Sears must tidy its wardrobe to reverse the downward trend

The sheer diversity of Sears has now become a hindrance. To turn itself around, the firm must first find its focus.

There is nothing more fickle than fashion. Just after kitting out my grunge wardrobe, I have noticed we trendy young things are now meant to be bedecked with a new glamour.

The retailers of this stuff are every bit as baffling. Last week we had grunge from Sears – the British Shoe Corporation to Miss Selfridge conglomerate – and glamour from Next. Meanwhile, Laura Ashley remained, well, Laura Ashley – sort of middle-of-the-road and slightly dull.

I talk, of course, in financial terms. I have no idea what they actually sell. And nor, very often, do they. The fashion retailing business appears to be a monstrously hit-and-miss affair. For every hit there is a Miss Selfridge, which apparently had a disastrous summer fashion collection.

Why this should be eludes me. It has long been obvious to anyone who follows the fashion industry, even for a moment, that commercial success is not about identifying what the market wants but about telling it.

This holds true with many other industries. From chocolate bars to after-shave and four-wheel-drive, off-road vehicles, we are convinced by manufacturers that these are things we desire.

But no industry is more prone to the dictation of taste than the fashion industry. We cannot possibly know whether we want a hemline above the knee or at the ankle, or suit lapels wide or crossed high for the double breast, until we are told what we want by the makers of this stuff. More importantly, we are relieved of any responsibility for knowing whether we want it or not. What the designers have decided we want is the only thing there is in the shops. It is slick, expert and painless market manipulation.

So how could Sears have mucked it up? One can only suppose that the Miss Selfridge summer flop was caused by it breaking ranks with the product lines of other fashion retailers. Normally there is a silent conspiracy: retailers form a sort of fashion cartel and miraculously release the same styles at the same time.

Or maybe Sears has become an unwieldy concoction of diverse interests that no longer has its finger on the contrary pulse of fashion.

This is not a particularly original observation, but then, as any fashion retailer worth its salt will tell you, it’s the classic lines that are often the best. In this case, the classic line is that Sears is an ill-devised mix-and-match of fashion, shoe, sports and children’s clothing interests. In its anxiety to get it right on a number of fronts, it doesn’t get it right on any of them.

This is not entirely fair. Chief executive Liam Strong only left British Airways for Sears in 1992 and it could be argued that his process of regeneration is just taking a little longer than expected. There are also some brighter patches. Children’s clothing chain Adams is expanding nicely and the worst, in terms of over-stocking, is over in the shoe shops.

But with interim profits down 28 per cent for the first half of the year, it is difficult to resist the notion that Sears is a victim of its lumbering size. This conclusion leads me to speculate that it may be about to go on a slimming programme – perhaps to fit into next season’s fashions.

Miss Selfridge must be in the shop window. Some shoe interests could also go. Which Sears bits are for sale remains a mystery for the moment, largely because Strong does not want to be seen making a distress sale. He won’t be looking for bargain basement prices.

The question remains whether a slimmer Sears will operate more effectively. The omens, it has to be said, are good. Strong has a good and gritty track record. But not only that, it appears that this market favours the smaller operator.

Take Next. It reported its interims last week, the day after Sears, and its story could not be more different. Sears has some 2,100 stores, 900 concessions and, in Freemans, the UK’s third largest mail order operation. Next has a little more than 300 outlets and a relatively small mail order business in the form of the Next Directory. While Sears reported a 28 per cent fall in interim profits, Next showed an improvement of 20 per cent, at 44.lm.

The word, I gather, is focus. Next, having surviving the bitterly hard years of the recession, has found it again. Laura Ashley, disappointing last week with half-year profits of 3m, has yet to find it. But, with new chief executive Ann Iverson in place, it should have no excuses for not doing so.

The same goes for Strong at Sears. It will be interesting to hear during the second half of the year – as shareholders will be expecting to – how well Strong and Iverson, one with a leviathan, the other with a dreary middle-market operator that has lost its way, can find that focus and do a Next.v

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