6 Five-Star Specialty Retailers in a Lackluster Field

I was shopping in New York recently and feeling rather uninspired. I usually have an agenda, a new store or retailer, I am particularly excited about. Most large retailers make their own apparel and accessory products, so the watery soup is often spoiled by too many cooks, adding their managerial spice. It’s increasingly hard to find good retail theater, a strong brand identity and exciting, well-designed product, that hasn’t been tainted by levels of bureaucrats.

I challenged myself to come up with 6 “five-star” retailers that are doing an outstanding job, with a consistent brand experience and compelling fashion in a lackluster field:

1. Madewell, 2. Athleta, 3. Club Monaco, 4. Michael Kors, 5. Zara, 6. Lou & Grey

1. Madewell, 2. Athleta, 3. Club Monaco, 4. Michael Kors, 5. Zara, 6. Lou & Grey

Madewell – is the baby sister of J. Crew. I have been a long-time J. Crew proponent, even though the mothership has stumbled lately. Madewell is coming into its own with American casual classics, based around core denim pieces. You know to expect great jeans, chambray shirts, denim jackets, hip tees and knits, funky socks, rustic leather bags and shoes and slightly bohemian jewelry. The colors are simple and lean to the neutral side. The collection is totally wearable and much better-than-average quality for the price, a winning combination. This high-growth chain has little competition in the mall and will now be sold in Nordstrom as well.

Athleta – I was not a fan of fan of Athleta when Gap purchased it in 2008 for a mere $150 million. At the time their “zen-like” yoga prints and mass-market color sense paled against activewear, fashion pioneer Lululemon. Gap was betting on the powerful athleisure trend in apparel and has put their considerable product development muscle and resources behind the chain. They now have over 100 stores and have shed those expected “new-age” prints for a powerful collection of more urbane, sexy, forward clothing. They get that the athletic trend is worn as much out of the gym, as in, with their deep collection of cosmopolitan casual dresses, knit tops, bottoms and huge assortment of mix and match swimwear. I actually bought a $500 leather jacket at this formerly “perky” yoga chain and have never even done a downward dog.

Club Monaco – is a Canadian-based acquisition, part of the Ralph Lauren Corporation. Certainly not a household word, they only have approximately 140 stores worldwide. Club Monaco offers women’s and men’s collections of modern, urbane classics at affordable luxury prices points. Tasteful, upscale and contemporary, they are especially strong in knit tops, dresses, jackets, skirts and accessories for work and play. The quality of design and materials, far exceeds the price points to make Club Monaco a fairly hidden gem.

Michael Kors – Wandering through Macy’s first floor flagship the other day, I was blown away by the crowd of at least 40 people in the Michael Kors shop. The Coach concession across the hall had 2 visitors. it wasn’t a special event, it was business as usual for this hot-shot, brand-of-the-moment.

Michael Kors is a text-book example of consistent branding. The uber-glam handbags, watches, shoes and “bit of an after note”, clothing are precisely on the same urbane plane. Their stores, website, marketing collateral and product are as in sync as an Argentine tango. Chock it up as a real designer with one eye for everything. Even if you are getting tired of his ubiquitous bags, this brand is fashion branding royalty.

Zara – is fast-fashion at it’s finest. Owned by Spanish parent Inditex, in my book it blows away competitors H&M and Forever 21. They consistently put out easy-to-shop collections of fashion forward apparel and accessories, that defy their puny price points. Taken out of context the styling and quality could be mistaken for some of the best. There is no doubt what to expect at Zara, the best fashion trends in real-time, at really low prices. Zara brand profile as fashion leader, is crystal clear.

Lou & Grey – is a new free-standing store concept brand from parent Ann, Inc. It was born from the success of loungy apparel in their Loft chain. When I stumbled upon the Natick, Ma concept store, I was pleasantly surprised by the small sophisticated, upscale environment and compelling collection of lifestyle casual apparel and earthy accessories. This is the best thing Ann Inc. has done in a while. It is easier to do something new than reinvent history. Ann Taylor and Loft have become sterilized versions of their glory days with poor quality, dull offerings and banal stores. Currently only 7 stores,  Lou & Grey is one to watch.

Dix&Pond is the blog of Dix & Pond Consulting Creative and strategic consulting for retail, wholesale apparel, footwear, consumer products and branding agencies. Follow me to get the latest posts

Another Approach for Ann Taylor?

Designing a line of clothing is like putting on a Broadway play every season. Sometimes the new one is better than last season’s, sometimes not. It is nearly impossible to have a continuous upward graph when creating a new product line in the notoriously fickle fashion field. The Recession of the past several years, has put retailers on the defensive and exacerbated the issues.

Ann Taylor window, March 2012.

Ann Taylor window, March 2012.

Ann Inc. just reported fiscal 2011 results. The larger Loft division reported a 10.5% increase in total comps (including all channels), with an 8.1% in store comps for the year. In contrast, Ann Taylor had a 1.1% total comp increase, with a 10.9% decrease in store comps. CEO, Kay Krill is promising improvements at Ann Taylor…”among the number of changes underway, we are evolving the assortment in-store to offer her a better balance within each category, including more color choices, greater versatility and more depth in key fashion items and marketing looks. In addition, we will be offering more depth and breadth in opening price points in virtually every category to provide her with even greater value.”

I have soft spot for Ann Taylor. In my early career, the brand defined upscale fashion for ladder-climbing women. I was an ardent fan. In my heart, I still want them to succeed. As a designer, industry insider and former alpha-customer, the myriad problems are obvious to me.

In my opinion, they responded to the Recession with sparse inventory, lower quality fabrics and abdicated core basics. Colors have been hit or miss, at times exciting and occasionally, thoughtlessly unwearable.

The big advantage of specialty retail and e-Commerce is that these channels are easier to shop than department stores. Busy women don’t have time to search the collection-based apparel assortments of department stores to find a basic tee, a pair of black pants or a great white shirt. Interestingly, the best performing areas in department stores are sold in categories, handbags, shoes, jeans, cosmetics, dresses, etc. The problem is specialty retailers keep trying to offer collections vs. understanding shopping simplicity is one of their core advantages.

Ann Taylor used to be reliable for a decent assortment of well-made, consistently fitting casual and dressier pants. They also were a great place  for terrific white shirts from basic to highly styled. Who could tell they weren’t from Theory? You could count on deep inventory in quality tees for the season; who needed J Crew? Shoes became boring and generic, the day they parted ways with Joan & David.

Ann Taylor should be a contrast to Loft, with better quality, more sophisticated products. Loft is doing well, but why try to compete head on? As a former Ann Taylor fan, the Loft quality never did it for me. Ann Taylor today could be any one of a number of faceless specialty chains. Some thoughts for improvement:

Offer a better value to the customer thorough improved fabrications, not lowered prices. Ensure depth in the core replacement basics needed every season. What about a permanent white shirt area like an Anne Fontaine? How about a basic pant area that carried the core styles of the season? Create a section for tees, where white would NEVER be out of stock. Add more compelling bags and shoes that are less concerned with price and more focused on fashion and quality. How about some traffic-building accessory brand names such as Brahmin, Tory Burch, Longchamp or Kate Spade?

It is time to take a counterintuitive, novel approach to change the fortunes at Ann Taylor.

Dix and Pond is the blog of dix& pond consulting

Low inventory levels are obvious at Ann Taylor.

Low inventory levels are obvious at Ann Taylor.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: