Melissa Wheeler Consulting

Freelance fashion writer, copy writer, columnist, PR consultant and editor
- Fashion & Wellbeing specialist


 As a freelance writer, my sole aim is to nurture your image and gain coverage for your brand. All of my work is designed with the sole purpose of helping you achieve your aims and drive success whether that be to the end consumer or to the market, or both. Naturally, your needs will be specific and my role will vary from client to client with a tailored, bespoke approach in each case.
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I am available for columnist roles in the fashion, lifestyle and wellbeing sector.

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Melissa's Musings....

By Melissa Wheeler 08 May, 2017

It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life.

Many household names in the fashion industry – brands such as Jaeger, M&S and even the high street totem Next, whose total sales at Next dipped by 2.5% for the 13 weeks to 29 April 2017 - have suffered partly as a result of neglecting their core customer. By trying to widen the appeal of their brand, often courting the younger customer, they alienated their most loyal shoppers, who naturally shopped elsewhere. Those customers who do continue to shop with them feel confused, often compelled to wear ‘inappropriate’ styles and hemlines to remain ‘in fashion’. Sartorial ‘dad dancing’, if you like.

So, who is this customer? Well, she happens to be a woman with more disposable income than her younger sisters. The over 50’s segment of the UK population is one of the fastest growing customer groups in the retail market. Cash cows for fashion retailers - omitting the unfortunate colloquial connotations. Women in this category are increasingly shopping online, where competition is famously fierce. Women over 40 years are equally precious customers; far more likely to invest in quality items than they are throwaway fashion. The trade-off here, from the retailer’s position, is that they can be demanding and must have their needs met. They need to feel understood.

These women need somewhere to find fashionable, inspiring and ‘interesting’ clothes. “They want a warm, uplifting and inspiring shopping environment […] to see their lifestyle reflected in the merchandising right down to the hangers” , says Michael Shalders, co-founder of Love Brands Ltd , an agency that distributes the chic, understated Italian knitwear brand Stefanel , a favourite with the 38 – 60s. “John Lewis has this customer nailed, they changed with times”, he adds. This customer neither wants a hemline much above the knee, nor a transient trend. She wants sleeves, subtlety, timeless style and quality. Make this woman feel and look fabulous and she’ll be putty in your hands, in a retail sense. What the modern middle-aged woman does not want is to walk into her favourite go-to fashion store (note the possessive pronoun) and be confronted with sub-brands pitched at the younger customer, nor trends suggesting she wishes to ‘get down wiv’ da’ kidz’ from Primark and New Look. Neither will she appreciate frumpy, unimaginative designs implying she’s had her day; that she should be sartorially put out to pasture.

I’ve witnessed this evolution myself, while working in my mother’s boutique several years ago. A customer, whose daughter was getting married, exemplified this perfectly with her plea: “I don’t want to look like a Mother of the Bride” . James Lakeland , of the eponymous womenswear brand popular with the 35 + woman, has told me that the frequent request he hears is: “I don't want to be frumpy […] I do want some coverage on my arms [and] I want to look effortless, feel great and look younger”.  

He adds, “This is the most challenging and complex market […] women who grew up with Wham, Boy George and the original Supermodels are now getting ready to go to the weddings of their sons and daughters and they don't want the matching dress, coat and co-ordinated shoes and bags”. As Michael Shalders also explains, “that customer still exists; she just doesn’t want to dress as her mother did when she was 45”.  

So, what went wrong for these iconic British brands?

Synonymous with understated confidence, Jaeger formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.

Essentially, it was the definitive brand for the modern middle aged woman. The go-to brand for the demographic often referenced as the ‘silver shopper’, but which in truth begins at 40 years and extends to 70. It’s the one demographic that retail analysts say is well-equipped for sustained spending. Only a fool – or an age fascist - would neglect them.

In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated this customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy. Fortunately, we’ve just learned that Harold Tillman, the former owner of Jaeger, believes the brand “can become a world leader again”.

Similarly, when Marks and Spencer boss Steve Rowe said he was determined to revive the High Street giant, by getting back in touch with their core female customer – rather patronisingly labelled "Mrs M&S" -, he was talking about a “loyal” customer in her 50s who shops with them around 18 times a year.

According to Mr Rowe this apparently married woman wants "stylish contemporary clothing". He adds: "We need to cherish and celebrate her and make sure we're giving her exactly what she needs at the right time", not try to dress her in a skater skirt. Indeed, Next’s drop in sales has been attributed to styles which were too ‘racy’ and insufficient core items such as blouses.

These are by no means the only retailers to be erroneously seduced by the sirens of youth and ‘trends’, but their ignominious fall from grace provides a blunt education in branding and knowing your customer.

It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.

By Melissa Wheeler 24 Apr, 2017

It’s a recognised truth that trying to please too many people is rarely a good strategy. This applies to retail as much as it does to life. Alongside soaring inflation, Brexit uncertainty and changing consumer habits, this appears to have been the case for one of Britain’s most cherished luxury fashion houses, who has stolen the headlines these past few weeks, for all the wrong reasons.

On the 11th April, it was disclosed that Jaeger, the fashion retailer whose clothes were once worn by stars including Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, had collapsed into administration, placing nearly 700 jobs at risk.

Directors at the 133-year-old chain confirmed that AlixPartners had been appointed as administrator after its owner, Better Capital, failed to sell the business.  Peter Saville, Ryan Grant, and Catherine Williamson of AlixPartners were appointed joint administrators and the industry watched in horror as this sad story unfolded.

By 18th April, Jaeger had announced the closure of 20 stores and 209 redundancies across its head office, distribution centre and store network, just one week after having fallen into administration.

The closures are said to affect 165 members of staff, who will be paid for the duration of the process. As for the head office, there have been 32 redundancies, and 12 job losses have been incurred at the retailer’s distribution centre.

About 680 staff in 46 shops and 63 concessions as well as Jaeger’s head office and logistics centre are also said to have lost their jobs.

Retailers of this scale and calibre don’t collapse very often, but when the first fractures begin to appear, they tend to crumble and fall fast. As Warren Buffet has famously said , “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it”. In this sad British story, it took 133 years versus 1 week.

So, what went wrong for the iconic British brand?

Known for its classic British styles and for a distinguished history, dating as far back as supplying clothing for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, Jaeger enjoyed an eminent status in the industry. Synonymous with understated confidence, the brand formed part of the British fashion Establishment with a clear identity of producing effortless, good quality collections and aspirational style, as summed up by the tagline “We don’t sell clothes, we dress women”.

As we know too well, brand identity and strategy are the bed rock of any brand, and when a business reacts to competition and change by compromising that identity and those values, the foundations begin to shake.

Glen Tooke, consumer insight director at Kantar Worldpanel, said Jaeger had “struggled for years to truly understand its core clientele” trying to appeal to younger shoppers when women over 45 accounted for a fifth of its sales. He said discounting accounted for three quarters of sales. This discouraged shoppers from paying the full price and lessened their trust in Jaeger’s quality. Even a name as eminent as Jaeger was not immune to the discounting drug. Another source described the fashion house as “well and truly broken” while a supplier, despite being directly affected by Jaeger’s demise, confessed that “It was a brand I grew up with, my grandmother just loved it […] I feel very ‘connected’ to it, so I feel I have personally lost something and it saddens me”.

Brand Identity

Agreed, these are tough times for all retailers. It's no picnic out there. “The ingredients are coming together for a very consumer-unfriendly environment over the course of this year,” has said Martin Beck of Oxford Economics.

Retail sales were down 1.8% in March across the board and estimated at a 1.1% drop for the quarter, largely blamed on inflation and flat wage growth. So, why – and importantly how - are brands such as Ted Baker and JD Sports managing to report such impressive figures?

By the 28th January, Ted Baker sales had soared 16.4% in constant currency to £531m, as profits before tax were up 4.4% to £61.3m. Retail sales were up 15% year on year to £400.7m with sales across UK and Europe increasing 10.7%. Online sales were up 35.1%. As many have noted, Ted Baker has identified precisely who its customer is and invests all its energy and attention in pleasing them and them alone.

Meanwhile, JD Sports Fashion posted another record year as profits before tax soared 81% year on year to £238.4m, largely attributed to the popularity of its core product, sports fashion, otherwise known as ‘athleisure’.

The sad reality is that Jaeger seemed to lose its focus, trying to be too many things to too many customer groups. Known in its heyday as the place to buy smart, well-designed and well-made product – with a few more directional pieces dotted in each collection – the handwriting of the brand became diluted and faintly unrecognisable. Surely, one of the pillars of any brand is to be recognisable by design and silhouette? Indeed, as former director Shailina Parti of Jaeger, who worked at the brand for over 25 years, has said:

“Jaeger understood the importance of a logo well ahead of most luxury brands, developing its “straw” lettering in 1935. There was a point when this unique label appealed internationally and I would say even to this day many would aspire to own a Jaeger coat”.

This is very true. Critically, although Jaeger still has a following from customers looking for classic, high-quality clothing, that group has become much smaller and competition in the market has clearly caused it to lose its way and question its identity.

In an attempt to attract a younger shopper, the introduction of sub-brands merely alienated the core customer and, when former chief executive Colin Henry left Jaeger in September 2015, it was suggested that it was in part because he disagreed with this change in strategy.

With this identity crisis in freefall, the confidence to sell in the best locations, from Selfridges – where it was the first retailer ever to have space in the store in 1930 – to its iconic store on Regent Street, was no longer sustainable. Although Jaeger did work on its store fit – highlighted by the Marylebone shop opening last October – relaunch its website last July and attempt to improve its product selection, unfortunately, it seems it was too little, too late. Without huge investment, Jaeger was always going to struggle to regain its position in the market. It’s a cruel example of How to Lose Sales and Alienate your Customer, which many other brands would be wise to take note of.

The Precariousness of the Private Label

Much has been said and screeds more will be written on the wounded employees and redundant head office personnel and distributors. This tragic tale leaves many victims in its wake. The high-risk nature of retailing will never change, but there are many voices suggesting that the supplier-retailer system must.

Jaeger suppliers stand to lose significant sums of money and many have called for a change in the law.

One supplier, who did not wish to be named, said: “It is all very predictable. It’s time someone started looking at the rules and regulations that allow this to happen. The owner didn’t have the appetite to invest the money required and didn’t engage with the industry to take any advice.” Another source added, “It’s so upsetting”.

So, how does the supplier system work?

I spoke to one private label supplier, who explained that “financially, from the minute I delivered the goods to the warehouse, until I got paid, the risk was always mine”. This is why those suppliers – often, small, independent British businesses, - are left so vulnerable. Having fallen into administration, the retailer thus has no obligation to pay them for their merchandise and this – alarmingly - is standard practice. As a supplier, it’s possible to take out ‘payment protection’ from various brokers, but it’s a costly policy and one which small, independent manufacturers are unlikely to be able to afford. As my source reflected, “I guess that in real terms it would have cost me more to have insured every delivery we made to them, in comparison to what we have lost”.

The resultant impact is a precarious cash flow situation, whereby the maker still has to pay for all the manufacturing/shipping/ testing/delivery, whilst not getting paid, which is why situations like this will always unfortunately end in bankruptcies. For many of Britain’s domestic manufacturers – the sector we should be nurturing, supporting and promoting ahead of Brexit - if they have too much owing by any one customer, who proceeds to crash, they can easily find their business to be insolvent.

There is always the chance that these suppliers may have their claims met by the administrators but in the meantime, what we have is a British fashion story that is at once terribly sad and pertinent, speaking to an industry that must review the way the system works.

As the industry mourns yet another British fashion stalwart, we take a harsh lesson on the importance of brand identity and pleasing your core customer. Equally, the collateral that comes from Jaeger’s demise marks a tragic tale, which calls for a systemic review of supplier-retailer relations if we are to prevent similar scenarios.

In the words of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a very different retailer, “your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. Ultimately, it would seem the public no longer knew quite what Jaeger stood for. Let’s hope that this changes.

 

 

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