C&A is one of the world's leading clothing retailers with around 2,000 stores in 24 countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia. It is best known perhaps for its European operations: it is the #1 fashion chain store in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, but closed all its operations in the UK, once one of its most important territories, in 2000 after running up huge losses. Another key market is Brazil, where it is one of the country's two biggest fashion retailers. The privately owned group also maintained a significant presence in the US for several years, under the umbrella of the American Retail Group, before quitting that market in 2004. The Brenninkmeijer (or Brenninkmeyer) family who founded and still control the business have extensive investments in other industries in Europe and Asia.
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Free for all users | see full profile for current activities: The business is named after brothers Clemens and August Brenninkmeijer, who opened their first warehouse in the town of Sneek in Holland in 1841. The family was in fact German, with long-established interests in the textiles trade. The brothers decided to move to Holland to launch their business after an apprenticeship selling clothing and household wares farm to farm in northern Germany. Initially they were wholesalers of clothing and textiles, but opened their first retail outlet in 1861 to considerable success. The shop offered high quality ready-to-wear clothing at affordable prices, and the brothers quickly opened a chain of additional outlets throughout the country. Still within the control of Clemens and August's large family, the company opened stores in Germany in 1911, followed by the UK in 1922.
Later, with Europe reeling from the impact of World War II, the family turned its attention to the US. In 1948, several family members formed holding company American Retail Group, and began acquiring a string of department stores and other retail businesses around the country. There was comparatively little further expansion of the C&A brand until the 1960s, when the group led the popularization of fashion, producing cheap copies of designer clothing. A further wave of activity led to the launch of outlets in Belgium (1963), France (1972), Switzerland (1977), Spain (1983), Austria (1984), Portugal (1991), Denmark (1995) and the Czech Republic (1998). In 1998, C&A Deutschland launched spin-off chain Capstan Bay.
However by the 1990s, the group had lost most of its fashion status, overtaken by more dynamic high street rivals, especially in the UK. External estimates suggested that group sales had remained static for much of the decade at around £870m, while retail market share had steadily declined. To remedy the situation, the group appointed two non-family members to the UK board and announced plans to upgrade its 115 stores. However a few months later, in mid-2000, C&A stated it would pull out of the UK altogether, closing all of its stores and laying off almost 5,000 employees. The company said that its UK operation had cost the group £250m since 1995, and was thought to be losing almost £1m per week by 2000.
Later the group inadvertently stirred up a storm of protest when it launched a special discount sale in early 2002 to coincide with the launch of the Euro currency. C&A Germany offered a 20% rebate on transactions made with credit or banking cards, designed to target customers who hadn't yet obtained Euro notes. The chain was flooded by eager shoppers, but other retailers complained to the government on the grounds that, under current German laws, shops must follow strict laws on when they offer sales and what discounts they may make. The government responded with an injunction, which C&A ignored. The group was later fined E1m for the breach. After an appeal the fine was reduced to E400,000. In another symbolic attack on the Euro, the group launched a one week sale in December 2002 allowing customers in Germany, Austria and Netherlands to pay with leftover pre-Euro Deutsche marks, schillings and guilders.
Meanwhile the US business was also under pressure. By the 1990s, American Retail Group (ARG) housed more than 900 stores under several brand names, but like C&A in the UK, had a reputation for being old-fashioned. Towards the end of the decade, ARG closed or sold off its department store brands Ohrbach's, Steinbach's and J Byron. Its 75-strong Uptons department store chain was closed in 2000 after the group failed to find a buyer for it. In 2003, the group sold its outdoor apparel chains Eastern Mountain Sports, Anchor Blue and Millers Outpost, and sold its last remaining business, Maurice's at the end of the year.
Despite a difficult retail market, the group has ramped up expansion plans for C&A in several markets since 2004. It acquired more than 50 children's clothing stores from Austrian drugstore chain DM in 2004, and 30 Oviesse stores in Switzerland from Migros in early 2005. It opened its first Russian outlet in 2005, and has also promised to increase store numbers in Brazil and Mexico. See full profile for current activities
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