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TM Lewin proves heritage is no guarantee of customer loyalty in a digital-first world

Glynn Davis is one of the UK’s most knowledgeable and experienced retail journalists, founder of Retail Insider, and Ecommerce Age’s new monthly columnists.

When I first came across menswear retailer TM Lewin it had a mere couple of stores and there was no online business because at that point we are talking pre-internet days. Its flagship outlet stood on the tailored shirt epicentre of Jermyn Street in London’s smart St James’ district.

It was a well-respected, family-owned, artisanal business producing formal men’s shirts when I was introduced to its then CEO Geoff Quinn who had joined TM Lewin in 1980 and rose to become its CEO in 1993. He took me around the company’s production facility in Southend where I watched the shirts being handmade by craftspeople and I recognised that the price charged for the shirts made them great value for money – even though they certainly weren’t cheap by any standards. I’ve still got the shirt he gifted me, which highlights its quality.

Quinn proved to be the powerhouse behind the growth of the business as he initiated a host of successful moves including the development of a mail order facility that relied on colourful, glossy catalogues and frequent mailshots. He also began testing promotional activity and in the early 2000s pioneered the four-shirts-for-£100 deal. Alongside this he continued to open more stores and by 2011 the company had hit 100 UK outlets and raced to £100 million in annual sales for the first time. Overseas stores came next and casualwear was also added to the mix. 

Meanwhile along the way, beginning in 2006, various corporate activity took place with stakes in the business bought and sold as various private equity firms became involved. Sadly the early growth and progressive initiatives that had served it so well over many years began to cause the company problems. Particularly worrying was the fact that the business was unable to successfully replicate its earlier success in a more digital-focused world.

The Southend factory was closed and production shifted overseas, the constant promotional offers impacted the quality of the product and ultimately adversely affected the standing of the brand in my opinion. Like many established retailers it also found itself with far too many stores and a lot of competition while online continued to grow as a share of total retail sales.

What made matters worse was that like a number of companies that had successfully operated mail order arms TM Lewin seemed unable to convert this into an online bonanza. Consider that N Brown, Littlewoods and the other pure mail order specialists also found it a very tough journey from paper to digital even though much of the logistics infrastructure was in place.

TM Lewin was only able to ultimately generate 30% of its revenues from online by 2020 so it was pretty serious when in June of that year the whole store estate was closed and it became an online-only business under its owner Torque Brands. This scenario was pretty short lived and the administrators were called in last month, which has led to The Petra Group acquiring the company. 

Its plan is to relaunch the business as an online-only operation again but it has also stated there is the potential to add some physical outlets in the future. Sadly, having been founded way back in 1898 TM Lewin is now playing catch-up. What it needs to do is follow the new kids on the block like Untuckit where the bulk of the business is online and stores are limited in number. They are carefully located as their objective is to merely support the digital-first approach and contribute to brand building and marketing.

What these newcomers also shy away from is aggressive promotional activity. They would prefer to focus on the quality of the product, their ethical sourcing and commitment to artisanal manufacturing that is manifesting itself in local production and vertical integration.

Clearly TM Lewin had these very attributes back in the day. Like many long-established retailers it will only regain its mojo by carefully balancing digging into its archive for what it did well in the past and embracing digital tools that will enable it to compete head on with its digital-native rivals of today.