When Philip Day bought Austin Reed back in May, the industry speculated that he might really be after the Country Casuals brand.
While Austin Reed’s heritage makes it a standout name, it seemed an odd fit among the Edinburgh Woollen Mill Group owner’s stable of brands, which includes the eponymous fascia as well as value players Peacocks and Jane Norman.
This made Day’s revelation that he plans to open 50 Austin Reed stores a shock to some.
There is a trend to revive collapsed brands at the moment: BHS being a case in point.
But Austin Reed had struggled for a while, and its store estate was a major reason for that. Will 50 stores form the same noose around its neck?
“They couldn’t be a credible, upper middle-class brand for economic reasons,” says KPMG head of retail Paul Martin.
“Now that they have got rid of their shackles it is feasible that they could make a go of it.”
Martin questions whether its store expansion will be as large as planned.
“Will there really be 50 stores?” he says. “I would be surprised. I think it is more likely to be 20 to 30.
Underwhelming online offer
The website is incredibly important to get right. It underwhelmed many observers when it relaunched a few months ago, including Verdict analyst Honor Strachan.
“It is a very, very basic website,” she says. “And it’s really obvious stuff to get wrong. There is no editorial content, no outfit building suggestions. You click on a suit blazer and it’s on a white background rather than a model.
“How will that encourage to buy? It doesn’t give consumers confidence to buy a suit. They’ve got their work cut out if they’re going to make an impact. If this is the year of being a pureplay then they need to focus on those things.”
Getting the brand position right
Bigger than a new website is the problem of brand positioning. Day may be used to turning around retailers, but Austin Reed is a tough nut to crack.
Suiting and formalwear is a competitive market: crowded with healthy competitors, and the not-so-healthy that have a propensity to discount, This produces the ever-present challenge of maintaining quality while preserving margins.
“I think it’s going to be a huge challenge to establish Austin Reed as a premium destination that consumers want to go to,” Strachan says.
“It was run into the ground and heavily run on discounting and promotions. It has to start from scratch and find a new customer – their old customer abandoned them.”
Moss Bros resurgence
She points to the resurgent Moss Bros as an example of a formalwear retailer back from the near dead.
“That did not happen overnight,” she says. “Brian Brick spent a long time establishing that. It required a huge investment in stores and online, a modernisation of brand image, less discounting, great brand partnerships and a lot of time spent talking to customers.”
Opinion on how feasible an Austin Reed comeback is may be divided, but one thing is clear – there’s a long road ahead for the sartorial retailer.