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U.K. Retailers Look to U.S. For New Growth Opportunities

As retailing in the United Kingdom struggles for life, British apparel retailers target the vast American market in hopes of resuscitating the troubled sector.

A perceived affection for English goods and styling, spurred in part, perhaps, by the recent popularity of the Downton Abbey PBS television series, has lured U.K.firms such as Asos Plc’s Top Shop, Boden, Jack Wills Ltd., and Superdry to establish retail footholds in the U.S.

Yet, according to a survey by Barclays Bank, UK retailers say the U.S. market is the world’s toughest to break into.

Each of the U.K. firms retains its British flavor and has a different marketing strategy. Rather than attempting to penetrate the U.S. market by acquiring an established brand, or launching a new, unknown brand, they continue to sell here as they’ve sold back home.

U.K. retailers who are succeeding in the U.S. market, “…have a very strong, differentiated brand positioning that is well understood by the American consumer,” said Ian Geddes, U.K. head of retail consultants Deloitte LLP. “They are doing well by emphasizing what their brand stands for.”

Asos Plc sells exclusively online via Top Shop.

Boden sells through catalogues.

Jack Wills Ltd. is youth-oriented.

Drawing on lessons learned from certain unsuccessful U.K. ventures in the U.S., the newest arrivals are determined not to repeat the past errors of their countrymen.

Gone now from the U.S., for example, are U.K. chains J. Sainsbury Plc and Marks & Spencer Group.  The latter bought Brooks Brothers, America’s oldest retail clothing firm, for $750 million in 1988.  When consumer appetites for suits waned and a major trend to less formal attire emerged, Brooks Brothers was sold for less than $250 million after its 13-year run.

With British retailers penetrating the U.S. apparel market — the world’s biggest, at $200 billion — domestic retailers such as Gap Inc., J. Crew Group Inc. and Abercrombie & Fitch among others, are looking over their shoulders at the foreign competition in their midst.

U.K. brands now operating in the U.S. plan to expand as they take a bigger bite of the American pie.  Top Shop, for example, made a deal in 2012 to sell its goods in some upscale Nordstrom’s department stores.  Top Shop’s current four stores will soon expand to 20 as the brand catches on.

The prospect for online sales for U.K. apparel is equally bright.  The Internet Marketing Retail Group (IMRG) reports that total online foreign sales for U.K.-based retailers is second only to the U.S.