Marketing: Good time to put your shirt on mail order: More consumers are buying their clothes from home

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IF YOU feel that button-down shirts have been getting more popular among your male colleagues over recent months, it could be that a company called Lands' End is responsible.

The shirts have, of course, been available in Britain for some time. But the American mail-order company is claiming some of the credit for making them as acceptable in the office as they have been in the pub and the sports club.

Indeed, the Wisconsin-based organisation has rated its first year in the UK such a success that it has just announced plans for a distribution centre to speed up deliveries.

British sales of shirts and the company's other down-home American clothing are still not large enough to merit special mention in its figures, which show net income for the last year nearly doubling to dollars 28.7m (pounds 16m) on turnover of dollars 683m. But Richard Anderson, the chief executive, said on a visit to London last week: 'We've been very encouraged by the enthusiasm and acceptance of Lands' End products in the UK. We're committed to the UK and are concentrating on building a long-term relationship with our customers here in the same way we have in the US, by adding value to their shopping experience.'

This is Americanese for making shopping more convenient. And there are signs that this approach is striking a chord with the consumer - whose reluctance to spend on the high street is being held responsible for the continuing economic recession.

Next Directory, of course, pre-dates the US company's arrival. But the business has moved on from the position in its early days, when start-up problems were held partly responsible for the profits warning that stunned the City in December 1988. In the six months to July 1992, its sales were static at pounds 42.8m, but profits nearly doubled to pounds 2.7m, due to 'continued improvement in stock management and control of costs', said the Next chairman, Lord Wolfson.

Moreover, the widely held view of those in the mail-order business is that George Davies's brainchild broke the mould. What had previously been the preserve of catalogues catering for cost-conscious housewives and small ads for men's shirts in the weekend press was transformed into something that fashionable younger buyers were prepared to patronise.

Another venerable American operation, LL Bean, has made tentative steps into the UK market, offering its catalogues via newspaper advertisements, while another British retail chain, Laura Ashley, offers many of its goods by post. Another beneficiary of Next's move is David Krantz, who quietly built up the Blazer chain of 'American college-boy' menswear shops before selling it to Storehouse in the late 1980s.

In February, he launched Racing Green, a catalogue operation offering what he insists are clothes that are 'comfortable and reasonably priced in good-quality fabrics and great colours'.

Like Next, he incurred problems in the beginning, particularly with logistics and customer service - vital areas for a mail-order business. But he now claims to be trading better than he 'originally dared hope'.

Mr Krantz believes part of the appeal is that customers want simple, good-quality clothes. But these can be hard to find in the high street, and people now regard searching for them as 'a chore'.

In many ways, setting up a catalogue business is simpler than opening a string of stores around the country. But although it seems cheaper at first, building the reliable database that is vital to the success of such an operation can cost a great deal.

'It's as hard as any other business. There are no quick fixes in mail order,' he says.

(Photograph omitted)