Turn-up for the books as Burton slips out of suits: William Baird to run sales at 350 stores in hunt for better margins

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The Independent Online
BURTONS, the menswear chain owned by the Burton Group, is to stop selling its own suits in its high- street stores. Instead, the suit departments will be run by William Baird, the clothing manufacturer.

The decision marks one of the most dramatic shifts in Burtons' history. Founded by Montague Burton - the Tailor of Taste - it supplied suits to most of the male population in the post-war years. Its main rival was John Collier - the Window to Watch - which was swallowed up by the Burton chain in the early 1980s. During that decade, however, it moved progressively downmarket and into more casual menswear.

William Baird, which manufactures under the Centaur label, will take over concessions in 350 of the 422 shops - the remainder are too small for suit departments - during the next year. The terms of the concessions have still to be agreed but William Baird will manufacture all the stock and employ all the sales staff. Burtons will take a percentage of the takings.

Martin McNamee, Burtons' managing director, said: 'Suits require a lot of selling. Because of the way the staff are trained, concessions are able to offer a better level of service.' He added that concessions had a higher sales density and better margins.

Burtons has four suppliers and is due to meet them this week to discuss the plans. Mr McNamee said William Baird would need extra production facilities to supply the quantities required, so he hoped that two of the suppliers would manufacture for William Baird.

The switch should not mean a reduction in store jobs as suit salesmen currently employed by Burtons will be offered the chance to transfer to the concessions. Customers should also notice little difference, as the labels will say the suit was manufactured by Centaur for Burtons.

William Baird has been running concessions for Debenhams, also part of the Burton Group, for two years and the arrangement has proved successful.

Mr McNamee would not disclose the proportion of Burtons' sales contributed by suits, although he said it is about a third of the figure achieved in the early 1980s. The Burton Group - which includes Principles - is the second-largest suit supplier with about 12 per cent of the market.

Suit sales have fallen by a third in the past two years, because of both recession and the trend towards more casual clothes.

The move to concessions is the latest in a series of measures by the Burton Group to improve the performance of its chains. In the year to last August, these made a pounds 7.3m operating profit on pounds 1bn of sales. Last January, the group sacked 1,000 full-time staff as part of a move to increase the proportion of part-timers.

But one rival retailer expressed surprise at the move to concessions. 'It is hard to believe that Burtons can't make more than the 20 per cent or so return on a concession from selling its own suits,' he said.

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