Ralph Lauren now ‘headed in the right direction’

After a long run of fairly mediocre performance, Ralph Lauren has finally delivered a solid set of numbers.

The 5 per cent net revenue growth announced last week is pleasing as are the various regional outcomes. These were supported by a respectable increase in underlying comparable sales. It would be remiss not to note that the good figures have been delivered off the back of a very weak prior year performance, but this should not take away from the fact that the brand is now headed in the right direction.

Away from the top line, the bottom line has also strengthened with operating income up by 12.9 per cent over last year. Much of this is down to far lower rates of discounting, especially in the wholesale channel. We also see this as a sign that Ralph Lauren’s more disciplined and focused approach to producing collections is allowing more product to be sold through at a fuller price. All of this suggests that the company is doing a much better job at connecting with consumers.

Our own data backs this up. Brand affinity to Ralph Lauren was the strongest in over five years this holiday season; brand recall and awareness were also higher, including among younger consumers. Some of this is the result of increased marketing spend but a lot of it also comes down to a more targeted approach. Initiatives like the launch of the Palace label have provided the brand with greater visibility among consumers looking for edgier, contemporary designs. There is clearly more work to be done, but this progress represents a good platform on which to build.

That said, Ralph Lauren needs to remain disciplined; it should not revert to past form by launching rafts of sub-brands and spin-off labels which create confusion.

Digital was the star channel this quarter with sales up by 20 per cent over the prior year. Some of this is a consequence of the investment in online platforms which are now much improved and delivering higher conversion. However, traffic to websites has also risen as Ralph Lauren has created more visibility around its products and brands. In North America, the slight downside is the imbalance in growth. Online comparable sales rose by 21 per cent, but store comparables were flat. While this is not necessarily surprising, it underlines that Ralph Lauren has more work to do in persuading customers to visit its shops – something that should, in theory, become easier as it pulls back from the wholesale channel.

For all of this positivity, we are still cautious about the trajectory of the brand. While there is no doubt that Ralph Lauren is now in a much stronger position, a lot of work remains to be done on carefully defining the various parts of the offer and ensuring they remain targeted.

Because of the vast array of brand elements, this is a challenging task that could easily falter – especially as the economy tightens and the company laps some tougher comparatives.

Overall, however, Ralph Lauren is on the right track, it just needs to stay on course as it accelerates.

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