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 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