Consumer

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

Upmarket retailer Hugo Boss AG's new strategy is a sensible one. But, like its well-made yet safe suits, its plans could do with a bit more flair to solve the company's problems.

New Chief Executive Officer Mark Langer unveiled his blueprint for change on Wednesday, as he affirmed a forecast for operating profit to fall in 2016 by 17 percent to 23 percent. His strategy includes narrowing down the company's range to just two brands: Boss, which will focus on high-end suiting and casual wear, and Hugo, which will be as much as 30 percent cheaper than Boss, more fashionable and aimed at a younger customer.

The main push will be a return to its core customer, Mr. Hugo Boss, who it neglected as it was chasing sales of dresses, shoes and handbags to female customers. As part of this, investment, floor space allocation, and marketing spending will shift from womenswear, which accounts for just 11 percent of sales, to menswear.

While this is certainly a move in the right direction, Hugo Boss still faces a considerable headwind: the majority of its sales are of apparel. Analysts at Exane BNP Paribas estimate that they account for over 80 per cent of its sales, compared with 55 percent at Burberry Group Plc and just 16 percent at Kering.

Across global luxury brands, apparel remains stubbornly weak, and mens' suiting is one of the most difficult categories. 

Not the Place to Be
A shrinking apparel market is bad news for clothing-focused luxury brands such as Hugo Boss
Source: Bain & Co.
Data refer to global personal luxury goods market

This is bad news for Hugo Boss. Within menswear, some 40 percent is in suiting, with 10 percent in shoes and accessories -- one of the few areas of growth for global luxury. The rest is in casualwear, and it wants to develop that even further. The Hugo brand should help that aim, especially given that it's targeting millennials. But that rump of mens' suiting is a concern, and isn't likely to ease given the relaxation of workplace dress rules. 

Hugo Boss's position as upmarket but not super-luxury is also a worry. As Gadfly has argued, the sorts of consumers that buy Hugo Boss suits will be just those fretting about how Brexit or a Trump presidency might affect their job prospects -- hardly conducive to spending at least $500 on a new suit.

Langer says 2017 will be a year of "stabilization" in the company's fortunes, but it expects a return to growth in 2018. 

However, that will depend on a smooth execution of the considerable changes he has planned.

There might also be some turbulence from making prices more consistent around the world. The company plans to lower prices in Asia and raise them in Europe, and its unclear how that mix of approaches will affect the volume of sales.

Curbing supply to U.S. department stores will also weigh on revenue, and Langer expects to see a low double-digit drop in U.S. wholesale sales next year.

Boss No Longer
Hugo Boss has lost its forward price earnings premium to its luxury rivals
Source: Bloomberg Intelligence

And investors have honed in on one big issue: Langer's promise of stabilization implies flat profits in 2017. That's squarely at odds with the current consensus of analysts forecasts for Ebitda to rise about 5 percent. He's pushed profit growth out to 2018, and that sparked a 9 percent fall in the shares on Wednesday, which were having their worst day since June. They trade on a forward price/earnings ratio of about 16 times, a discount to the Bloomberg Intelligence luxury peer group's 18.5 times.

That looks deserved, given the uncertainties around the recovery and the exposure to apparel. When it comes to fashion, there's a risk in safety.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Andrea Felsted in London at afelsted@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jennifer Ryan at jryan13@bloomberg.net