How big retailers learned the tricks of high fashion

Fashions now take 90 days to reach Woolworths' shelves, according to chief executive Ian Moir

Related Stories

When Sir Stuart Rose says something on retail, it's worth listening. With a 40-year track record in the industry, the former chief executive and chairman of Marks and Spencer is famed for turning around struggling retailers.

Now an independent, non-executive director at South Africa's Woolworths Holdings, a chain of shops selling fashion, food, beauty and home ware, he says retail has changed.

"Where the customer used to be king before, the customer is now the master of the universe: and they want what they want, how they want it, when they want it."

For Woolworths, this shift has been felt most keenly in clothing - an area that along with beauty and home ware makes up 38% of its business in South Africa.

Escape from the boardroom 3-d letter logo
  • A five-part series on TV and online
  • Follow five high-ranking executives as they head to the front lines of their firms
  • Their aim is to understand their business better
  • Outside the UK you can watch each weekend on BBC World News on Saturdays at 02:10 and 15:10, and Sundays at 09:10 and 21:10 (all times GMT).

In response, over the past two to three years it has made a conscious effort to make its clothing more fashionable, which crucially has involved getting it from the design stage to the shop floor much more quickly.

"Previously it was 11-months-plus for all of our clothing products to the point now where we can turn [an item] around in 90 days," says Ian Moir, chief executive of Woolworths (which has no connection with the former British High Street chain of the same name).

The strategy appears to be working. The company's most recent results for the year to the end of June saw clothing sales grow by 13.7%.

"If we don't give the customer the trend, the colour, the fashion they're looking for, at the end of the day they're going to go somewhere else," says Mr Moir.

New shopping ethos

Neil Saunders, managing director at retail consultancy Conlumino, says the changes at Woolworths reflect a "sea change" in how supermarket groups sell clothing.

"They have become more like clothing retailers. Five years ago they used to merchandise it in the same way as, for example, baked beans. They piled it high and sold it cheap. But now they have become lifestyle rather than commodity-led."

Ian Moir

Ian Moir

Ian Moir, 53, has been chief executive of Woolworths Holdings since 2010.

He was previously head of its Australian retail chain Country Road, which sells clothing, accessories and home ware.

His performance there - he was credited with saving the chain from near-bankruptcy - led to him being offered the top job at Woolworths.

Since he joined Woolworths, Mr Moir says the group has tried to "become much more fashion relevant, to become faster to market. We really were behind the rest of the world".

Mr Saunders says the 2008 financial crisis and resulting recession is a key reason behind this change in approach, with a trend for people to choose quality items that they expect to last.

"Before the recession people bought lots of stuff... they even bought stuff they didn't wear. There was a disposable element because clothing was cheap and people felt affluent.

"People are more frugal now. They buy less stuff and follow the ethos of, 'If you buy it right you buy it once.'"

Mr Saunders says, however, that low prices can still lure in customers if they are combined with fashion, citing Primark as an example. "It's on trend and that makes people very interested. But if a retailer just chases value then they struggle," he adds.

Fashion focus

UK supermarket group Sainsbury's founded its clothing range Tu almost a decade ago.

James Brown, clothing business director at Sainsbury's, says when Tu began it was focused on core products such as leggings, jogging bottoms and T-shirts, with ranges changed every 12 weeks or longer. But in the past two years it has become more trend-led.

"Since our recent rebrand the new Tu range is refreshed every six weeks to keep up with the latest fashions, and offer new products to our customer," says Mr Brown.

Sainsbury has increased its focus on fashion since it founded its clothing range Tu Sainsbury's has increased its focus on fashion since it founded its clothing range Tu

"Over the last nine years we have learnt more about our broad customer base and have adapted the range to offer more High Street-style garments at supermarket prices to meet customer demand," he adds.

The approach seems to be working - at its recent trading update for the 16 weeks to 28 September it said its general merchandise and clothing business grew at more than twice the rate of its food business.

Mr Brown says new items are planned up to seven months in advance, but that it can react quickly to last-minute trends by turning around a style in just eight weeks, assuming it can get the necessary fabric and has the production capacity.

Turnaround time

In contrast, for High Street chain Zara, production capacity is rarely an issue because unusually its owner Inditex has its own factories.

These manufacture what it says is a "significant share" of its clothing for its eight brands, which include upmarket Massimo Dutti and teen label Bershka, but primarily the most fashionable garments.

Hot fashion items at Zara can be designed and on the shelves in just two weeks Hot fashion items at Zara can be designed and on the shelves in just two weeks

For those items the clothes can be produced and in store in a rapid two to three weeks.

"Customer expectations are higher than ever so our capability to adapt and react to their demands is one of our key strengths," says an Inditex source.

For Ian Moir, this is the key to Woolworths' future.

"The importance of fashion is becoming greater and greater and customer awareness is getting better and better.

"They're very fashion aware and they want it now. That's the way the world is going, it's the way it's changing and it's the way we've got to change as a business."

Escape from the Boardroom is a five-part series broadcast on BBC World News on Saturdays at 02:10 and 15:10, and Sundays at 09:10 and 21:10 (all times GMT).

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Business stories


Business Live

    17:46: US employment

    The Brazilian real lost earlier gains and fell 1.5% after data showed US non-farm payrolls rose 295,000 last month, driving the unemployment rate to its lowest since May 2008. The South African rand fell 1.8%, while the Turkish lira lost 1.2%.

    17:39: US employment

    Emerging markets currencies weakened sharply after better-than-expected US jobs data fed into fears that US interest rates will soon go up, potentially reducing the allure of high-yielding, risky assets offered by developing nations. Jitters knocked down currencies in emerging Europe, the Middle-East, Africa and Latin America.

    Apple Watch Via Twitter

    Iain Thomson, a technology journalist at The Register, tweets: "The level of hype around the Apple watch is getting silly now. It will not cure leprosy, become an antique, or save the world."

    17:05: US employment

    Forbes looks back at gloomy predictions by Republicans in 2010 that the 'Obamacare' health act would kill US jobs. "March marks five years since the Affordable Care Act was passed … amid Republican cries that the ACA was a job-killer... Were Republicans wrong?" it asks.

    16:52: Market update - FTSE 100
    FTSE 100

    The FTSE 100 share index slid downward to finish at 6911.80 points at the close - 0.71% lower. Engineering firm Weir Group saw the biggest gains after speculation about a bid, and Randgold Resources saw the largest fall, finishing down 5.27%.

    16:38: Greece bailout - undercover tax inspectors

    In Greece undercover casual tax inspectors, which could include tourists, could be hired on a maximum two month basis, according to documents published by the FT. "The very 'news' that thousands of casual 'onlookers' are everywhere, bearing audio and video equipment on behalf of the tax authorities, has the capacity to shift attitudes very quickly, spreading a sense of justice across society and engendering a new tax compliance culture," wrote finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. But what happens if the inspectors get discovered?

    16:19: Greece bailout - undercover tax inspectors
    Derby goer

    Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis wants to recruit all sorts of people as casual short-term tax inspectors, as part of efforts to combat off-the-books tax evasion, and get hold of a tranche of EU bailout cash. The inspectors, who would be wired for sound and video, could come from "all walks of life", and include students, housekeepers, and even tourists, according to documents published by the Financial Times.

    16:04: Greece bailout- undercover tax inspectors

    Blimey. Greece has proposed seven economic reforms that it plans to put in place to get hold of a final €7.2bn bailout disbursement - and one of the reforms is to recruit undercover casual tax inspectors, wired for sound and video, to combat off-the-books VAT evasion. The FT has a PDF of the proposals here.

    15:44: US employment

    Luke Bartholomew, investment manager at Aberdeen Asset Management said: "The job creation and unemployment figures are clearly striking and this is what the market seems to be focussing on. However, wage growth disappointed and that makes the Fed's decision about when to raise rates even harder... The hope is that more jobs and lower unemployment will finally translate into better wage growth but there is disappointingly little sign of that so far."

    15:37: Apple and Dow industrials

    Neil Azous, founder of Rareview Macro said: "It's the natural evolution as [Apple is] the largest company. And it's long overdue. There isn't a reweighting situation that will have to go on because no one really benchmarks themselves to the Dow. It's purely psychological in that sense. There's irony in that they [Apple] are replacing AT&T, which helped them lift off to begin with."

    15:30: Apple and Dow industrials

    Kevin Landis, chief investment officer of Firsthand Capital Management said: "The Dow Jones is such a backwards looking list, I cringed when Intel and Microsoft were added. I'm cringing today. Let's hope Apple can defy the forces of history."

    15:27: Rangers vote
    Dave King

    Dave King, one of the replacement directors at Rangers, said if he's not found "fit and proper" as a director then he won't sit on the board. "To me, being on the board is not critical. I don't think it will be an issue, but if it turned out to be an issue, it wouldn't make any difference to Rangers going forward." Mr King was a director of the Rangers oldco that went into insolvency.

    15:08: Rangers vote

    Dave King, Paul Murray and John Gilligan have been handed the keys to Ibrox after Rangers shareholders overwhelmingly voted to remove Derek Llambias and Barry Leach from the club's board. Just 15% of the club's shareholders voted to keep Mike Ashley's placemen in power, with almost 86% backing King's bid to claim the throne.

    14:52: Market update - Apple and AT&T

    Apple rose around 1.5% after it was announced that the company would be joining the Dow Jones industrial average, replacing AT&T. AT&T fell about 1%.

    14:37: US employment

    February's robust job gain wasn't enough to boost wages by much. The average hourly wage rose just 3 cents to $24.78 an hour. Average hourly pay has now risen just 2% over the past 12 months, barely ahead of inflation.

    14:33: Market update - Wall Street

    US stocks opened lower on Friday, with the S&P 500 on track for a second week of declines, as a strong monthly jobs report heightened expectations the Federal Reserve could raise interest rates sooner than anticipated. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 80.27 points, or 0.44%, to 18,055.45, the S&P 500 lost 6.25 points, or 0.3%, to 2,094.79 and the tech heavy Nasdaq dropped 12.06 points, or 0.24%, to 4,970.75.

    14:28: Apple and Dow industrials

    Richard Sichel, chief investment officer at The Philadelphia Trust Company, said: "It will make the Dow a more interesting index to watch, but also more volatile since it is replacing a nice, steady old name with an interesting and exciting tech and retail company. This is a sign of the times, and it might get everyone to look at the Dow more than they have been."

    14:22: Apple and Dow industrials

    Apple has been notable by its absence in the 30-stock average, precluded from inclusion because its stock price was too high for the price-weighted index. The move by S&P Dow Jones Indices had been widely anticipated since a seven-for-one stock split in June 2014.

    14:20: Apple and Dow industrials

    Apple has a market capitalisation of about $736bn (£488bn), making it the largest publicly traded company in the world. AT&T, by contrast, has a market value of $176.5bn.

    14:18: US employment Michelle Fleury North America Business Correspondent
    Walmart sign

    A solid report. In the last 12 months, the US economy has added 266,000 jobs on average. Wages are up 2% over the year - a reminder that broad wage growth isn't here yet despite moves by retailer Walmart to raise the minimum wage for its workers.

    14:09: Apple and Dow industrials

    Apple, the largest US company by market value, will join the Dow Jones Industrial Average on 18 March, replacing AT&T, S&P Dow Jones Indices has said.

    14:05: Apple and Dow industrials

    Reports are coming through that Apple is to replace AT&T in the Dow Jones Industrial Average - Reuters is quoting CNBC.

    14:02: Handover Tom Espiner Business reporter

    So that's it from Matt West and Chris Johnston for another week. Expect some more comment on US employment, and more Friday afternoon fun.

    13:49: US employment Matthew West Business reporter

    It seems unlikely that the US employment figures today will dampen speculation the US Federal Reserve might begin to contemplate an interest rate rise. In reality, the Fed will probably hold off raising rates for another few months at the very least. January's numbers began to fuel speculation, when non-farm payroll data showed 257,000 jobs were created in the month, and the unemployment rate stood at 5.7%, missing expectations of a fall to 5.6%.

    13:44: US employment
    Burgerfi employee

    Jobs were added in food services and drinking places, professional and business services, construction, health care, and in transportation and warehousing. Employment in mining was down over the month.

    13:39: US employment

    US non-farm payrolls came in somewhat better than expected. Analysts had forecast 240,000 new jobs to have been added to the US economy in February and the unemployment rate to have fallen to 5.6%.

    13:34: US employment

    Total non-farm payroll employment increased by 295,000 in February, and the unemployment rate edged down to 5.5%.

    13:17: Apple Watch
    Apple Watch

    Apple fans - and there are plenty of them out there - will be beside themselves on Monday as Tim Cook reveals the finer details of the Apple Watch to the world. It will be the company's first new product since the iPad way back in 2010. Companies including Facebook and BMW have spent recent weeks at Apple headquarters to test and fine-tune apps that will debut along with the device, Bloomberg reported.

    13:00: Greek bailout

    Greek PM Alexis Tsipras wants to issue short-term debt to plug his government's financing gap and has warned the ECB of the dangers of trying to stop him. "Then it will be back to the thriller we saw before February 20," he told Germany's Der Spiegel, referring to the date Greece agreed a four-month bailout extension with the eurozone. "The ECB has still got a rope round our neck," Tsipras added.

    12:44: Uganda World Service

    The World Bank's director for Uganda has told Business Update on the World Service that fast-growing Kampala could become a slum if the government fails to invest in infrastructure. Philippe Dongier says Africa should learn from the urbanisation that happened in Asia 20 or 30 years ago. It's a question of aiming to be more like Bangkok than Lagos, he adds. Catch Business Update on Audioboom.

    12:31: Mike Ashley
    Mike Ashley

    Not so fast... The Scottish affairs committee would like to know exactly what commitments Mike Ashley has "throughout the entirety of March which are preventing him from appearing before the committee before the dissolution of Parliament on 31 March". These are invitations you cannot really refuse, after all.

    12:15: Taking the biscuit?
    Gary Linekar

    United Biscuits boss Martin Glenn - the man who came up with using Gary Lineker to flog Walkers Crisps, according the Daily Telegraph - has been appointed chief executive of the Football Association. Oxford-educated Mr Glenn, 54, is a former Leicester City director and a Wolverhampton Wanderers season ticket holder.

    12:01: Irish mortgage arrears

    However, the number of homeowners behind in mortgage payments for more than two years increased by 0.8%. That was the slowest increase to date - but almost half of the 78,699 customers in financial distress for more than 90 days have now fallen behind in the mortgage repayment for more than two years.

    11:48: Greek banks
    Greek bank

    Greece's central bank chief, Yannis Stournaras, says Greek banks have sufficient capital and face no problem with deposit outflows. "There is full support for Greek banks [from the ECB] - there is absolutely no danger," he said after meeting with Alexis Tsipras. Move along, nothing to see here...

    11:29: Noisy Japanese children
    Japanese kids

    It's a bit of a slow news day, so a story on has caught our eye. For years Tokyo has had a strict 45-decibel noise limit - library levels in short - in its suburbs, but is considering changing it because of... noisy children. Some residents are complaining loudly because noisy kids affect property values, apparently. But it is this quote that really says a great deal about Japan: "Children should be taught to speak and sing at an appropriate volume, and age four is old enough to understand that," said one Tokyo resident.

    11:12: Irish mortgage arrears

    Ireland's slow recovery in the property market continues to trundle along. The number of Irish households in mortgage arrears for more than 90 days fell to 10.4% the three months to December, down from 11.2% in the previous quarter, Ireland's central bank has said. That's the lowest level since March 2012.

    10:48: Co-op hires Wilko's Ellis

    The Co-operative Group is hiring Ian Ellis as chief financial officer. He joins from retailer Wilko, where he has the same role.

    10:32: Currencies

    Sterling slipped against the dollar ahead of the monthly US unemployment figures out at 1330 GMT, down 0.2% to $1.5208. Richard Falkenhall, currency strategist at SEB, said: "This election is very uncertain ... we think the uncertainty created will see sterling lose ground and forecast sterling/dollar to drop below $1.50 in coming months."

    10:17: Eurozone economy

    The eurozone economy gathered pace in the last three months of 2014, with Eurostat confirming its earlier estimate of 0.3% growth compared with the three months to September 30 and a 0.9% expansion compared with the same period in 2013. Germany's economy grew by 0.7% quarter-on-quarter, while France managed just 0.1%.

    10:04: Mike Ashley
    Mike Ashley

    Mike Ashley is a very busy man. Too busy for the entire month of March, it seems, to appear before MPs on the Scottish Affairs committee, who want to ask Mr Ashley about the treatment of workers at the USC fashion chain owned by his Sports Direct. Fortunately chairman Keith Hellawell is able to make the time, though. The MPs would still like to know why Mr Ashley is unavailable during March.

    09:43: Japan shares

    Japan's Nikkei 225 shares index closed at a 15-year high earlier on the ECB's upward revision for eurozone economic growth and the announcement that it would begin bond buying on Monday. The index rose 1.2% to close at 18,971.

    09:26: Greece

    Greece has paid the first €310m (£223m) instalment of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan that falls due this month. The government must pay a total of €1.5bn to the IMF this month over two weeks starting today. Prime minister Alexis Tsipras is reported to have asked for a meeting with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker about the payments.

    09:09: Eurozone bonds

    Government bond yields in Portugal, Italy and Spain fell to new record lows on Friday, a day after the ECB gave details of its bond-buying plans. Portuguese 10-year yields fell 12 basis points to 1.7%, while Italian and Spanish equivalents fell 5 points to 1.28% and 1.19% respectively. The ECB starts buying government bonds on Monday in a bid to boost growth in the eurozone.

    Thomas Cook Via Twitter

    Dominic Walsh of The Times tweets: Question is whether, as with Club Med, Fosun has longer-term aim to use minority stake in Thomas Cook as basis for eventual full bid @walshdominic

    08:47: Market update

    The FTSE 100 Index is 8 points lower at 6,953. Shares in Weir Group are the biggest riser this morning on speculation that the engineering firm may be a bid target following a recent slump in its share price.

    08:31: Thomas Cook
    Thomas Cook

    Fosun, a Chinese investment firm, has bought a 5% stake in Thomas Cook for £91.9m and plans to increase its holding further. The move follows its purchase of French resort operator Club Med last month. Shares in Thomas Cook have soared 16% higher to 140p.

    08:17: RBS shares

    Just worth point out that RBS shares are trading at 376.9p and the government needs to sell its stake at an average of 455p per share just to break even on the money it pumped into the bank in 2008 and 2009. Also worth mentioning: Mr Osborne may not be Chancellor after May.

    08:03: RBS shares

    George Osborne has told the Financial Times he made a mistake in not radically restructuring taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland soon after he came to office in 2010. But the chancellor says he would like to proceed "as quickly as we can to get rid of it" after the general election.

    07:50: AGA profits

    AGA says operating profit stood at £9.6m, but it booked £4.1m in pensions charges, £3.3m in fair value costs relating to its stake in Fired Earth - its tiles business - leaving it with £2.2m. But that's before £1.5m in net interest charges on its pensions deficit, which doubled in the year from £35m to £72m. That brought pre-tax profits down to just £700,000, and left AGA in no position to pay a dividend. But the company does expect market conditions to improve this year.

    07:39: Vodafone
    The Hoff

    Vodafone has announced a plan to introduce a mandatory minimum maternity policy in all 30 countries in which it operates. By the end of 2015, all female employees will be offered at least 16 weeks fully paid maternity leave, as well as full pay for a 30-hour week for the first six months after they return to work. David Hasselhoff, however, will not be eligible.

    07:27: AGA profits
    AGA Rangemaster

    AGA Rangemaster has reported a fall in an annual pre-tax profit to £700,000, compared with £1.1m a year earlier. It has also announced it will not be paying a dividend to shareholders.

    DFS shares Via Twitter

    Retail analyst Nick Bubb tweets: The Chairman of DFS trumpets that it stands for "Dedication, Family and Success". Or Dull Furniture Sale? ;-) @NickBubb1

    07:15: DFS shares

    Buy one, get one half price! Furniture retailer DFS has priced shares at 255p - at the lower end of expectations. The stock starts trading at 0800 today and means the company will be valued at close to £550m.

    07:02: Eurozone outlook BBC Radio 4

    One thing that may help the eurozone economy is a small but significant accomplishment by the ECB that appears to have gone largely unnoticed. That was last Autumn's asset quality review of the banks, by the ECB which "gave pretty much everybody a clean bill of help", says Mr Cameron Watt. "And that's allowing banks to sell assets off their balance sheets."

    Greek economy Via Twitter Adam Parsons Business Correspondent

    Former Greek shipping minister @MVarvitsiotis tells #WUTM "we'll do whatever it stay in Eurozone...leaving would be a disaster" @AdamParsons1

    06:47: Eurozone outlook BBC Radio 4

    Mr Cameron Watt tells Today: "There is a following wind which is the lower oil price and the material decline in the currency [euro] against the dollar". He says those factors should help boost the eurozone economy, although he he sceptical that it will do as well as ECB president Mario Draghi (pictured) suggested at his press conference on Thursday.

    06:35: ECB bond buying BBC Radio 4
    The EURO logo is pictured in front of the former headquarter of the European Central Bank

    We're talking quantitative easing (QE) on the Today programme and why it pushes up stock markets. And Ewan Cameron Watt, global chief investment strategist at BlackRock, explains in the most clear terms. It is all about portfolio substitution, of course. "If I buy a whole lot of bonds and give you cash, you have now have to invest that cash," he says. "You don't want to buy bonds because of [current] negative yields, so it forces you to buy riskier assets, which inflates the prices of things like equities." Simples.

    06:25: Alpacas! Radio 5 live

    Let's face it - alpacas are a bit weird. But farming the cuddly critters appears to appeal to some who want to escape the rat race, alpaca farmer Mary-Jo Smith tells Wake Up to Money. She says alpaca wool is strong, luxurious and "just amazing to wear". The British Alpaca Society holds its annual show in Telford this weekend.

    06:15: Insurers v banks Radio 5 live

    Aviva shares ended 7% higher yesterday and Ewen Cameron Watt, chief investment strategist at BlackRock, tells Wake Up to Money it is no surprise that insurers are doing better than banks. He says operating conditions for banks are getting tougher, but some insurers are opting to join forces.

    06:05: Rangers FC
    A general view of the Ibrox Stadium, in Glasgow,

    It's a big day for Rangers FC as the club holds an emergency meeting where Dave King hopes to oust the board. However, there are question marks over King - who wants to become chairman - because of his convictions in South Africa for tax offences.

    06:03: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Happy Friday everyone. Don't forget you can get in touch by email at or via twitter @bbcbusiness.

    06:00: It's Friday Chris Johnston Business Reporter

    Good morning and welcome to the last day of the working week. US unemployment figures are set to dominate the day and are out at 13:30. We'll bring you the reaction to those numbers and all the day's other business news as well.



From BBC Capital


  • A cyborg cockroachClick Watch

    The cyborg cockroach - why has a computer been attached to this insect’s nervous system?

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.