Scrap the “Way Forward.” Ralph Lauren’s new five-year strategy plan, which has been grandly named “Writing Our Next Great Chapter,” is positioned to generate $1 billion in added revenue over the next five years. The strategy: Build on the reparation work done by the Way Forward plan over the last two years that stabilized the company’s North American business by closing stores, pulling back in promotional wholesale outlets and reducing the amount of inventory on the market. From here, Ralph Lauren plans to flesh out underdeveloped categories like denim, footwear and accessories, attract younger customers and invest more in marketing.
It’s also targeting expansion globally. Half of the brand’s the success over the next five years relies on performance outside of North America, as it plans to bring up international sales to account for 50 percent of the business (currently, sales outside of North America account for 41 percent of the business). Of course, opportunity is concentrated in China, a population that is projected to make up 40 percent of luxury sales by 2023, growing at a rate of 5 to 6 percent year over year. According to CEO Patrice Louvet, who presented the plan to investors on Thursday, the goal is to increase sales in China alone by $500 million over five years.
“We have no choice,” said Louvet on Thursday. “We have to win in China – we can, and we are, and we will – but we have to.”
But China alone isn’t the only region ripe for growth: The brand is also gunning to expand in Europe, where it’s currently underrepresented. There are only 19 retail stores in the European Union, and countries like Germany, Italy and Spain — which are currently outperformed by the U.K., Ralph Lauren’s third-largest market — will be the focus of expansion and increased sales.
To map out international expansion in these areas, Ralph Lauren is modeling its approach on its second-largest market, Japan (the company doesn’t break out specific sales by country, only region). Six years ago, the brand turned sales around in Japan by localizing its regional management team, building a network of small but profitable stores, and putting resources behind Japanese social media channels, celebrities and local trend preferences. It also improved the brand’s positioning by reducing several hundred promotional or underperforming retail outlets in Japan, and raising prices on every piece it sold. In that time frame, revenue grew by 6 percent each year, with net sales up 20 percent each year.
The strategy is already being deployed in markets like Australia, which saw an 11 percent sales increase in the last three years, and South Korea, which had its first sales increase in 10 years for the brand in 2018.
“This formula is transferable,” said Howard Smith, group president of international business, to investors on Thursday. “It’s really about looking at a country through the eyes of that country’s consumer, with the consumer at the center.”
China is the biggest growth opportunity for Ralph Lauren based on this model. In addition to increasing revenue in China by $500 million, the brand plans to open 150 stores and increase digital sales by 75 percent by 2023. To do this, Ralph Lauren’s Chinese-led management team has clustered the country into six key urban areas, where store openings will be concentrated. Rural areas are digital-only, with guaranteed one- or two-day shipping. The brand has partnered with Tmall and JD.com to sell to this customer while it gathers localized data, from which it will plot inventory management, trend forecasting and store openings based on customer behavior within the city clusters and outside of them.
This new approach to brand strategy in China comes as part of Ralph Lauren’s ongoing turnaround and clean-up efforts in the country. According to Louvet, Ralph Lauren’s first entry to China involved a massive amount of licensee agreements that diluted the brand and landed product in “undesirable doors,” in his words. In 2010, the brand shut down those agreements and pulled all product out of the region except for high-end goods, in order to re-establish its positioning as a luxury brand. Now, it’s focusing its resurgence in China across both accessible (Polo brand) and luxury (Purple, Collection) prices.
“Chinese shoppers are incredibly open to spending money with brands that grab their attention at home,” said Liz Flora, Gartner L2’s Asia-Pacific retail analyst. “It used to just matter that a brand had global prestige. It’s more localized than that.”
The other growth opportunity for international investment and expansion is left to Europe. Smith said that, there, the strategy is based on a combination of opening direct retail stores — the same small-format stores that worked in Japan — rethinking physical wholesale distribution partners and focusing energy on digital wholesale partners, like Asos and Zalando.
“This is about quality growth — and I insist on quality. We have to be ruthless in markets where we have the most headroom for growth about how we proceed there. I know we operate quarterly, but we’re thinking long-term,” said Louvet.