This year continues to be a marquee one for private labels. Store brands now account for about one in five items sold at mass-market retailers and are steadily projected to grow and steal share from national brands. Three out of four consumers have a positive view of private-label brands, and over two-thirds of shoppers believe private label offers good value for money. Finally, Millennials, who now have the largest purchasing power, are less brand loyal than generations prior and are more open to embracing private labels.

So, with all these tailwinds in its sails, why is private-label growth in fashion so elusive?

Fashion is unlike any other category, and private-label strategies that work well for increasing basket size to drive more organic olive oil and bruschetta sales just don’t work in fashion, plain and simple. To paraphrase Billy Beane, “We’re really selling jeans here.” Today’s consumers want merchandise that is trendy, affordable, stylish, personalized and helps them stand out in a crowd. Can department stores and mass merchandise retailers do all that, and orchestrate it flawlessly? Perhaps not. But they’ve got one thing that e-commerce giants don’t have: a physical connection to their customers. Based on our experience, there are three key ingredients store retailers need to have to effectively stand up to a private-label fashion brand: a strong dose of creative passion, a pinch of innovation and a cutting-edge supply chain.

Private Label Shouldn’t Mean Generic — Be Bold and Creative Across Product and Marketing

The heart and soul of any fashion company is a strong creative and design team. They set the vision for the brand and architect its essence — the look and silhouette of the clothing, the form and function of the fabric, and the design aesthetic that is so unique to the soul of a brand. Without getting too metaphysical about it, where does the soul of a brand come from? It’s the unique combination of language and syntax, accent and flavor. I’d venture to say that if Burberry or Adidas or Ralph Lauren were “private-label” brands, they’d still be as recognizable and as iconic because of what the product ultimately is. Today’s retailers have to rely heavily on agents and supplier development teams for scouting trends, creating concepts and driving product development.

In essence, suppliers are now serving as de-facto design extensions. A strong supplier network is important, perhaps even critical for your supply chain, but it can never serve as a substitute for a strong design and creative team. Once you have outsourced your “creative,” there is nothing unique or compelling about the fashion merchandise you carry vis-à-vis your competitors — other than a label. And if the product is nondescript, it doesn’t matter how great your label looks.

In addition, muddled messaging and a laser-like focus on price alone makes it difficult for consumers to build an emotional connection to the brand. A sure shot way for retailers to connect with consumers is by building collaboration pieces with up-and-coming fashion influencers and introducing limited runs of an item to build anticipation and drive demand. Given that retailers don’t have the marketing budgets and firepower of large national brands, they need to adopt outside-the-box marketing ideas to build a brand image for their private label. One unique idea could be to use a prominently branded fashion truck to make a trek to busy city hubs during weekday afternoons and give consumers some much-needed retail therapy; or perhaps sponsor local fashion events in key urban markets. Unconventional strategies like these help build brand identity, which is critically important for store brands, and allow retailers to learn and fail, if needed, based on analyzing results on a small scale.

Remember that retailers are closest to the consumer, and this gives them the unique advantage of having front-row seats to the entire consumer buying experience. It’s about time retailers took notice and learned from their best advocates — their consumers.

Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment and Innovate — Across Both Categories and Formats

Retailers are notoriously risk-averse to experimenting, and often prefer to take the tired and worn path. The storyline plays out somewhat like this: The retailer tests which national brands and categories are successful, gives a mandate to its suppliers to make less expensive versions of the same category and voila! — product launch is achieved. This strategy works for producing knock-offs, and may even drive profitability in the short term. However, it does not generate and sustain long-term value, as it commoditizes the store brand in the eyes of the consumer.

A better approach would be to leverage creative/design input and pilot select categories across certain formats. One idea could be to use a curated merchandising strategy for sneakers and open a pop-up at a flagship store. Another would be to test out certain high-profile items via your e-commerce channel by offering them as exclusives and tailor your broader roll out strategy based on their performance. Price is only one component of the equation; it is equally important for consumers to connect with the product. Remember, all retail is local — the stronger the connection a retailer can make with its local communities, the better chance its store brands have to make an outsized impact. A rapid iteration cycle of test-learn-repeat allows retailers to be flexible and nimble, so that they can capitalize on the latest trends in the market and change gears based on what works and what doesn’t.

If The Supply Chain Doesn’t Fit, You Might As Well Quit

We have often observed that supply chains seem to be almost an afterthought in the private label wheel. Nothing could be farther from the truth — an agile and responsive supply chain can be a source of tremendous competitive advantage for one’s store brands. Working with national brands brings in additional layers of uncertainty, complexity and slower reaction times, but with store brands, retailers can be masters of their own destiny, price products as they see fit, run promotions based on real-time data and most importantly drive speed to market based on evolving consumer needs. To achieve all this, however, there needs to be a centralized supply chain function, with clear brand/merchant representation across high priority product lines.

Conversely, there has to be supply chain representation at key meetings, including concept reviews, assortment line drops and final line select. Having cross-functional coverage allows retailers to anticipate key risks and issues, and prepare for them in advance — so that when a product flies off the shelf faster than anticipated, the supply chain can spring into action and save the day.

These are challenging times for fashion retailers — declining comps, competition from e-commerce behemoths, rapidly evolving consumer preferences and the looming threat of bankruptcy. Now more than ever, it’s important for retailers to make the best use of the assets they have — a physical connection with the customer in their stores — to drive foot traffic, enable conversion and bring in a new legion of shoppers. A well-thought-out private-label strategy can be a strategic weapon for retailers to bring customers into the store for a look/see/feel, outsmart the competition, regain consumer trust and help usher in a new way for retailers to grow.

Manik Aryapadi is a principal in the consumer and retail practice of global strategy and management consulting firm, A.T. Kearney. He works in the Chicago office and advises retailers and brands in the fashion and luxury sectors. He can be reached at

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