Nifty Shades of Gray

There is a graying of America going on and I’m not talking about an aging population or a bestselling novel. Gray is the trending neutral color that has taken the apparel and home markets by storm, fog, stone, graphite, and black pearl. Grays are a modern choice for clothing, shoes, handbags, accessories, beauty, nail color, home decor, textiles, wallpaper and paint.

Shades of gray are the modern neutral for apparel, accessories, beauty and home decor.

Shades of gray are the modern neutral for apparel, accessories, beauty and home decor.

No other color is at once elegant, sporty, sexy and sophisticated for sportswear, dresses and lingerie. Gray is the perfect transitional color. In apparel, gray is the modern foil to pair with the omnipresent bright and neons shades instead of comic strip black. It transports pastels from saccharine to cosmopolitan. Head-to-toe tonal grays are the essence of impeccable taste and 50’s chic. Even the most dedicated black and white urbanites can update their uniform and soften their edge with nifty shades of gray.

Gray has become a basic in towels, sheets, rugs and pillows. In home decor, gray is the perfect backdrop for strong colors like chartreuse, red or inky blues. It creates a calming retreat when paired with ivory, pinky purples, creamy aqua or whipped butter. Gray is black’s kinder, gentler, cousin. For maximum impact, when combining grays, contrast textures like shiny and matte, fluffy and smooth, to up the style quotient.

Fashion is a reflection of the social mood. I guess we are in the mood for a calmer, gentler time.

Dix&Pond is the blog of Dix&Pond…creative and strategic consulting for retail, wholesale, analysts and investors.

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JCP Report Card – Hope & Change

Visual merchandising is greatly improved.

Visual merchandising is greatly improved.

In my post last February about the transformation of J.C. Penney (JC Penney Ante),  my greatest concern was their ability to turn the product around. I didn’t doubt they could improve the design, housekeeping and experience of the physical stores; or that they could market the new strategy.

Department stores today are far more complex organizations than they were decades ago. They are now multi-channel and in some cases multi-national organizations. They all produce a good percentage of their own private brands and have to have extensive product development teams. Moderate stores such as Penney’s don’t have much of an open market anymore. There are few moderate brands that have the ability to sell these consolidated behemoths. They were squeezed out over time by the retailers consuming selling space with their own products.

A top from JCP's fashion-right Mango line.

A top from JCP’s fashion-right Mango line.

Stores with private brands have to manage traditional merchandising and buying staff and have the ability to run creative design teams. These two functions are polar opposites and have a competitive tension between them. Great design comes from truly gifted and visionary talent. In many companies, it  a considered a common trait. Often unqualified merchants are given creative authority over programs with dreary results. In-house design can become too insular, as well. Unfortunately, for the most part, private label apparel is subject to large committees of leadership, all who put their stamp on the offer. Subsequently, they can water down the soup and create brands with stolen or missing identities.

There is a good assortment of fresh dresses.

There is a good assortment of fresh dresses.

For Penney’s to really transform beyond price selling, they must have the ability to create authentic desirable brands, not generic names with me-too styling. Their true prospects rely on their ability to hire or partner with the best design talent in the industry. This is the Target playbook.

JCP has well represented the active trend.

JCP has well represented the active trend.

On my recent trip to Penney’s, I saw some real green sprouts of change in the environment and merchandising. The stores are less cluttered, brighter and have better housekeeping. In some areas, I felt like I was in Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom, but at Target prices. Kudos to them, the place feels younger, more upscale, and alive! Some of the featured fashion was an exciting value. It is a much more pleasant place to shop.

The store is a tale of two cities now. They still are devoting a large swath of the store to Liz Claiborne and other missy product. The missy area is a dead zone for most companies, as they don’t really understand how to address the multiple lifestyles of an aging population. This is a core customer for Penney’s, so it will require real introspection. I have little faith that the upcoming Liz Claiborne concept shop will move the needle. This brand has been rehashed for years. (Formerly Liz Claiborne, Fifth and Pacific changed their name and sold their ailing namesake.) It will be an enormous challenge to give this line an appealing and authentic personality. They are also banking on Izod, Levi’s, Buffalo and their in-house basics for third quarter apparel introductions. This is hardly an exciting apparel roster, ditto for the upcoming fall Royal Velvet home shop.

Some compelling contemporary separates.

Some compelling contemporary separates.

I am much more intrigued with upcoming home introductions from Jonathan Adler, Terrance Conran, Michael Graves and Bodum in the home area next year. The current home assortment is painfully mainstream.

Sephora is still their ace card. I give them credit for their large department of trending active wear, big selection of dresses and pretty tops. The Mango department is hip and enticing. All important handbags are uninspiring, but shoes hit on most of the trends. The fine jewelry department is very old school. They will be introducing accessories by Betsy Johnson, Vivienne Tam and Lulu Guinness for fall. There are also some very cute kid’s clothes. Young families will be core constituents of the new Penney’s.

Target and Kohl’s should be very worried about Penney’s transformation, especially Kohl’s, if Penney’s get the missy area on track.  The new Penney’s has the potential to be a low-end Nordstrom. So far I see hope and change beyond my expectations. Stay tuned.

Dix&Pond is the blog of Dix&Pond…creative and strategic consulting for retail, wholesale, analysts and investors. Contact us for more information on custom research and reporting.

Primary Reasons

Summer brings out the best in color palettes. This year beyond the neons and expected turquoises, I find myself drawn to the basic elements of all color,  the primaries. Fashion color runs in cycles and for me the most classic, Crayola basics are looking especially fresh for summer 2012. They are the big bang theory of the color family. There is nothing that steals a scene like a pop of tomato red, lily yellow or chipper skipper blue.  The primaries are color royalty, the mother of all colors. Even a black and white wearing urbanite can kick it up a notch with a bold primary accent.

A jolt of primary color looks especially fresh this summer.

A jolt of primary color looks especially fresh this summer.

Primaries have a certain sporty, joie-de vivre. They pair perfectly with nautical and military inspired looks. They work well for women’s apparel, dresses, shoes, handbags, luggage, tech cases and accessories as well as kids and modern home accents.  I especially love them in outdoor decor for towels, umbrellas, pillows and indoor-outdoor rugs. Red lips and red, yellow and blue nail colors are trending in beauty. These high-fired, salable classics will go forward in seasons to come!

Dix&Pond is the blog of Dix&Pond consulting…strategic and creative product development and brand consulting.

She doesn’t have to have it….

For the past several years women’s apparel sales have been lackluster. Handbags and shoes have taken the spotlight and continued to outperform while apparel languishes. The excitement in shoe and bag design is palpable. Designers have continued to up-the-ante in footwear and bags, in bold colors, fresh materials and pushed the limits on new shapes. Confidence has spurred a creative explosion in these categories. This has added up to multiple seasons of big personality accessories winning hearts and wallets, in a down cycle of consumer sentiment.

Women’s apparel is another story. Here are several reasons for the depressed fashion phenomenon.

There is a lack of creative risk taking in apparel by wholesalers and retail merchants; call it retail sameness, fear of failure, wholesale and retail firms have a bad case of stage fright. They’re driving with eyes in the rear view mirror and trading down on quality. Many look to the past for the future and figure the safe road is the way to hunker down. Recessionary assortments of apparel are a counter intuitive bland diet for a customer with no appetite. Consumers have to be stopped in their tracks and wined and dined with fresh novelty and must-have styling.

There is a dearth of contemporary brands for the wealthiest segment of the market. Boomers+ have the money, but there is a lack of fashion forward casual brands suitable for the aging customer. This segment must choose between dowdy mature offerings or “do I look foolish” in this uber-short contemporary dress? Consequently, they turn to forward accessories to look current without looking like a sorry soul. This is an opportunity to reach a big underserved market.

Size matters. There is a lack of larger sizes for an “expanding” population of all ages. Women bigger than a size 12 or 14 can’t find much in most specialty or in mainstream areas of department stores. A huge part of the population is literally ignored. Larger women have to turn to the democratic accessory and beauty departments for a fashion update.

It is frustrating to shop for apparel in traditional store formats. Most women today are strapped for time, have short attention spans and an overwhelming sea of options. It is difficult to shop for an item, when most department and specialty stores are organized by collection.  If she needs a white top, she is forced to shop a whole store or department to find the item. A harried consumer will bypass department stores for the ease of shopping a simpler format with item depth, like J. Crew. Handbags, shoes, cosmetics, jeans and lingerie tend to outperform other areas. These departments are classifications, not collections and easier to shop. Part of the rapid growth of online shopping is that it simplifies the process. It quickly nets the offer to classifications.

The best accessories come from wholesale branded companies like Prada, Kate Spade, Tory Burch, Longchamp, Coach, Michael Kors, to name a few. Bags and shoes are two areas where there is little private label. Consumers are validated by brand authenticity and the inherent status of branded accessories. For the most part, private label apparel is subject to large committees of leadership, who all put their stamp on the offer. Subsequently, they can water down the soup.

Accessories are the easiest way to update last year’s wardrobe. Apparel like accessories, is an emotional buy. It is unfortunate that most traffic doesn’t covert to a sale, only a disappointed customer. Compelling merchandise is the key way to improve conversions. If wholesaler and retailers continue to offer vanilla assortments, the consumer will continue to spend her disposable income on the latest accessories and technology.

 The following pictures are “best-foot-forward” displays from some major retailers. Their brand identities are indistinguishable. Do you think “she’s gotta have” this merchandise?

Dix&Pond is the blog of Dix&Pond consulting…strategic and creative product development and brand consulting.

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