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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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.

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