Outdoor specialist Blacks Leisure has begun testing new store formats in an attempt to strengthen the struggling retailer.

Blacks has quietly opened a higher-end fashion-only format called air.land.&sea (ALS) at Bluewater. It is also in the early stages of developing a hard discount format and a highly technical format.

Blacks chief executive Neil Gillis said ALS is a test to “see whether we can move into a really premium fashion market”.

He said the retailer’s research found that women were often intimidated in outdoor stores and that ALS had clearly differentiated areas for men’s and women’s apparel to address this problem. ALS is one of Blacks’ own-brands that it already stocks online.

The move will pitch Blacks in a difficult sector, against rivals such as Fat Face, which have suffered in the recession.

Gillis said Blacks is readying itself to push the button on new formats after it offloads its struggling boardwear business. He said: “We are seeing how far we can push the business in the outdoor market.”

He said the 1,500 sq ft ALS store had started well but it would take about six months to get a firm idea of the response from customers. He said he might also switch the shop to test out the other fascias and that finding new areas of the outdoor market would be a key focus for Blacks after it exits boardwear.

In the year to February 28 Blacks made an adjusted pre-tax loss of £6.8m, compared with a profit of £300,000 the year before. It has been working to convert the stores in its loss-making board-
wear division to its Blacks and Millets fascias.

Blacks has been hoping that the trend towards “staycations” in the UK would help lift summer sales. Its new financial year had started well with sales up 4.6 per cent in the 12 weeks to May 23.