Since 2009 suit specialist Moss Bros has certainly been making headlines; it’s been the subject of takeover speculation, it has appointed a new CEO, all whilst battling significant annual losses - it even got a plug from Boris Johnson during live television coverage of April’s royal wedding.
Under the no-nonsense leadership of CEO Brian Brick in the last two years the company has found itself back on the front foot, and the launch of newly formatted stores and modern fashion ranges are helping drive sales and reduce losses as well as setting up the retailer for a much more certain future.
“What I came into in spring 2009 was a heavily loss-making situation so the business needed to change. Moss Bros’s performance is now improving - we’re getting there,” Brick tells Retail Gazette.
“We’re on a cost-cutting strategy at the moment but we will invest in new stores and refurbish existing ones.”
Part of this transformation process involves the continued introduction of the company’s new sub-brand Bespoke into stores nationwide, as well as the development of more outlets that contain the company’s traditional retail offering, hirewear and Bespoke all under one roof.
Brick is encouraged by the early sales levels and customer interest at Canary Wharf, the location of the first store offering all three parts of the business in one place, and clearly sees this format as a major part of his strategy going forward.
“There will be some new stores opening in this format and we’ll be trialling some refurbishments during the autumn with the view of completing these transformations next spring and through the next few years,” he adds.
Bespoke is Brick’s brainchild, and the CEO expects that Moss Bros will eventually boast 50 or 60 shop-in-shops promoting the brand. The offering gives customers the opportunity to buy suits made up of personally chosen fabrics, lining and styles, which have been made to measure – no other high street retailer provides such a dedicated service.
“Customers like the fact they’re easy to shop in, bright and airy and there’s real clarity in our offer, which is simple to understand. We now talk to our customers a lot more in person and through graphics,” Brick explains.
“I think we can say that we have thought through the customer journey.”
Many UK clothing retailers have agonised over whether they should increase prices in the wake of rising material costs from countries such as China during the last year, and Brick reveals that there are some big decisions that his company and other fashion retailers need to make.
“We’re looking in minute detail on everything we are doing product wise, including whether we should be using better or cheaper fabrics, or if we should use different factories or put prices up – the situation is very difficult.”
Despite this backdrop, trade at Moss Bros appear to be improving, with like-for-like (LFL) retail sales rising by 8.9 per cent year-on-year in the 12 months to January 31st 2011.
Pre-tax losses were down from £3.2 million to £2.7 million over the course of the year, and further improvement has been noted in the 15 weeks to May 14th with LFL gross profit up 9.8 per cent on the same period in 2010.
Compared to the outdated and more heavily loss-making company Brick arrived at in 2009, this represents major progress and will provide encouraging reading for Moss Bros’s shareholders, especially when the current retail climate of low sales growth and poor consumer confidence is taken into account.
It has been an unforgiving retail landscape in the last two years, with fashion specialists such as Officers Club, Ethel Austin and Faith either entering administration or disappearing from the high street altogether, but it was last September’s liquidation of Suits You that is far more pertinent to Moss Bros and Brick in particular.
Brick was the owner of Suits You’s parent company Speciality Retail Group (SRG) until 2005, so has mixed feelings about its demise, but he is clear that there are now more opportunities for Moss Bros to grow since its main rival of recent years ceased trading.
“SRG’s been through different ownership since I sold it and I’m obviously sad to see it go under, but it wasn’t the same business anymore. When I owned Suits You we made money every year.
“Following Suits You’s closure we now have less competition on the high street and we can look at their business and learn how not to do it.”
Learning lessons from failed competitors is a valuable way for a business to move forward, but good publicity is priceless – and that is exactly what Moss Bros achieved in April during the most widely viewed TV event of the year.
Millions of BBC viewers who had tuned in to watch the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton would have witnessed an interview with London Mayor Boris Johnson in which he revealed to the nation that Moss Bros’s Fenchurch Street in the capital had provided his wedding attire.
“What a plug that was,” Brick remarks. “I knew he’d been in but that was absolutely fabulous stuff.
“Pam at Fenchurch Street who served Johnson got sent a beautiful bunch of flowers from me – I think we made Boris look very smart.”
Retail Gazette has spoken to many retailers over the past year, lots of whom have been rightly cautious about their strategies amid the current problems in the consumer economy.
Brick is one of the most bullish in his business outlook though, but this is justified by the encouraging progress Moss Bros has made under his leadership.
“There are real retail winners at present but also some heavy losers,” he said.
“If your offer is right and you are on your game the public are still spending money, but if you are slightly off then you are going to struggle. I’m confident Moss Bros is in the winners’ camp.”