Which grocer will wear the trousers?

Supermarkets are taking on fashion retailers by focusing more on their clothing offer. Hannah Booth reports

No holiday to the Continent is complete without the obligatory trip to an out-of-town Hypermarché, where cheap and cheerful clothing sits happily alongside Italian salami and French fromage.

In the UK, supermarkets’ clothing brands are less ubiquitous. With strip lighting, cramped spaces and rigid aisle layouts, stores aren’t always the most stimulating environments for clothes shopping.

But as supermarkets continue to look for ways to expand their dominance of the UK retail market, clothing is becoming an increasingly important tool in the fight for market share.

And the sector is buoyant. Supermarket clothing enjoys a 4.5 per cent share of the clothing market and 11.7 per cent of the childrenswear market. A Tesco spokeswoman claims the supermarket chain is ‘the fastest growing clothing retailer in the UK at the moment’, turning over greater volume ‘than BHS or Next’.

Now Asda is taking the fight to the high street. Its hugely successful clothing brand George is going solo. It is hitting high streets in Croydon and Leeds in September as a standalone brand under design director Kate Bostock, to compete with value retailers such as New Look, Etam and Dorothy Perkins.

Its progress will be closely monitored. George’s success has yet to be matched by rival supermarkets’ offerings, says Verdict senior retail analyst Steve Gotham. He believes George has ‘led the way’ because it has a realistic market positioning and Asda is more dedicated to the brand in stores.

‘George is stylish, fashionable and affordable. Its Asda audience is comparatively down-market and less discerning than, say, Sainsbury’s, and is more likely to shop for budget clothing brands,’ Gotham claims.

‘[Rivals] do not have the same merchandising flair or product panache as Asda. And Asda targets George as a real growth area – it has decent-sized stores, large enough to allocate dedicated areas away from food departments,’ he adds.

Sainbury’s in particular is keen to close the gap and has substantial ground to make up. It slipped to third in the supermarket rankings last week, behind Tesco and Asda, both of which have more successful clothing brands.

As part of moves to claw back lost market share, Sainsbury’s has initiated a full-scale review of its clothing offer. It is now looking at the product selection of its ranges – Jeff & Co, produced exclusively for the supermarket by Jeff Banks, and childrenswear by Adams.

According to Sainsbury’s head of general merchandising, marketing and development Richard Cristofoli, clothing is one of Sainsbury’s most important non-food areas. It is working with 20/20 to improve non-food environments in-store, and changes will be visible from September across 65 shops.

Any negative perceptions of supermarket clothing brands have long disappeared, he believes. ‘Consumers are happy to shop for clothes in supermarkets,’ Cristofoli says. ‘They want dedicated areas and time to browse for outfits.’

Gotham agrees dedicated space is important and says the best place for clothing is in a separate area away from the centre of the store. If consumers can see food while shopping for shirts and trousers, it ‘saps’ the shopping experience, he says.

Gotham believes Sainsbury’s will struggle because it’s ‘more sophisticated’ customers are likely to shop elsewhere for their clothes. He draws the line at quality clothing ranges in supermarkets, which he claims ‘wouldn’t work’.

‘Sainsbury’s can’t go much above the middle market with its [Jeff & Co] label; a supermarket is not the right environment for a higher-end range,’ he asserts.

Cristofoli disagrees. Clothing brands must be true to the supermarket brand, he says, and he believes Sainsbury’s can stretch its ‘good quality’ positioning on to high-end, stylish clothing.

‘It’s the same passion applied to a different market,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe only price-driven clothing labels can be successful in supermarkets.’

JHP joint managing director Steve Collis suggests quality-led supermarkets could turn to selling branded clothing, such as Gap or Levi’s, instead of own-brand labels.

The group designed interiors for Waitrose’s Canary Wharf store, which sells branded non-food goods, such as coffee machines and crockery, alongside food. However, he agrees that it’s a big step from ‘food-related’ products like this to clothing.

‘The overriding strategy is that supermarkets must employ the same set of brand values in whatever they do,’ Collis says. ‘Asda built up George gently in an incubator, setting out its values carefully, which has allowed it to migrate from the store to the high street.’

Success within a supermarket environment, and the security of the parent brand, is one thing. But taking a clothing brand like George on to the high street requires a rethink of the range’s positioning, Gotham says.

‘It’s not a foregone conclusion that George will survive on the high street. It will face much tougher competition and must communicate “new-ness” more clearly and introduce a faster turnover of lines – make more of a splash,’ he says.

Tom Redpath, Path Design director, creates stores for Etam and Tammy – both potential high street rivals to George. He believes Asda must focus on delivering a more enticing store environment for George, to encourage consumers to break away from their associations with the supermarket.

Collis agrees that George will ‘have to work harder from a design perspective’, but argues that free from its parent brand it could go further.

‘As a standalone free from Asda’s shackles, George could sell ranges it might not in Asda. It’s more flexible on its own,’ he says.

Fashion retailers will be watching closely this autumn to see how George handles the high street fray. And if the success of supermarket food offerings is repeated in the fashion arena, it looks like in the future consumers across Britain could be sporting supermarket style.

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