The newly appointed clothing boss at Sainsbury’s Tu is unfazed by the high targets set for her at the supermarket brand and believes it can beat Next and Marks & Spencer on quality
It’s a cold, drizzly morning when Drapers pulls into a business park on the outskirts of Coventry. It’s not the first place anyone would expect to find a thriving fashion business, but housed in a former tank factory here is supermarket Sainsbury’s clothing brand Tu. And at its helm is newly promoted clothing director Sara Bradley, who is presiding over one of the most ambitious growth stories in fashion retail.
Bradley has been set some high targets. Having taken the reins last October from Adrian Mountford - who moved to head up general merchandise - she is charged with turning the Tu brand into a £1bn business, up from its current £500m.
“We’re on track with our plans to hit £1bn and we’re lucky because clothing - and non-food in general - really is centre stage for Sainsbury’s at the moment,” says Bradley.
Sainsbury’s non-food business grew at four times the rate of its food sales over Christmas, with clothing making up a major part. Last year, non-food overall was up 20% year-on-year, and clothing up 21%. “What’s exciting for Tu is that we’re only in our sixth year so the potential for growth is huge,” says Bradley.
Tu is currently in just over 300 stores, and is expanding at a rate of 15 to 20 new shops a year, plus a further 15 to 20 extensions to stores currently without clothing. “Basically, clothing is going into a new store or extension around every fortnight,” she says.
Bradley admits that Tu has a lot of catching up to do with rivals George at Asda - where she worked prior to Tu - and Tesco. According to industry sources, Tu hovers around 10th or 11th place in retail research firm Kantar Worldpanel’s (formerly TNS Worldpanel Fashion) market share by volume figures, fighting it out with Bhs and Debenhams.
Asda and Tesco, by contrast, are much higher up the table, with Asda at one point last year overtaking Marks & Spencer to claim top spot.
“We are an immature business so of course we are playing catch up, but we have so much to go for and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved already,” says Bradley. “You could easily take our ranges out of a supermarket environment and put them on a high street and they would stand up.”
Womenswear is Tu’s strongest category, followed by kidswear then menswear. Bradley explains Tu is “not trying to appeal to the young high-fashion customer” but is “sticking to the core Sainsbury’s shopper”.
One rival value retailer says Tu has a good range of styles but “they look increasingly safe. There isn’t much of a fashion element so that could create a problem around exciting the customer with newness in store. It needs to have a point of difference and be innovative.”
However, Bradley says Tu does have trend-led products, pointing to the striped jersey and denim jeggings she is wearing for this interview, both of which “are selling very well”.
She says: “We aren’t just about staples, we are about stylish clothes as well, but we won’t chase the very high-fashion. It’s about picking out the trends which are right for our customers and getting the timing right.”
She points to shorts as an example, which she says are “on trend” but won’t have a large presence in Sainsbury’s because “they won’t be big for our customers”.
Another example is jeggings. “We had some jeggings earlier last year that [the customer] wasn’t ready for, so they didn’t work,” she explains. “But we believed in them so kept bringing
them in, kept banging away, and now they’re flying out and we’ve added more colours.”
The rival value retailer does point out that Tu “delivers on quality”. And quality is one area of which Bradley is very proud. “Our customer has a greater expectation about quality than the other supermarkets because of the overall business and the emphasis on quality in food,” she explains. “And while we compete with the supermarkets on price, we believe our quality can compete with Marks & Spencer and Next.”
As such, Bradley says that while Tu is playing catch up in terms of volume market share, what it aims to achieve already is “to be number one in quality”.
She also believes Tu kidswear stands apart from the other supermarkets. “We have value with products such as a sweatshirt currently in store for £3.50, but equally we have slightly higher-priced products with fantastic appliqués and a lot of work in the design which aren’t found at our competitors,” she says.
Unlike Bradley’s supermarket rivals, she has no plans to launch sub-brands. “So far, Tu has worked across every category we have introduced - everything from tailoring to socks - so we don’t have a need for a sub-brand,” she says.
Equally, Bradley is not fazed by Asda and Tesco’s online clothing launches. Sainsbury’s launched its non-food offer on its website last year but clothing is not yet included.
“Asda has already reached number one in volume and has been in the market for 18 years, so they’re looking for other avenues for growth,” she says. “For us, there is so much growth to go for in stores at the moment.”
Bradley is clearly enthused by the opportunities, and believes Sainsbury’s continued success - it beat City expectations over Christmas to report like-for-likes up 4.2% - will mean clothing can continue to prosper.
The success of Tu is integral to Sainsbury’s, she says. “Tu is the brand in stores but we work for Sainsbury’s. Whereas George has a very different culture from Asda as it is built around founder George Davies, we are very much part of the Sainsbury’s family. The culture in Coventry is built on Sainsbury’s core qualities.”
And if Sainsbury’s can keep up the momentum it has delivered throughout the recession, Tu could soon be biting at the ankles of its rivals.