Austin Reed may axe Country Casuals

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The Independent Online

The new chief executive of Austin Reed admitted yesterday he was considering ditching the Country Casuals brand in an effort to overhaul its image and revive the struggling womenswear chain.

The new chief executive of Austin Reed admitted yesterday he was considering ditching the Country Casuals brand in an effort to overhaul its image and revive the struggling womenswear chain.

Nick Hollingworth, who joined in April from Arcadia, said it was "entirely possible" that the Country Casuals name would disappear given that it would not fit with the new, more contemporary image he was seeking for the business.

The dire performance from Country Casuals, which has 200 stores across the UK, prompted a profits warning from Austin Reed in July. Yesterday it said like-for-like sales at the older women's clothing chain fell 11 per cent during the group's first half.

Mr Hollingworth, who used to run Dorothy Perkins and Burton, said: "The downside with Country Casuals is that it is two descriptive words and the fact that neither apply to the ranges [we want to introduce] is quite difficult."

But he ruled out selling the womenswear chain, which he hopes to reposition to try to persuade women in their forties to shop there. Dull, padded beige jackets and shapeless viscose dresses will go, in favour of the sheepskin gilets and long woollen cardigans sported by the rest of the high street.

Austin Reed sunk to a £3.3m loss thanks to the drop in sales at Country Casual, in line with its earlier warning. The picture was slightly better at its core Austin Reed business, where underlying sales rose 4 per cent - against weak comparatives.

Geoff Gibson, the finance director, admitted its flagship Regent Street store was still failing to live up to the company's expectations when it spent £12m on a major revamp. Like-for-like sales at the site are up 7 per cent in current trading, which means it will take twice as long for the store to repay its makeover bill. Last month, the group introduced a host of brands into the flagship site to try to tempt in more customers.

Trading has picked up since the half-year ended, with underlying sales at Austin Reed rising by 7.7 per cent and falling 5.5 per cent at Country Casual. But Seymour Pierce, the broker, cut its expectations for the group, which it forecasts will rack up £8.5m of losses.

Mr Hollingworth said it planned to double the number of discount stores it operates across the country's factory outlet sites to 20.

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