up to the challenge. Adrian Mountford, a former colleague at Sainsbury’s and now commercial director of Matalan, said previously of Jones: “He is a great retailer, and both supports and challenges in equal measure. He has a strong pedigree and, crucially, understands the customer.”
And understanding the customer is at the heart of Tesco’s strategy, and one of the reasons Jones wanted to join the retailer. “When I first met [former Tesco chief executive] Terry Leahy, his emphasis on the customer was unequivocal and that’s a powerful part of Tesco’s DNA. I knew I wanted to be part of it,” he says.
His other draw was friend John Hoerner, who previously headed up Tesco’s clothing arm in the early 2000s. “I have a strong affinity to the way John built up the business,” he says. “He had a strong alignment to the values of the company.”
Jones earned his stripes at Sainsbury’s and prior to that was at Marks & Spencer - the same company where his father spent 36 years as a divisional director, indicating retailing is in his blood. He was known as the father of Sainsbury’s Tu clothing brand while at the supermarket chain and one former colleague says he was “great fun and a great leader” who also “put non-food on the map” at the retailer. He spent five years at Sainsbury’s, where he built up Tu, which generated about £300m in sales by the time he left.
His exit for a rival ruffled a few feathers at Sainsbury’s but Jones was enticed by the scale of the role. “The opportunity to target such a huge number of customers is incredible,” he says.
And, while Jones is a heavy hitter in his own right, he’s not too proud to admit he has also learnt a lot from his predecessor, the larger than life Terry Green. “Terry is passionate about clothing and extremely experienced,” says Jones. “If I can learn from that then all the better.”
‘People still have aspirational dreams and we should be aspirational, as well as providing value’
Jones’ work is only just beginning, and he describes the spring collection and campaign as “phase one” for F&F. He says he has been laying the building blocks for F&F and talks a lot about “getting the engineering right”, although jokingly stresses with his dry wit that he is “not an engineer”.
He says: “We’ve done a lot of work on quality, a lot of work in the technical department on making the fits consistent, durability, also work on the shopfit. We’ve been getting the engineering right - it needs to be a comfortable fit and all the other components need to be in place.”
This work, along with the customer research, has culminated in the spring collection and, while he is loathe to make bold declarations about where the F&F brand could go in the future, there is clearly huge growth planned.
“We’ve been focusing on getting the building blocks right. If we get the inputs right, then the output will come,” says Jones.
At the same time as the spring campaign, the clothing website was given a refresh and Jones indicated there was more to come in terms of online. However, while online is growing, he is quick to point out that one of Tesco’s draws is that it has some 600 shops selling clothing, which gives the customer a true multichannel choice.
There is also a huge opportunity globally. F&F is now in 11 countries and in Tesco’s full-year results clothing sales were up 9% at constant exchange rates in Central Europe. It is the market leader by volume in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and its first standalone F&F store opened in Prague last autumn.
Further afield, F&F is in four Asian markets and the retailer says the brand has seen an “excellent” early start.
Jones says: “Global scale gives us an edge.” It is part of the reason Tesco can keep its prices low, although Clarke admits clothing prices have had to edge up slightly in line with the market due to soaring prices in areas such as cotton, labour, energy and transport.
Going global requires the F&F team to ensure the brand is consistent. Led by buying director Jan Marchant, the team has weekly conference calls with her counterparts in the various markets to create a recognisable DNA for the F&F brand. From there Tesco can also make global buying decisions on certain ranges and materials.
But Jones is not one to get ahead of himself and while “getting F&F right” is well and truly under way, he insists there is more to do. “We need to be confident of the brand, then we will see where we can go,” he says.
And, like Clarke, he is clear that the current consumer climate is tough. “With all the bad news on pay packets and discretionary spend we need to make sure we have products with a high level of appeal,” he says. “But people still have aspirational dreams and we should be aspirational, as well as providing value. Our campaign aims to celebrate being a real woman and, while it is a tough climate, we should never lose those aspirations,” he says.
Jones is confident about Tesco’s clothing plans, and excited by the opportunity. No doubt his dreams are for global domination but he’s keeping phase two under wraps for now.
2010-present Commercial director, Tesco Clothing & Home, Tesco
2003-09 Various clothing and non-food roles, latterly director of general merchandise and global sourcing, Sainsbury’s
1985-2002 Various roles in store management, buying, merchandising and procurement, Marks & Spencer