Name brands risk loss of faith: Discounting is undermining brand loyalty in clothing, writes Karen Falconer

HAVE AUSTIN Reed, Alexon, Aquascutum and other upmarket retailers got it wrong by refusing to devalue their brands when large chunks of the high street have been displaying discounts of up to 75 per cent?

Clothing retailers have divided into two diametrically opposed camps over the past year: those that have cut prices to the quick to boost sales and shift surplus stock, and those that have refused to do so in order to protect their brand image and preserve margins.

Consumers, as a result, have lost grip of their traditional perceptions of value for money in clothing in particular price brackets. And they have begun to feel almost duped if asked to pay full price for anything.

This breakdown of traditional price/value relations has been driven by the often gratuitous discounting of store groups in the mass-market, fashion-led areas of the high street (Burton, Sears, Storehouse), but its repercussions on the so-called premium-branded clothing groups are enormous.

Companies such as Alexon and Austin Reed have refused to tamper with their pricing beyond the habitual twice-yearly sales and a tightened grip on costs. Rather than convincing loyal customers that the price structure is fair, however, this policy has led to significant decreases in volume as consumers opt for cheaper brands or even refuse to buy at all.

In contrast to previous recessions, this time it is the middle and upper middle-class clientele - the mainstay of the premium brands - that has been hardest hit in cash and confidence. Fashion companies with a very defined and restricted upmarket customer base have consequently suffered badly.

Alexon reported its first slump in profitability for six years in the year to 25 January at pounds 11.29m against pounds 12.76m for a 43-week period in the previous year. Moss Bros, which includes the Cecil Gee format of premium brands, saw pre-tax profits almost halved to pounds 1.32m.

Such profit declines have been followed by a simple litany in the chairmen's statements: that current trading may be bad, but that by refusing to be panicked or pressured into discounting the company has been left well-positioned for any eventual upturn.

But has it? While the rationale - to resist devaluing the brand for short-term gain - is clear, the longer-term effects on once-loyal and affluent consumers is less clear.

Consumers have been forced into an amateur analysis of the price/value equation in a way they have never been before, as a result of the discounting forays of many high street chains as well as the poor state of their own personal finances. This analysis is leading many of them to question the idea of brand loyalty.

Ruth Henderson, Alexon's chief executive and a strong opponent of price discounting, acknowledges that an undefined number of her customers have traded down to other brands, while some have cut their purchases in half but stayed with Alexon, and others have decided to hold on to their cash and not buy at all for the time being.

'The customer who may be thrilled to buy at half price will only ask why the garment isn't normally half price anyway,' she said.

'Discounting puts you on a treadmill: if you devalue the brand one year, you have to do so again the next to beat last year's figures. But we are not naive enough to think that if our garment is pounds 100 and someone else has marked theirs down to pounds 50, people will buy from us.'

Yet the simple belief that all will be alright once times are better is far from certain. By all accounts, the Nineties customer will be significantly different to the Eighties one who spent huge amounts of money on buying quality, branded clothing.

Post-recession, consumers may want to buy good quality clothing, but their perceptions of what constitutes value for money are already changing.

'We are talking about a very discerning customer who has got a much sharper eye for value,' a spokesman for Marks & Spencer said. 'And although we are not going to play with quality to keep prices down - that would be very silly - we do recognise that there is a very keen price-consciousness.'

'The consumer will come out of the recession a different animal,' Robert Pollard, a managing consultant at Price Waterhouse, said. 'From being a high-status, brand-aware consumer, we will see someone who is much more rational and will be much more considered in the way that they spend money.

'They will be looking for value, but not equating value with price. If premium brands can prove that they have the fashion, looks, quality and price right, then people will buy them, but they will no longer buy for the brand name.'

It seems that the shift to individualism - identified long ago by marketing people - could finally be ready to undermine the copycat mentality on which brands have thrived.

All of this means that the declines in volume at the top end of the clothing market will not necessarily be reversed. Companies in this bracket will have to sharpen up their merchandise, quality and pricing beyond anything being offered by mass-market operations if they are to win customers back. Demand will have to be created as opposed to simply fulfilled as was the case in the late Eighties.

This much has not escaped the attention of those companies trying to win through the recession. Alexon, Jaeger and Laura Ashley have all appointed new design directors during the past few weeks as they attempt to further refine merchandise in preparation for the climb out of recession. Aquascutum is trying to maximise its value-for-money offer by cutting out surplus details in its clothing, while improving operating efficiency. Details like linings and pockets are being re-evaluated to ensure cost savings without a drop in quality.

'We should have done this years ago, but now it is essential,' Paul Bennett, Aquascutum's chairman, said.

'Over the last few years people like ourselves have been rather lackadaisical and, as the market has been buoyant, they haven't looked closely enough at themselves and their prices.'

This problem is not unique to Aquascutum. With the change in attitudes to money since the Eighties, it is a problem with which all premium-branded companies now have to grapple.

Richard Hyman of Verdict Research said: 'Some people will have damaged their position more than others during the recession, depending on the amount of discounting and the way they have done it. But I'm also convinced that no one will go back to where they were beforehand because the market has changed irrevocably.

'When the economy improves, price consciousness will ebb a little, but there will still be a large discount sector and people will retain some of their increased awareness of price.'

So, while the new chiefs at Sears and Burton are working at reestablishing the status quo away from discounting, those selling premium brands would do well to take a close look at what they have to offer and tune it to the new needs of the Nineties consumer. A good brand name by itself is no longer enough.

(Photograph omitted)

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