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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
It's fashion, darling
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Supermarkets are now challenging - and beating - High Street stalwarts when it comes to clothes sales. So, how did they turn cheap and cheerful into chic and stylish?

The latest Gucci-inspired dress? That'll be down the aisle between the dog food and the baked beans.

Supermarkets have a long record of forcing their way into new markets and now stock everything from horse-riding equipment to DIY divorce kits.

But it is their fashion ranges that have really taken off. So much so, Tesco has now overtaken the High Street stalwarts Bhs and River Island as the ninth most-used clothing retailer in the UK, according to a new report by Verdict.

With jeans on sale for just 3 and wedding dresses for 60, it's easy to see why the prices are attractive. As Asda - rather grandly - says, it has created a "fashion democracy" where no one is excluded by price.

Zeitgeist

But success is also down to what many fashionistas might have thought an impossible ensemble - cheap fashion that is highly desirable.

Experts say it's clever marketing that has helped change the perception of supermarket fashion forever. It's a strategy that has blown away the stigma of wearing supermarket clothes, among some shoppers at least.

Each season key pieces that look like they have come straight off designer catwalks are produced and sold at rock-bottom prices - an approach pioneered by the fashion chains. Pitched at the high-end of fashion, they are good enough to appear in glossy magazines and become the budget "must-have" of the season.

Tesco dress and Kylie in a Chloe dress
The dress that changed it all
A recent example is a mint green dress from the Fred and Florence range at Tesco. It retailed for 45, while a similar design by Chloe - and worn by Kylie Minogue - had a price tag of 1,400. It was voted dress of the year in Marie Claire, quickly sold out and became known as the "Kylie dress". They were even selling on eBay for over 100.

"That dress changed everything," says stylist Alicia Poole.

"Everyone wanted one and it altered attitudes to supermarket fashion forever.

"Up until then anyone who considered themselves fashionable would not have shopped in a supermarket and if they did, would probably cut the labels out.

"Now it's fine to mix supermarket-bought clothes with more expensive labels, it's almost a fashion badge of honour to have bought something that looks so good for so little."

Fickle

Realising it is on to something good, Asda launched a new collection on Wednesday called Must Have. It features up-to-the-minute fashion items which speed from the catwalk into stores and change on a monthly basis. The range is modelled by footballer Wayne Rooney's fiancee Coleen McLoughlin.

"Supermarkets are great at capturing the zeitgeist of the season," says Dr Tony Hines, a retail analyst and co-author of Fashion Marketing. "Their designers are attending catwalk shows and getting key looks for the season. It's a very smart move."

Celebrities also embrace cheap chic, gone are the days when these famous clothes horses had to wear the dress from the designer when leaving the restaurant
Angela Spindler
George Global
It's not only the good designs that work in the supermarkets' favour, they are also ideally positioned to get round the segmented nature of the fashion market.

"There is definitely a trend of older people wearing younger clothes, but they might not feel comfortable walking into Top Shop to buy them," says Dr Hines.

"No one is alienated by a supermarket as everyone uses them, you just walk round and throw clothes in your trolley along with the bread and milk."

Trade off

Most of the supermarkets are reaping the rewards. Asda led the way in selling clothes when it hired the founder of Next, George Davies, to create the George label. It is now a brand in 10 countries, with a turnover of 2bn.

Keen to get in on the action is J Sainsbury, which relaunched its Tu collection earlier this year in a bid to get a bigger slice of clothing market.

But it's not entirely a win-win situation for the supermarkets and their customers. What the stores do fall down on is the availability of its "must-have" items, which are often limited edition. It's frustrating when the latest dress or jacket quickly sells out or isn't even in stock.

WHERE THE LABELS COME FROM
Fred and Florence - Tesco
Cherokee - Tesco
George - Asda
Tu - J Sainsbury
With fashion so disposable, customer loyalty is a fickle thing and the supermarkets could be a victim of their own success if customers return to the High Street where they have more chance of getting what they see in the magazines.

Customer service is also another area where the supermarkets struggle, says Dr Hines.

"They just aren't geared up for the service aspect of selling clothes," he says. "Garments are just packed in with the groceries, which could put some people off. It's a trade off between price and service."

The supermarkets are also increasingly being seen as vast, muscle-bound beasts stamping on smaller competitors.

Competitive

Earlier this month the Office of Fair Trading ordered a Competition Commission inquiry into Britain's big four supermarket giants - Wal Mart's Asda, Tesco, J Sainsbury and Morrison, the only one out of the four yet to launch a clothing range.

But Asda says it is competitive, not dominant, and has created a market which everyone can afford to participate in.

"Nowadays, we are constantly spoon-fed fashion through make-over shows or magazines" says Angela Spindler, George Global managing director.

Colleen McLoughlin
Coleen fronts an Asda range
"We see Josephine Bloggs being transformed to supermodel status and the likes of Coleen McLoughlin and Victoria Beckham in daily newspapers, we love their look and want to copy it.

"This is the beauty of a fashion democracy. Ten years ago we would need a second mortgage to get it, today you can buy it with your weekly shop. It's instant, it's easy, it's convenient and it doesn't break the bank."

The supermarkets show no sign of releasing their growing hold on the fashion market. Currently 20% of stock in the George range at Asda is turned round in just four to six weeks, in five years time it aims to reach 80%.

Tesco is branching out overseas and opening stores in China, although quite how "fashion democracy" goes down in the one-party state will remain to be seen.


Clothes shops compain about the competition but if their prices were not so high people would use them. I buy at the supermarket, its cheaper fairly good quality and I dont have to go round different shops to get clothes for myself or my son and husband its all there.
av, oxford

Where are the fitting rooms in supermarkets? They would sell a lot more clothes if only they had the proper facilities.
Lauren, London UK

It's great that everyone in the UK can get loads of cheap, fashionable clothes, but what about the sweatshop workers? They certainly aren't getting any benefit out of a 3 pair of jeans.
Kirsten, Cambridge

Unless I want something to last a long time (e.g. trousers and shirts for work) I'll happily buy from a supermarket. It just depends on what I'm buying and what I'm wearing it for. Going to a wedding? Have to be River Island. Slobbing at home? Might as well be Tesco's.
Clare, Broxbourne

Although the monetary price on the ticket might be low, what is the real cost of this 'disposable fashion' ? Do the workers who make these cheap clothes earn a fair wage ? And the what about the environmental impact of the production, shipping and ultimately the disposal of these cheap clothes ? What happens when you want to ditch last summer's fashion for this summer's ? The jeans might look as though they cost 3, but are they really costing us the Earth ?
Sangita, Brighton

3 for a jeans? Where? I do shop at Tesco's for clothes but there should be a law that if you sell clothes there must be a changing room! I got told off for changing between the aisles the other day!
Fran, Sevenoaks, UK

I would say customer service at local Asda is pretty good - the George section has its own till area, clothes are carefully packed, suits are kept on their hangers and completely covered in specially-designed bags, and (rare) returns are a pain-free doddle! I am not sure what else they could do!
Kaylie, Runcorn, UK

I'm on a limited budget and prefer to save my money to spend on one classic cut jacket or well made pair of shoes. They look just as good with a 10 pair of black trousers as with a 70 pair - at least in my book.
Danie Jones, Cambridge, England

Fantastic! Now we can look forward to more high st shops closing. The unrelenting greed of supermarkets disgusts me. Personally, I would much rather spend my money in the local market or small shops to help keep them going. I invariably spend less than I would in the supermarket and save myself money. Don't be fooled by the low prices, the supermarkets are looking out for themselves and their shareholders, not you.
Colin Morris, Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire

Maybe it is a cunning way of women hiding clothes purchases from their men. The transaction show up on the statement as 'Sainsbury's' and the clothes are so cheap it doesn't inflate the bill too much!
Laura, London

Whilst Tesco's success in this sector is admirable, I wonder if their focus on fashion and white goods has caused them to loose focus on their core business. Locally there has been a marked fall off in product quality and availability in their grocery sections. At store level there is little interest in these problems. I have now voted with my feet and I shop elsewhere.
Chris Whittington, Bedford

Fantastic! Now we can look forward to more high street shops closing. The deserted high streets can now be used to provide desperately needed affordable housing.
David, Lytham, Lancs

I've been buying the George label from Asda for years and have always found the clothes of very high quality and they definitley wash well. I'm now going to branch out and try Tesco's range. Although, I'm all for buying supermarket clothing, I'd never own up to buying from them to any of my friends..!!
Sam, Leytonstone, London

This is doing nothing to help the huge problem that our greed for cheap fast fashion creates. The general public need to be educated and encouraged to buy fairtrade clothes that ensure producers get a correct wage for what they create. Clothes that are of a higher quality last longer and therefore are a saving in the long run anyway, they also benefit the environment by lowering our level of consumption.
Becky , Paris, France

As I am typing this, I am wearing from George, my underwear and jeans. From Sainsburys I am wearing a top and shoes.
Helen, Wakefield

That mint dress... very nice. Still looks better on Kylie though!
Robert, Cardiff, UK

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