The style slowcoaches will fall before mighty Marks

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The Independent Online
CLOTHING retailers are facing a shake-out as the most powerful names such as Marks & Spencer increase their grip on the high street. A survey published today by Verdict, the retail consultants, predicts the collapse of more high street retailers if they do not have a distinctive brand and a definite proposition, whether it is quality, design or price.

"We predict that M&S is going to increase its share of the UK clothing market by 4 per cent over the next few years and that share is going to have to come from somewhere," says Verdicts's Clive Vaughan. Most at risk are fashion stores that are "playing it safe" with undistinguished merchandise, the report says. Others who cut costs in customer service and supplying chain operations also risk alienating shoppers.

Verdict says the collapse of Foster's menswear into administration underlined the problems. Last week's profits warning from Next, for so long a star, showed how unforgiving shoppers are, it added. "With consumer spending growth going to be unexciting over the next couple of years, you are going to have to be distinctive to prosper," Mr Vaughan said.

The report identifies two ways to compete with M&S, which now accounts for 15 per cent of the UK's pounds 24.6bn clothing market. One is to be more fashionable but with distinctive styling as Monsoon, Next, Oasis and Kookai are. Another is to focus on "aspirational" brands which it says are becoming increasingly important. The report identifies small chains such as USC, Envy and Blakes as following that strategy.

Retailers that have been caught in the middle include Fosters, Littlewoods, Laura Ashley and Etam. Those that have continued to expand include Monsoon and New Look. However, the report cautions against the dangers of expanding too rapidly and placing too much pressure on systems and supply chains.