By  on April 7, 2005

ROGERS, Ark. — After being burned in recent years by attempting to be too trendy, Wal-Mart will showcase fashion with broad appeal in an effort to drive sales.

The world’s largest retailer is going after the “big middle tier of the fashion pyramid,” Deanah Baker, ladies accessories merchandise manager, said during an informal presentation of merchandise at Wal-Mart’s first media conference on Tuesday.

The new program, dubbed “Gotta Have It,” focuses on key items, such as polo shirts and tiered skirts. It is part of an initiative led by Claire Watts, executive vice president of apparel and home, to clean up the apparel department with a better-edited and more cohesive presentation.

“She is really pushing us to take out everything extra and to show the customer what we stand for,” Baker said during the conference at a hotel five miles from Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. “It’s a bit scary because these are big-volume buys we are making.”

It’s also Wal-Mart’s response to Target, which last year consistently beat its larger competitor with better same-store sales and is adept at presenting merchandise that coordinates across several categories. A customer buying yoga pants could, for example, buy a mat specifically designed to match. Wal-Mart also said it will court the female shopper with cleaner stores and bathrooms, and better-quality goods.

While Wal-Mart stores are focusing on apparel items with broad salability, continues to test the waters with more expensive and trendy items, such as the roughly $50 cashmere sweaters sold last Christmas, or the $15.87 trendy rubber rain boots that are a bestseller on the site, said a spokeswoman. The site is designed to offer products “above and beyond” what the stores stock, she said.

Wal-Mart’s domestic product design team also is beginning to work directly with George Global, Wal-Mart-owned Asda’s product development office that manages the brand internationally. The infant-toddler development team will travel to the U.K. in May to begin designing the spring 2006 goods, marking the first time Asda and Wal-Mart will carry identical George product. Children’s clothing is a test category because it is less trendy and more universal, said Beth Schommer, children’s wear vice president, divisional merchandise manager. In ladies apparel, George will become more casual and less career focused in upcoming seasons, she said.At the conference, Wal-Mart lined up mannequins in brightly colored layered tops (screen T-shirts over polos, camis over camis) paired with Bermuda shorts or flared skirts along a whole wall of a ballroom. The feeling was bright, clean and crisp.

Polo shirts, for example, had been updated with more fitted silhouettes, plunging necklines, ruching details and piping, but the effort didn’t feel overdone, as has been the case in the past. Skirts included gored denim miniskirts, tiered ankle-length styles and A-line styles with bright prints. 

Spring apparel, however, hadn’t appeared to catch on yet at a new Supercenter in Jane, Mo. On a tour, Dell Sloneker, divisional vice president, northeast region, spot-checked item sales using a hand-held computer, tracking sales and inventory. A pink-striped top, displayed prominently on the front aisle, had sold only two size mediums in two weeks. A version in aqua blue, size small, had not yet been purchased. All regional and district managers recently attended seminars on new rack layouts that emphasize wider spacing for cart maneuverability.

The retailer has high hopes for keeping accessories trendy with clip-on charms for belts and handbags à la Juicy Couture. The retailer is also blowing out of cowboy hats, and “you can’t find a green handbag on our floor,” Baker said.

Breast-cancer-ribbon logo visors, washed canvas handbags and a two-in-one transparent plastic tote with snap-out printed hobo also are selling well.

The retailer also is working on better coordination in accessories for upcoming seasons, matching color plastic totes with flip-flops and beach towels, for instance.

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