Could some of Britain's biggest high-street names be forced to shut up shop?
A world without M&S? It couldn't happen... could it? One retail analyst and one style expert deliver their candid (and anonymous) verdicts on which of our stalwarts are streets ahead – and who might have to shut up shop
Sunday 15 March 2009
The Body Shop
The alternative beauty chain founded by the late Dame Anita Roddick has been supplying the world with ethically made toiletries and make-up for more than three decades. Though sales declined last year, our retail analyst is optimistic: "Recent job cuts and a fall in profits suggest doom and gloom, but with parent company L'Oréal propping it up, The Body Shop should weather the storm." Our fashion journalist takes a similar view: "Reasonably priced beauty purchases will become more important to women if they find they can't afford higher-end purchase such as clothes."
Style survivor: A good parent company will keep the chain afloat until sales improve.
This perennial purveyor of taffeta ball dresses and colourful knits increasingly looks like a high-street dinosaur, reckons our style insider, who thinks its chances of extinction are high. "Its deluxe-boho style has barely changed in the past decade, occasionally nodding to trends but never quite hitting the mark," she comments. "It seems irrelevant to contemporary fashion, and, in my view, is overpriced to boot."
Out of fashion: Failure to move with the times plus high prices could be deciding factors in a tough retail environment.
"The specialist footwear sector is disappearing," says our retail analyst. "Women are instead buying shoes from clothing retailers that have expanded into footwear, such as New Look." However, our fashion journalist reckons Office should survive as the best of the specialist bunch: "It has a strong reputation for being brilliant at what it does – a wide variety of trend-led, well-made styles at affordable prices. Plus, ultra-cheap shoes are a no-no for many people."
Style survivor: Good design and reliable quality make Office's specialist status an asset rather than a weakness.
"Serious fashionistas despise it," says our style insider of the mid-priced fashion chain recently sold off by the collapsed Icelandic investment company Baugur. But, she concedes, "It does appear to provide the occasionwear uniform (strapless satin dress with matching clutch and shoes) for half the country." The sticking point for Karen Millen, she adds, could be its near-designer price tags for high-street pieces that are unlikely to be worn regularly.
Out of fashion: Unjustifiably high prices make it vulnerable.
House of Fraser
The mid- to high-range department store, which has 62 shops across Britain, was another high-street name whose future was placed in doubt by Baugur's troubles. With threats of redundancies and massive price cuts across stores, our fashion insider says the chain will need to raise its game if it is to survive: "Unlike its department-store competitors, House of Fraser has no clear identity. It's not the cheapest, but lacks the glamour of its more expensive rivals and doesn't provide much of a shopping experience."
Out of fashion: Doesn't match up in terms of product or service.
"With billionaire Philip Green behind it, Topshop is about as safe as can be," says our retail expert of the chain, whose of-the-moment pieces and lines by Kate Moss are snapped up as quickly as any "It" item. Our fashion insider agrees: "It's still a destination shop, although its range has changed slightly – it used to be a place for mothers and daughters, but now it aims exclusively at a young crowd."
Style survivor: Topshop long ago secured its reputation as the default one-stop shop for all things fun and fashionable.
Marks & Spencer
The British stalwart is being squeezed from every angle: by low-price retailers such as Primark and New Look; dedicated fashion brands such as Zara and River Island; not to mention fellow mid-market players Debenhams and Next. Despite attempts at exclusive ranges such as Autograph and Limited Collection, our fashion journalist says: "M&S never seems to get it quite right – many of its pieces are almost there, then it ruins it with an odd palette or bad detailing."
Out of fashion: Slower to turn around catwalk trends and more expensive than the fast-fashion retailers, but lacking the style kudos of higher-end brands, M&S lacks a USP.
Even prior to the credit crunch, fashion journalists were predicting that consumers would return to old-fashion values of quality over quantity, investing in a few key pieces that would stand the test of time. Yet, as our style writer puts it, "It's since become clear that what a lot of consumers are actually after right now is a quick, cheap fashion thrill – a purchase you don't have to spend hours agonising over." Hence Primark's impressive recent sales figures.
Style survivor: Cheap and largely cheerful, Primark delivers the latest trends at knockdown prices. Craftsmanship and ethical credentials are lower priorities when money is tight.
New Look may be a touch more expensive than Primark, but our fashion journalist points out that it has gained in kudos in recent years, bringing in hot designers such as Giles Deacon for collaborations and expanding its footwear and accessories line. "The occasional gem makes it a hunting ground for fashionistas as well as mainstream customers," she says. "It doesn't have quite the same shame factor of being spotted in a recognisable Primark piece, either."
Style survivor: Fun, non-threatening fast-fashion with enough of an edge to lend it some cool.
The department store that became synonymous with luxury in TV series Absolutely Fabulous may seem vulnerable in a recession, but our style insider reckons Harvey Nicks should ride it out. "Its fashion-buying team is one of the smartest in the business," she explains. "Its high-end stock might be expensive, but by selecting the essential designer pieces each season, it will keep its high-spending shoppers coming back for more, particularly in London." The fate of its outlying branches (it recently opened its fifth regional outlet in Bristol) may be less certain.
Style survivor: Intelligent buying will ensure customers will continue to make this their first port of call for hot designer buys.
Independent vintage stores
Vintage clothing has been the fashionista's choice for several years now, and our style journalist reckons that its popularity will only improve now times are hard. "Savvy style mavens know that, unlike a cheap catwalk copy, an older piece will be well-made and unique, so no one will be able to guess how much you paid." Even better news, what she describes as the "vastly inflated prices" of certain parts of the vintage market should drop to more reasonable levels in the current climate.
Style survivor: As one-off pieces at mass-produced prices, vintage delivers value for money without sacrificing style.
A few years ago the sportswear retailer JJB was pulling in millions; the past few months have seen it amass £60m in debts. Several factors have contributed. "Lifestyle sportswear – which is what JJB was known for – has become the last word in chav," says our fashion journalist, while our retail analyst points out that, "These days you need go no further than a supermarket for cheap gym gear."
Out of fashion: A victim of changing fashions, JJB needs a miracle to turn it around.
Consumers might be favouring catwalk copies for regular purchases, but our fashion journalist believes luxury brands should continue to enjoy good sales thanks to high-spenders largely unaffected by the crunch, as well as the occasional splurge from the rest of us. "Huge mark-ups on accessories such as sunglasses and handbags will see them through lean times," she says. "If customers are going to treat themselves, the reassuring lustre of a name will be necessary."
Style survivor: History and reputation are on its side – a piece from Chanel still represents the ultimate investment purchase.
Another Baugur-backed brand, Goldsmiths is part of a jewellery retail sector facing a particularly tough period. "Go into any high-street jeweller and you will find it throwing incentives at you – a bad sign," says our fashion journalist, who reckons that if consumers are going to part with serious cash, it will be for something special. "A new watch might be a better investment, but it lacks the excitement of a show-stopping piece of clothing." That said, demand for wedding and engagement rings is expected to remain consistent.
Out of fashion: Expensive but lacking in designer appeal; consumers are more likely to splurge on other items.
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