Can Topshop avoid a soaking in its ambitions over the pond?

Sir Philip Green is confident as he expands his Arcadia empire but many British firms have failed there before. James Thompson reports

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The Independent Online

The US has claimed the scalps of some of the high street's biggest names, including Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's, but Sir Philip Green has no intention of joining their ranks.

He is increasingly confident that America is a gamble worth taking, which made Las Vegas seem an appropriate place to open his third Topshop, a combined store with Topman, in the US on Thursday.

Sir Philip, whose Arcadia retail empire includes Miss Selfridge and Bhs, said its first shop that launched in New York in 2009 is "performing well" and revealed he wants up to 20 "flagship" stores in the US over the next three years.

In addition to opening in Chicago last year, Arcadia will unveil its first store on the West Coast in Los Angeles next February.

But a number of large UK retailers have sunk across the pond, although it has been a similar tale of woe for many US retailers on these shores.

Richard Hyman, the strategic retail adviser to Deloitte, said: "I think most UK retailers going to America have failed and most American retailers coming here have failed."

The most high-profile UK exits have been Sainsbury's selling its Shaw's business in 2004 and Marks & Spencer offloading its Brooks Brothers chain in 2001, while Best Buy UK closed its 11 big-box electricals stores on this side of the Atlantic in January.

Above all, it is Tesco's launch in the US that has attracted the most recent attention.

Philip Clarke, the chief executive of Tesco, said last week its 185-store US operation could "break even" this year ahead of its target of February 2013, following an improved performance.

But Tesco has already incurred losses of £700m and splashed out £1bn of capital on its US adventure since its launch in November 2007.

Retail experts cite cultural and economic reasons why UK chains have found the US market a tough nut to crack.

Mr Hyman says: "Because we speak vaguely the same language and culturally we appear to be very similar there is an assumption that our consumption patterns and behaviour is very similar and this is just not the case."

In stark contrast to manufacturing, retailing is all about adding value, such as around convenience, pricing, branding or store environment. Not only are these retailing ingredients relatively "intangible", they often don't translate across borders, says Mr Hyman.

The vastly different size of the two countries also means that American retailers operate on a radically different financial model.

For instance, while US chains have vastly longer domestic supply chains, they typically benefit from substantially cheaper property prices.

Its greater land mass also means that Americans rely more on shopping malls and out-of-town retail parks, as well as their slick mail-order companies.

Mr Hyman says that US consumers are likely to consider travelling 45 minutes to a mall as a "neighbourhood drive", which most Brits would not. The retail market itself is also radically different. Christine Cross, the chief retail adviser to the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCooper, said: "There is a substantial price point differentiation in the US.

"There are lots of inexpensive and value-chain retailers, so aspirational brands can find it hard in the US with discount malls everywhere."

She adds: "That end of the market is tough. There are also a lot of middle- to-upper-market brands, such as Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. In contrast mid-market fast fashion is not well represented."

Ms Cross says having a different product range in the States is "hugely important".

Certainly, Sir Philip says that Topshop is selling slightly different ranges in its stores in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas, reflecting not only the different shopper demographics but also the contrasting weather in these cities.

Topshop's fashion credentials and ability to turn around new products quickly from initial design to the shop floor is also helping in the US.

Sir Philip said: "They love fashion and our whole DNA is about bringing something new and fresh. It is that newness and frequency of delivery. Other retailers ask us how we do it [so quickly]."

The kudos of British design can also help in a market such as the US. Ms Cross says: "The area where there is rich pickings is around fashionability, where retailers can trade on their Britishness. For example, when French Sole, which sells ballerina flats, launched in New York they did it as London Sole."

Of course, few retailers get their launches overseas right the first time, which places a great onus on how quickly they can respond if things don't go according to plan.

Peter Gold, the head of cross-border retail at CBRE, said: "The willingness to adapt is critical. If retailers just take the same concept and apply it overseas with the same format, offer and scale, it will not work."

He adds: "Tesco is a good example in how they have adapted to local markets. They identify what is missing, how to accommodate it and then to create a format that meets the needs of consumers."

But it's fair to say that Tesco initially misjudged Americans when it launched its Fresh & Easy chain to a fanfare in 2007, although its timing just ahead of the credit crunch was lousy.

Tesco, which has operations in 14 countries, believed there was a huge gap in the market for smaller grocery stores selling a higher proportion of own-label healthy and prepared foods in no-frills stores.

Clive Black, the analyst at Shore Capital, said: "The initial mistakes that Tesco made were that they were far too optimistic about the US economy and misjudged the US consumer, which leads you to question the robustness of their analysis."

He added: "They had a proposition that was not appetising for the US consumer. The stores were sterile and very much focused on costs rather than what US consumers like. They really like coupons and big brands and big packet sizes."

But Tesco has shown its adaptability by radically changing its Fresh & Easy stores.

It has freshened them up with livelier colours, started issuing coupons and strengthened its fresh food and other product areas, such as coffee ranges. Mr Black says: "Fresh & Easy is now on the right path."

He says it has been "transformed", adding that the stores are "much more colourful, appealing and attractive".

However, the jury remains out on Fresh & Easy and whether it can become as successful for Tesco as its operations in countries such as Poland, Turkey, Thailand and South Korea.

Mr Black says: "If a path to sustained profit growth and satisfactory returns cannot be envisaged then a different strategic course could yet be followed including a joint venture or disposal."

Overall, it is easy to see why UK retailers are tempted to try their luck in the world's biggest market.

According to CBRE, 16 British brands currently operate in the US, including Paul Smith, Ted Baker, Reiss, French Connection and Jack Wills.

Furthermore, UK chains such as Mothercare, Next and Debenhams have been hugely successful in utilising the franchise model in far-flung corners of the world, such as China and Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps the most important factors for UK chains when launching overseas are to be patient and cautious, reflecting Topshop's opening of only two stores since 2009.

Mr Gold says: "Making a retail format work overseas takes time. In particular, shareholders need to acknowledge that a retailer often cannot generate a consistent rate of return from one market to the next.

"In general, the dollar invested in the US will secure a quicker return than the same dollar that is invested in Europe."

Stateside hits: Fashion retailers who were smart

Ted Baker entered America through wholesale in 1996. The quirky fashion brand opened its first standalone store in New York two years later and now has 27 shops, including concessions and outlet units. Ted Baker is to open a flagship on the Big Apple's Fifth Avenue in the summer.

Paul Smith opened its first store in the US in New York in 1987. The brand now has six standalone shops in the US, with three in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Its products are also sold through stockists, including Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys.

Jack Wills' expansion in the US has been rapid. The preppy fashion brand opened its first American shop in the summer of 2010 and it now has 11 stores, including in Boston and Philadelphia.

Stateside misses: Coming unstuck and then bailing out with a sale

Dixons Retail, the owner of Currys and PC World, bought Silo, the US's third-largest power retailer with 147 stores, in 1987. The UK electricals group sold Silo to Fretter for $45m in 1993.

Sainsbury's, then the UK's largest supermarket chain, acquired 21 per cent of the US grocer Shaw's in 1983 and the remaining shares four years later. The London-based grocer offloaded Shaw's to Albertsons for $2.5bn in 2004.

Marks & Spencer purchased Brooks Brothers, the oldest men's clothing retailer in the US, for $750m in cash in 1988. The High Street stalwart then sold the chain at a huge loss to Retail Brand Alliance for $225m in 2001. Marc Bolland, the chief executive of M&S, last year stressed that the retail chain had no current plans to open physical stores in the US.