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The Drapers Interview: Ashwin Shah

Duck and Cover is taking a shot at the European casualwear market as it seeks to double its turnover.

British menswear brand Duck and Cover is expanding its denim collection for autumn 14 to take advantage of the “bubbling” European jeans market and the desire for British brands abroad.

Its denim offer, which at present comprises 24 styles, will be extended by a further 10 options to include grey, black and acid washes for the first time, as the business seeks to increase its international presence.

The brand’s headquarters is tucked away on a business park in Park Royal, northwest London, a district well known to jeanswear and casualwear buyers. Duck and Cover chief executive Ashwin Shah began his career in the area in 1984 working for men’s casualwear brand Best Direction and later helped launch French brand Teddy Smith from the same location. In 1996 he launched Duck and Cover - the name comes from the preventative action schoolchildren were advised to take by the US government in the event of a nuclear attack. Seventeen years on he hopes the bolstered denim range will drive sales at home and abroad.

“Our focus is on jeans and we are concentrating on strengthening that. For us, although the UK is still a key focus, the European export market is where we want to push and drive growth.

“We are segmenting the denim line to offer two stories under the Duck and Cover label. Until now we’ve never been able to get into the darker colours and more aggressive washes because we are known for our smart casualwear, but the split means we make the most of the opportunity denim can offer.”

The more comprehensive jeans package, which will debut at Bread & Butter Berlin in January, has also allowed the brand to create an additional 50-piece range of jersey tops and sweatshirts to be worn with the new edgier jeanswear styles.

Price points for the jeans range will be 5% to 10% higher than the current offering, which ranges from £24 to £30 wholesale with a mark-up of 2.5. Wholesale prices for the full 170-piece autumn 13 collection stretch from £8 for a jersey T-shirt to £66 for a duffle coat.

The target for the brand is to double its £9.4m turnover within five years. Shah says: “Our philosophy is to engage with 10 retailers, get the sell-through, increase the order the following season and increase it again and again so we are growing in a paced and calculated way. Aggressive growth is not what we’re looking for.”

Head of sales Gareth Jones joined Duck and Cover in 2011 after more than 20 years’ experience selling casualwear brands such as Mexx, Carli Gry, Tommy Hilfiger and Henri Lloyd.

Jones says the focus on exports is to ensure the business’s future growth, but adds that equally Duck and Cover must remain on top of the UK market, where in addition to its independent stockists it is also sold by House of Fraser and Fenwick, independent department stores like Barbours in Scotland and Daniels in London and Berkshire, as well as multiples such as USC, Scotts and Bank.

“We must be careful at this stage of our growth to keep our eye on the UK business and to make sure we protect it and keep it moving in the right direction,” Jones says. “It will be a challenge.”

Partnering and supporting its 350 UK stockists is high on the agenda for Duck and Cover as more than 30% of them have sold the brand since it was established in the mid-1990s. “We are emotionally attached to our retail stockists,”
says Shah.

Crucially for the independent stockists, Duck and Cover introduced a never-out-of-stock denim replenishment system this year.

“They are the ones who helped us build the brand. We have grown with our retailers and are constantly talking to them to see what changes we need to make collectively to ensure that growth continues. It’s about evolution not revolution.”

The business hopes to increase the number of denim styles stocked by its existing UK stockists rather than taking on new accounts, as it does not envisage further expansion domestically having “almost reached” saturation point.

Beyond the UK, exports currently make up 10% to 12% of the business, a figure Shah hopes to grow to 50% by 2017. Duck and Cover has 25 doors in Australia, 18 in Canada, 12 in New Zealand, 18 in France and 12 in Holland. In the coming year the brand is targeting accounts in Scandinavia, Spain and Italy.

Jones says Duck and Cover wants to concentrate on markets “close to home” in order to have greater control over how the label is distributed. “We expect a reasonable level of increase in UK sales but the real growth will come from the export market. We wanted to cut our teeth and get an export infrastructure set up in northern Europe. Once that’s in place and we’ve made pa few mistakes and learned a few lessons we’ll take it from there.”

To assist the project Viken Haladjian, who worked at Firetrap’s former parent WDT for many years, has been recruited as export sales manager to drive overseas sales.

A challenging trading climate and depressed footfall in the UK meant sales at Duck and Cover declined 16.9% for the year to June 30, 2012, dropping from £11.3m to £9.4m.

Net profit also dropped by £300,000 to £500,000 as the business swallowed the cost of rising cotton prices and implemented a new IT system, for which it paid a six-figure sum. However, Shah says the privately owned brand has been able to take a long-term view, and this strategy now appears to be bearing fruit. Duck and Cover is a regular fixture in Drapers’ Indicator survey of best-selling brands with independents, and turnover is set to rise 15% in 2013, with orders for spring 14 up 20% year on year, he says.

The company’s ambitious plans to double turnover have been supported by a multi-tiered marketing campaign using the Twitter-friendly strapline #readyforanything. Launched in January at Bread & Butter, it aims to engage more with Duck and Cover’s younger target consumers. It also signed up Team GB judo Olympian Ashley McKenzie and boxer-turned-model George Admiral as brand ambassadors. Liam Tootill, director of online youth broadcaster SBTV, has been unveiled as an additional brand ambassador for the current season.

Duck and Cover also teamed up with RWD, which has the largest UK print circulation among youth-targeted magazines. As part of the partnership RWD focuses on new talent from the worlds of music, film, art and sport
each month in association with the brand through a double-page #readyforanything feature, helping the brand build its profile among 18 to 25-year-olds.

Other initiatives to engage digital customers. have involved pitch-side advertising during this season’s Championship football league and social media-led football competitions to maintain a conversation with the brand’s core ‘lad’ customer.

Duck and Cover’s independent stockists have also been incentivised to support the #readyforanything campaign through a window display competition for Easter, when a series of prizes were up for grabs for the retailers.

The brand’s relationship with its retailers is positive and the predicted changes are already attracting interest. Colin Peat, store manager of menswear retailer Northern Threads in South Shields, Tyneside, says he is looking forward to viewing the range next season. “I’ll have to judge the new line when I see it in February but I’m interested in seeing what the brand is doing as it is usually on the money with competitive price points.

“We carry across the range, from polos to knits, denim to jackets, and the sell-through pre-Sale is usually 70%. Duck and Cover is one of the four or five brands we stock consistently every season as it does the job every time.”

However, another stockist, who wished to remain anonymous, said she decided to drop Duck and Cover last year as customers found the price points too high.

Shah says he understands people have less disposable income today but he refuses to reduce the quality of the collection in order to cater for lower prices. “We haven’t changed the label’s price architecture; we’ve stuck to our guns in terms of pricing at a time when the market has gone cheaper. We can’t get into a price battle as you’re always going to come second to the high street.”

Jones points out that the changing economic environment has spurred the business to implement changes to help its independent stockists, such as adjusting product delivery windows, the new never-out-of-stock denim programme, and a payment scheme that allows stockists to split their payments over a five-month period.

“Our independence is one of our strongest features,” says Jones. “Ashwin can make the decisions he thinks are right for the brand even if it means he is out of pocket.

“The fact we are not owned by a chain or plc, like JD or Sports Direct, means we can run a business in the way we believe is right in the long term.”

Shah adds: “Independents are the lifeblood of the industry. No brand has been built on department stores;independents build brands. We have to protect our bricks-and-mortar stores. Without them there wouldn’t be a high street.”

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