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The Drapers Interview: Fiona Lambert, George at Asda

Asda’s clothing brand boss Fiona Lambert is not worried by the growing threat from supermarket rivals

When George at Asda launched in 1990 it was the UK’s first design-driven supermarket clothing brand, and the Primark effect was yet to be felt on the high street.

Fast-forward to today and it is up against Tesco F&F, Sainsbury’s Tu and Tesco F&F, Morrison’s kidswear range Nutmeg - and now German supermarket chain Lidl has launched a full womenswear range, with menswear to follow, while Aldi launched a collection of equestrian clothing in July.

Despite this, George is maintaining its lead in the supermarket clothing arena, and much of this success is down to Fiona Lambert, vice president of George brand and George home. In July, George - which is stocked in 443 Asda stores, with a further 127 carrying an essentials offer - overtook Marks & Spencer as the UK’s second-largest clothing retailer by volume, with 11.1% of the market in the 24 weeks to July 6 compared with M&S’s 10.9%, data from Kantar Worldpanel shows. Primark holds top spot.

Research by analysts Verdict suggest Asda holds 42.9% of the supermarket clothing market, Tesco 32.2% and Sainsbury’s 21%.

Before the supermarket clothing boom, probably the biggest revolution of the UK high street was the arrival of Next in 1982 with what was then an innovative approach to co-ordination. Lambert joined Next in its early days as a designer but made the move over to buying, where she became something of a protégé for Next co-founder George Davies.

Davies was ousted in a boardroom coup in late 1988 and found a home shortly after at Asda, giving his name to the new clothing offer his own company designed and sourced. He poached Lambert from Next and she stayed with Asda for nine years before Next wooed her back for a second stint. In 2007, she rebounded again from Enderby to nearby Lutterworth in Leicestershire to take up the role of brand director of George, charged with giving it a point of difference in what had become by then a very competitive grocery-based fashion market.

It was a shrewd move. Faced with more direct competition, George’s lead had been faltering, and that same year Primark took over for the first time as the number one retailer for value clothing based on market share, according to Verdict Research.

Lambert says George had fallen into the trap of worrying about what its competitors were doing, losing focus on its customer. “Some areas of the business were offering great prices but with such long lead times that they weren’t on trend. And we were chasing a lot of fast fashion, so there were the two extremes, but nothing in the middle - which is what our customers wanted. People were seeing it lose its way.”

Lambert set about refocusing on wearable, good-value basics, mixed with some on-trend styles. In 2011 George started sponsoring Graduate Fashion Week and in 2012 invested in its supply base, buying GAAT, its Turkish sourcing arm.

“That gave us more direct sourcing, which means we get our product to stores quicker, and it is better quality and at the best prices we can give to our customers,” she explains.

However, the competition is hotting up. Lidl - which, along with Aldi, has been steadily stealing market share from the big three grocers - is the latest to cash in on the lucrative supermarket clothing business, launching its low-price womenswear brand Esmara in the UK on August 25 on a ‘while stocks last’ basis. It also plans to launch the Livergy menswear collection in November. Until now it had only sold basic underwear and vests.

‘In-store [customers] are time-short. They want to know what the trends and colours are and how to put it together’

Lidl has said its ability to offer high-quality products at a low price will set its womenswear apart from its competitors. Kantar analyst Glen Tooke says it is well placed to capture a slice of the lucrative UK market. “Lidl is no stranger to the fashion market - it already sells a range in its German stores and runs a large online fashion site in this market too.”

However, Lambert shrugs at the mention of Lidl. “There’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition, but the range Lidl is doing is quite small and George has been going for 24 years. We’re well established, we know our customers.” George stays ahead of the pack, she says, by editing the range, making it easy for time-pressed customers to put an outfit together. “In store they are time-short. They want to know what the key trends and colours are and how to put it together. It is a very different offer [to Lidl].”

James McGregor, partner in consultancy Retail Remedy and former George global trading operations manager between 1990 and 2008, says it is not so much Lidl that poses a threat to George, but rather the likes of Primark and New Look. “George is strong, robust and well-priced for the core Asda customer, but where it’s getting slightly staid is its fashion focus, especially in womenswear.”

But Lambert has no intention of trying to compete with fast-fashion chains. She says about 35% of the George range is aimed at a fashion customer; the majority (roughly 50% to 60%) is essential items. “We have 19 million people a week coming into Asda [over 3 million of these shop with George] - that’s very different to New Look and Primark. We have a very broad range of customers, so we have to have higher fashion, classics and staples.”

By comparison, New Look said in its annual report an average of 2.5 million visited per week in 2013. Primark would not disclose its footfall figures.

George further differentiates itself from the high street by looking for original designs. “With today’s technology there’s the danger everyone has the same information on trends. Young designers - and even those employed in a business - can all start to look the same,” Lambert explains.

She says a lot of George’s unique designs have been born out of attempts to find solutions for customers. “A lot of the things we’ve brought to the market first, like the tummy tamer dress [launched in 2010] and some of the developments in denim, have come not from copying designs off the catwalk, but from meeting customers’ needs.”

For example, the Wonderfit Jeans, launched in March 2013, can grow and shrink to within a range of three dress sizes, using a fabric that has a compact weave with high elastane content. The range was developed after Asda’s customer research found that one in five women keep jeans that do not fit in the hope of getting into them again.

Lambert is proud of George’s involvement with GFW, which she says celebrates individuality in design. George has established a two-month summer internship programme for 10 students, which sees them work with the business’s buying teams. “We have a 70-strong design team and I want us to have our own handwriting and personality. Getting fresh ideas in is one of the reasons we [got behind] GFW.”

Looking to the future, Lambert says her priority is to grow online sales, in line with Asda’s ambition to boost its total ecommerce business from £1bn to £3bn by 2018. George.com deals with more than 12,000 transactions a day and 1 million customers a week. More than 10% of customers access the website through their mobiles.

However, while the website is growing it is still relatively small. Lambert will not disclose how much George is investing in ecommerce, saying only that it is a “huge part of Asda’s five-year strategy”. She adds: “We’ve got very big growth plans for it. We think it’s essential to grow the George range and, with a finite space in store, we can obviously add more to the range online and extend the price points.”

Lambert points out there are currently 30% more dresses available online than in store. “That could easily go to 100%,” she says.

Price points will be extended in line with the broader range of stock available online, but will not vary too far from those in store. Prices for womenswear across all platforms range from £2.50 for a strappy vest to £45 for a heavyweight coat. Menswear is from £5 for a pack of two white T-shirts to £50 for a premium suit jacket, and kidswear from £2 for a baby’s T-shirt to £25 for an older boy’s jacket.

About 70% of George’s online sales are click-and-collect purchases, and Lambert believes making it as easy as possible for the customer to shop in different ways will be “at the heart of making the business successful” in the future.

“One of our great advantages is we can be truly omnichannel. It gives shoppers the flexibility to access our ranges even through smaller-format stores.” Asda is currently trialling click-and-collect services in Select London Underground stations.

Lambert is confident this focus on growing George’s offering online and continuing to design in response to customers’ need will help it stay ahead of the competition. However, as supermarkets slug it out for a share of the grocery sector, it is likely they will increasingly turn their attention to their higher margin-wielding clothing arms. Then, Lambert might have a bigger battle on her hands.

Fiona Lambert will be speaking at the Drapers Fashion Forum on November 27 at King’s Place, London. To book your attendance online or download the brochure, visit drapersonline.com/fashionforum

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