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Womenswear chains put a premium on overhauls

Getting shoppers to part with their hard-earned cash is no mean feat with inflation remaining an issue, credit conditions tougher than ever and the economy still on shaky ground, but a host of womenswear retailers are updating their product offer and refreshing their look in a bid to find new routes to growth.

In the past year, several retailers have upped their game significantly, introducing new product lines and sub-brands featuring premium fabrics. Storefits have also been revamped, innovative retail concepts launched and branding redesigned to entice consumers.

These retailers have also, crucially, adjusted their outlook to adapt to new shopping habits among target consumers, who are increasingly moving away from entry-level purchases towards occasional investment pieces at higher prices.

Mission to diversify

In the past three months the likes of Kew, East, Monsoon and Hobbs have all plumped for a shake-up of their offers to keep the tills ringing, adding sub-brands to sit alongside their mainline collections.

Mainstream womenswear chain Kew announced last month it was relaunching under a new name, Kew 159. With a new logo and higher-quality product, it hopes the decision to give the business a more contemporary feel will tempt trend-savvy shoppers from the likes of Whistles, Reiss and Ted Baker.

The revamped offer at Kew includes more luxurious fabrics and detailing. Products feature cashmere and angora mixes, a more diverse colour range plus skinny, straight and bootcut jeans.

Speaking to Drapers in May, Des Swan, chief executive of Robinson Webster (Holdings), which owns Kew and sister chain Jigsaw, said: “Kew was launched as Jigsaw’s younger sister, but over time they started to come together and we decided we needed to move them in different directions.”

Along with the change in name and product came an increase in prices, with tags on items such as dresses and outerwear rising by between 10% and 20% due to the improved fabric quality. But the retailer believes customers will be won over by this improvement in quality.

Kew’s James Street and High Street Kensington stores in London will be the first shops to be given the new Kew 159 branding and fascias this month, but over the next six months all of Kew’s

22 stores and 29 concessions will be converted.

For autumn 11, mainstream womenswear chain East will also target a more affluent shopper with the launch of two higher-priced sub-brands. The retailer admitted it had become unadventurous with its product and so decided to launch East Boutique and East Artisan to “rediscover its distinctive edge”.

Maureen Hinton, retail analyst at Verdict Research, says: “There is an appetite out there for more exclusive ranges, especially as inflation is coming through they’re having to pay a little bit more anyway. If it’s exclusive and they’re not seeing everyone wearing it then it also makes it more worthwhile.”

With retailers launching higher-end sub-brands as a bridge between the premium end of the high street and the luxury labels, retailers are able to grow profit even if sales are down by raising average spend per customer on each item.

“It is also the opportunity for them to develop more brands because there is always the issue when you’re a mature brand of where you go next,” she says.

She adds that when established brands and retailers already have a large store estate, adding more stores will no longer prove profitable, but branching out via sub-brands and new fascias can still drive growth.

Hinton believes the recent increase in mainstream retailers adopting a more contemporary look could be due to both the higher post-recessionary inflation rate and the tough economic climate, which had made shoppers more reluctant to spend. She adds: “As a retailer you have to work hard because people are only going to buy one dress, not three.”

Treading carefully

If done correctly, Hinton says this could be good for the market.  “Retailers seem to be taking a fairly safe route by having [sub-brands] clearly linked to the mother brands, so they can put it in front of their existing shoppers and see where it is worth rebranding and refitting shops.”

Indeed, speaking to Drapers in April about East’s new sub-brands, chief operating officer Suzi Spink said: “We had started to play it a little bit safe. We got a little bit stuck in our ways and want to get back to celebrating the heritage of the brand and also getting a certain type of customer, one who is a very adventurous lady who’s a little bit more affluent.”

The limited edition East Boutique collection comprises 600 pieces and, with dresses starting at £195, is priced 100% higher than East’s mainline.

In addition, playing on the chain’s boho-inspired heritage, East Artisan will include embellished premium pieces aimed at a younger, affluent customer. Prices will be up to 40% higher than the core collection.

The introduction of higher price points looks to have helped the UK womenswear market grow, with the value of the market expanding over the past three years, according to Kantar Worldpanel Fashion. The market value has increased from £18.1bn in the year to June 2009 to £18.6bn in 2010 and has now reached £19bn for the 52 weeks to June 2011, a 2.3% year-on-year increase.

However, womenswear sold by volume has declined over the past three years, falling 3% in the year to June 2011 to 1.8 billion units. To compensate for this decline in volume, retailers are looking to up prices. According to Kantar, the average price of a womenswear item is up 5.4% year on year to £10.70.

As reported by Drapers in May, Hobbs will introduce a new, higher-priced contemporary sub-brand at the beginning of September. Hobbs Unlimited, targeting the 35-plus customer, will comprise 36 pieces and seven pairs of shoes.

Prices will be around 20% higher than Hobbs’ mainline due, again, to the use of higher-quality fabrics.

Hobbs creative director Sandy Verdon said the sub-brand would target the “grown-up woman looking for fashionability and something more contemporary than the mainline Hobbs collection”.

Verdon said Hobbs Unlimited would differ from the NW3 sub-brand, which launched in autumn 2009 targeting a younger consumer. She added: “Hobbs Unlimited is a cleaner, sleeker contemporary brand. Its sophisticated colour palette, peppered with highlights of on-trend brights, also differentiates it from NW3.”

The collection will launch in 10 Hobbs stores in September including Glasgow, Edinburgh, and King’s Road and Covent Garden in London.

Hobbs’ focus on the older market could prove a lucrative move as a study by Verdict Research has found that the 45-plus womenswear market could offer long-term growth for retailers. Verdict estimates that this segment will spend £11.1bn in 2011. The highest spenders in this category are 55 to 64-year-olds who spend an average of £818 per person per year.

Changing dynamics

Verdict has found that as women grow older they shop for clothes less frequently and use fewer stores, but are prepared to pay more for an item than younger generations and price is less important.

Sarah Peters, lead analyst at Verdict Research, says: “This style of shopping fits with the changing market dynamics in clothing. Inflation and lower volumes are replacing a decade and more of price deflation and high volumes and have led to women becoming more selective about what they buy, purchasing fewer, but more expensive, items that justify their higher prices through unique styling and a better standard of quality and service.”

Even the department stores have been getting in on the act, with John Lewis looking to drive its womenswear offer in a more contemporary direction with the launch of new designer collaborations for autumn 11.

Designer knitwear label Clements Ribeiro, premium womenswear designer Tracey Boyd, womenswear designer Osman Yousefzada and womenswear chain Monsoon will all create collections for John Lewis, giving the retailer a more directional edge.

Monsoon is also looking to broaden its reach, and has revitalised its look with more contemporary product. The retailer has reclaimed its Indian-inspired heritage with a major overhaul of its stores, which began with its flagship on Oxford Street in London, which reopened in April. The store revamp will be rolled out to all its 133 UK stores.


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