Let’s face it: Consumers love affordable clothing. Trends may come and go but getting a good deal on a great outfit never goes out of style. In fact, some folks even like to brag about it. Who could blame them? Looking like a million bucks without spending a fortune is just so gratifying.
Now, more retailers are catching on that private label clothing draws in customers, builds loyalty and captures higher profit margins. Seems like a no-brainer, right? But, as with most things, the reality is often very different. The fact is food retail and clothing retail do not have a lot in common.
“The core competencies associated at being a good food retailer and clothing retailer only partially overlap — even less if you are talking about fashion retail,” says Tory Gundelach, vice president of retail insights for Kantar Consulting.
But many retailers have taken the leap anyway with some managing to find and maintain success for years.
“Fifteen years ago, you would not have identified Costco as a major apparel retailer,” says Matt Sargent, senior vice president of Magid, “but now [its] Kirkland Signature [store brand] is a wardrobe staple.”
Fred Meyer stores have also been selling clothing for quite some time. Its parent company, The Kroger Co., is also offering own brand clothing. Last year, the retailer announced the rollout of its Dip clothing line to 300 of its Fred Meyer and Marketplace stores.
“During the product development process, we were intentional about creating a brand that’s unique and resonates with our shoppers — and we believe we’ve done just that,” said Christina Groth, Kroger’s vice president of general merchandise, in a statement.
PLANNING IT OUT
The higher margins associated with private label clothing can also give retailers that competitive edge to keep up with the inevitable changes to the retail landscape.
“Particularly, as online grocery rolls out, grocers are looking for ways to compensate for those additional costs, [and] selling a more profitable merchandising mix is one of those ways,” Gundelach says.
With so much potential upside, private label clothing seems worth the risk. What could go wrong? Without a plan, plenty.
“The most critical element will be store planning, and not just dropping this new category into the store,” Sargent says. “Retailers will need to ensure that they have enough space in the store to create a separate clothing area rather than it feeling as if it is right on top of the milk and oranges.”
Kantar Consulting Senior Analyst Tiffany Hogan agrees. “Successful fashion brands run on merchandise planning systems, which operate very differently than category management employed in traditional grocery,” she says. “Grocers will need to think about the type of apparel they want to offer (whether it’s more fashion- and trend-driven or focused on basics), and employ the right type of planning system to avoid issues with in-stocks or inventory management.”
The type of apparel should line up with what customers already expect from that retailer. But the likelihood of success is found in the basics.
“There is a spectrum here,” Gundelach explains. “Selling basic socks and underwear or even T-shirts and flip flops is a lot more achievable than a grocer succeeding in selling jeans and women’s shoes.”
Robert Anderson, president and CEO of Store Brand Consulting, also suggests that retailers stick to the basics but could also offer seasonal items like swimsuits, gloves and winter hats. Price points should remain under $20 and the quality needs to be above average without being too trendy.
“They need an entry and exit plan and should have a markdown schedule to keep inventory fresh and current,” advises Anderson, a former Walmart executive who began the retailer’s Great Value food private brand line.
Seasonality and scarcity play an important role in driving consumer browsing behavior and engagement in apparel and other non-grocery categories.
“Knowing that an item may not still be available on their next trip can increase impulse buying,” Sargent explains.
AVOID THOSE SNAGS
In any store brand product category, consumer confidence is integral to success. Gaining and retaining that trust takes time.
“I think the key for grocers to be successful in apparel, and particularly private label apparel, is to build up credibility with shoppers over time,” Gundelach says.
For those retailers in more of a rush, consider a name-brand apparel partnership, she suggests. But do so thoughtfully.
“Partnering with a well-known apparel brand could also be a way to build credibility more quickly,” she explains. “But this doesn’t always work if the store experience or the brand equity pairing doesn’t make sense to shoppers.”
Kroger, for instance, recruited fashion designer Joe Mimran, best known for Club Monaco, Pink Tartan and Joe Fresh, to lead the creative and design vision of its Dip clothing line.
For some retailers, however, the addition of private label clothing might not fit at all with their focus and would potentially dilute their brand. “For example, Whole Foods Market has built its brand with a specialty focus of natural foods and wellness, and would likely struggle to introduce an apparel offering,” Sargent says.
Instead, retailers known for their broad selection would be more successful in expanding to other categories like apparel, he adds. Just look at Target. The Minneapolis-based retailer recently launched not one but three new lingerie brands and will phase out an existing brand of lingerie and sleepwear called Gillian & O’Malley. Target has been selling private label clothing successfully for years, adding new lines and removing others.
In addition to the launch of the lingerie brands, Target recently added “Bra Fit Studios” in retail locations to help customers find the right fit. This type of interactive merchandising and promotion will likely serve Target well as its customer base has come to expect a lot from the retailer.
Store Brand Consulting’s Anderson has a few more suggestions regarding merchandising and marketing.
“I’d put the seasonal items on the endcaps with a nice point of purchase on top calling out the seasons,” he says, adding that clothes could be organized by gender, i.e. mens, womens, boys and girls. Also have a set section to put markdowns in, and again do those by gender and sizes, Anderson notes.
According to Sargent, promotions should center on the store’s unique product offering and limited availability in order to create a sense of urgency.
“From a marketing and product selection perspective, it’s important to understand what the customer expects from your brand,” he explains. “[It’s important] to align your apparel offerings and messaging with those already-held beliefs.
Retailers have to keep in mind just how different the apparel category really is from grocery.
“Apparel has a much longer lifecycle and requires an understanding of shifting trends, as well as a longer shelf life which may require more management to move product via markdowns,” Sargent explains.
Gundelach agrees, noting that the in-store merchandising of apparel needs to feel different than the experience shoppers get in the grocery aisles.
“From a marketing perspective, it’s important that grocers recognize the need to take a different approach with apparel, from the way promotions are messaged to the style of photography they are using,” she says.
CHANGE OF CLOTHES
When it comes to differentiation in clothing, store brands need to both stand out and blend in — stand out with unique style and attractive pricing, and blend in with the retailer’s overall brand.
“In a competitive apparel market, grocery’s biggest advantage is convenience,” Kantar Consulting’s Hogan says, noting that grocery’s biggest differentiator is its ability to provide an easier, faster way to access the product.
“Incorporating apparel into an online assortment, making it available for BOPIS (buy online, pickup in-store) services, and offering additional loyalty perks for purchasing the category are all ways grocers can provide differentiated and unique value,” she adds.
But according to Anderson, differentiation isn’t always necessary.
“Get too far out of the box on colors, styles and buying too much of a fad versus keeping more to the basics will only build inventory and increase markdowns leading to reduced profits,” he warns.
To those retailers that are just now rolling out their own brand apparel, Sargent suggests taking things slow.
Consumers know that it takes a different expertise to drive authority in fashion versus food, according to Hogan.
“While private label apparel may take a while to gain shoppers’ trust, grocers can lean on common trends such as organic or sustainable products or easy, low-price solutions that will let their shoppers know that the retailer’s ethos and priorities are consistent across the two offers,” Hogan adds.
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