The latest Ralph Lauren sales figures come with a mixed dose of both optimism and pessimism. The pessimism is from the continued slide in sales, which tumbled on both a total and comparable basis. More optimistically, the drop in sales is now flattening out, with some of the decline deliberately engineered as the company looks to rebuild its brand. According to the apparel brand, US sales fell 10 per cent in the last quarter of last year, although this was mitigated a little by a 28 per cent inc
rease in Mainland China. The company reported a net loss of $81.8 million, largely due to a taxation issue. Starting on the bright side, it is clear that the long run decline in sales is easing. Admittedly there are some factors – such as very soft prior year comparatives – that have aided this trend, but even so, performance is improving. It is particularly encouraging that much of the decline is now deliberately engineered rather than just a function of Ralph Lauren being out of step with consumer demand. The pullback from department stores and a reduction in shipments to off-price channels have both taken their toll on the revenue line, but they are essential steps on the path to rebuilding brand equity. A reduction in discounting is also to be applauded, even if this dampened sales numbers over the holiday period. The impact on margins has been good, and we believe that a reduction in promotional activity is helping to strengthen Ralph Lauren’s brand image. That said, as has been seen from other luxury brands that have pulled back from the discounting drug, there is pain before recovery. In our view, Ralph Lauren remains in the painful phase, and it is unlikely to see improvements until well into this calendar year. The margin gains, along with some action on costs, has resulted in a much better bottom line performance. At operating level, profits rose by 47.5 per cent this quarter. Its net loss for the period was down to increased tax provisions rather than operational issues, we are not unduly alarmed by the slip. For all the good news, Ralph Lauren still has much more work to do before it is back to full health. Our data shows that while there has been a moderate improvement in brand perception, Ralph Lauren has not regained all of the ground it lost over the past ten years and is a long way from where a luxury brand of its kind should be. The main brand issues are still clarity and relevance. Many consumers are unclear about what Ralph Lauren stands for or what it has to offer; therefore, they do not see the brand as being entirely relevant to them. In a sense, Ralph Lauren has simply slipped off the radar of many shoppers. Much of this is down to the lack of coherence across the various parts of Ralph Lauren’s business. There are still too many parts to the offer, and they are disjointed and confusing. Steps are being taken to correct this, but it is clear that much more work needs to be done. North America challenge The problem is most acute in North America, where the brand is arguably at its most ubiquitous. With comparables in the region down by 10 per cent, the scale of the problem is evident. Of particular concern is the 27 per cent slide in retail e-commerce sales. Given the strength of the channel over the holiday period, this is a terrible result and underlines the fact that Ralph Lauren has a great deal more work to do in streamlining and strengthening this part of the operation. We note that it has recently taken on new hires in this area, including talent from Burberry. However, the lack of progress on e-commerce is as much a function of brand issues as it is to do with online execution. Both need to be corrected before growth can come. Overall, we are encouraged that Ralph Lauren is now on the right path. However, we are also cognisant that the road to recovery is long, and winding. Neil Saunders is MD of GlobalData Retail.