The recent history of New Look is a pounding reminder that positive retail transformation is possible. Following the arrival of boss Anders Kristiansen in 2013, the fashion retailer saw a marked turnaround in fortunes. In the past few months, however, it has provided a reminder of just how much sustained focus is required to deliver longterm success.
Last month, New Look announced that full year like-for-like sales in its core UK business fell 6.8%. As a recent Retail Week article highlighted, the business believes that it has swiftly identified the problem – its product. According to New Look itself, trend authority has slipped and product is not standout enough. It’s fair comment. And its leadership team should be applauded for quickly, and so publicly, standing up and saying so.
The answer, it hopes, is the arrival of new faces and new ideas – part of a move that Kristiansen believes will see the retailer up its game and rekindle shoppers’ love for the brand, and its products. The most high profile of these appointments is Paula Dumont Lopez – most recently head of womenswear at Esprit – to the role of chief creative officer. Mango’s womenswear director has also followed.
As all good businesses should in troubled-times, New Look is clearly focused on getting its core proposition right. But what does this mean for its foray into menswear? These are not easy times to be in experimental mode with the many uncertainties that exist when business is tight and brands are focusing on their core business.
New Look menswear boss Christopher Englinde exited the business last month. Englinde, who enjoyed huge success at H&M, had overseen the launch of around 20 standalone New Look menswear stores before his departure. Like Lopez, his appointment was seen as a coup for New Look at the time. Having made a strong start in establishing its menswear business, the departures will surely come as a blow. However, this should potentially be seen as a stall rather than as a stop.
New Look has clearly taken the decision that it wants to transition its brand from being solely focused on women to become a credible dual-gender business, like River Island and Topshop/Topman. Without diminishing the work of Englinde and his team, questions still remain as to New Look’s credibility with shoppers as a destination of choice for male fashion. A strong male brand ambassador would surely not go amiss, as demonstrated by the impact of the H&M x David Beckham partnership.
Granted, its retail estate is largely profitable. Does that mean that stores are as good as they could be, or even equal to the best in the market? Honestly, no.
With menswear stores and new flagship projects diverting attention, visual standards across the wider legacy estate appear to have suffered. While its planned new store format on Tottenham Court Road – complete with hair salon, make-up bar and personalisation services – may be intent on delivering a richer retail experience, there are many ‘low cost’ or ‘no-cost’ softer VM changes that New Look could, and should, be implementing to deliver visible improvements across all stores.
Although product densities within New Look stores are very similar to those found in H&M and Zara, its visual delivery continues to lack the same spark and energy instore. Visual merchandising and handling techniques are too ‘me too’ – lacking sufficient standout, and appearing somewhat out of step with both current trends and the expectations of its core shoppers. New Look has invested in VM training in the past. However, while a focus on ‘doing it right’ can deliver marked improvements, simply doing it once is not enough – especially given the fast-paced, constantly evolving high street. Not to mention the increasingly transient nature of store teams.
Turning attention back to New Look’s senior-level personnel changes: fashion brands have always had high profile entrances and exits. In that respect, this latest series of appointments is nothing new. New Look, however, will hope that in the changing of the guard, new energy, ideas and future success will be found.
As in all similar situations, the people at the top may change, but the brand must ensure it continues to progress in line with a clearly defined strategy and focused proposition.
Kristiansen has laid out his ambition to shift towards a business model that is focused on enabling the retailer to respond quicker to the ’buy now wear now’ trend. It’s likely to also choose to follow the lead of other retailers, with smaller stores presenting more curated fashion showcases, supported by store-based online ordering to the home, or instore as a collection point.
Both of these moves would require clear and effective support to ensure that those with responsibility for the brand at store level have the knowledge and skills required to bring collections to life instore in new, more engaging and relevant ways, and deliver change effectively on a daily basis.