As Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley expresses interest in collapsed menswear chain Austin Reed, John Ryan considers the likely outcome.
Do some things go together naturally? How about suits, shirts and ties? Or maybe beauty halls and health spas? Possibly, but consider the following: how about putting formal menswear alongside fishing tackle, or perhaps casual streetwear, aimed at the shopper who counts the pennies?
That, if things go Mike Ashley’s way, might be the fate of Austin Reed, which is currently being courted by the owner of Newcastle United and Sports Direct. Walk into a Sports Direct and stray beyond the first few metres (usually the domain of branded running shoes or football boots), and you are soon confronted by a pot-pourri of branded and unbranded merchandise, where sports fashion jostles for prominence alongside camping equipment and perhaps a denim wall.
“Sports Direct is an egalitarian shop. It is also a confusing mess where stock sells principally because an impression has been created of low price, rather than any sense of must-have”
This is an egalitarian shop where there is probably something for everybody. It is also a bit of a confusing mess where stock sells principally because an impression has been created of low price, rather than any sense of must-have. This may leave the jaded retail palette with the sense that all the effort expended on fashioning winsome retail interiors may actually be mildly misdirected labour.
Now suppose Mr Ashley is successful in his bid for Austin Reed. Is it beyond the pale to imagine that its branches might be converted into mini Sports Directs that contain a modicum of Austin Reed stock?
That Mad Men-style electric-blue suit that you’ve hankered after for some time, feeling that some of its 60s panache might rub off on you, might now be available next to a Lonsdale tracksuit. Makes sense? Maybe not, but brands that might have seemed antipathetic to the Sports Direct formula have still ended up under its roof in the past – think Firetrap.
The truth is that there is probably almost nothing that can’t be sold alongside something else. It’s just that, in the process, some of the inherent value that has been invested in a brand may be lost. Austin Reed surely deserves better than this and there may yet, with a little fine-tuning as far as prices are concerned, be some mileage in the brand while it is kept away from a cut-price sports store.
At least there is a suitor for this retailer, although whoever buys it will change it from its current form.
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