Express has a new turnaround strategy.

Cost cuts. Store closings. Management changes. Process changes. Category additions. Stockkeeping unit streamlining and remerchandising.

It’s all been happening at Express as the once dominant fashion specialty chain strives to get customers re-engaged, improve conversion rates and achieve mid-single digit operating profit margins within three years.

“It’s a reinvention,” Tim Baxter, chief executive officer of Express, told WWD. “It’s really about reinvigorating the brand, putting product first and about executing very different from how we have in the past.

“It’s not a turnaround in the classic sense of a turnaround. The fact that we have no long-term debt is, in our industry, almost unheard of. It’s what’s killing so many companies. It’s trashing cash flow.

“From a financial perspective we are very solid. So there is no turnaround required from a financial perspective. We are going to lose some money this year, but we are still generating free cash flow. We have a couple of hundred-million dollars cash on hand. That gives us enormous flexibility.”

Tim Baxter 

On Wednesday, Baxter presented to investors the new strategy at Express called The EXPRESSway Forward. The program calls for closing 100 stores and $80 million in cost reductions by 2022, including $25 million through process improvements such as accelerating speed to market, inventory optimization and systems implementations, and $55 million mainly by the announced workforce reduction.

The strategy also entails creating “curated assortments reflecting versatility and consistent newness,” revamping the loyalty program, evolving store associates from task-oriented to service-oriented, and selling more denim with additional fits and washes.

“The Express Edit” is the new template focusing on design and merchandising around five groupings: “Mix and Match Versatility,” “New and Now,” “Modern Tailored,” “Denim Everywhere” and “Best of Black.”

“In my first 90 to 180 days, I set three very clear priorities,” Baxter said. “The first was to develop a clear, actionable strategy. The second was to put the right leadership in place, and the third was to change the trajectory of the business. We have moved full steam ahead on all three things during my first six months. We have changed the trajectory of the business. We will report that our fourth quarter was the third sequential quarter of improved comp sales performance. We’ve got the right leadership team in place now.”

Among other changes, four senior vice presidents and two executive vice presidents were recruited in the aftermath of Baxter becoming ceo last June. “It’s a balance of seasoned Express executives and new executives bringing fresh perspectives and points of view,” said Baxter, describing the management team. “It was important for me to achieve that balance.”

Right after Wednesday’s presentation, Baxter who previously served as ceo of Delta Galil Premium Brands and earlier served as chief merchandising officer for Macy’s, met for an exclusive interview to discuss where Express went wrong and what’s being done to right the business.

Dressed in a black Express knit “performance” suit, Baxter said, “It feels like I’m in sweats, but it’s a suit.” He opened the conversation by talking value and versatility, indicating, for example, that a jacket or pant from an Express men’s suit can be purchased and worn separately to dress down, or worn together to dress up. A women’s slip dress can be worn with black jean jacket or a wool-blend moto jacket, to dress up or down, and in the same vein, an embellished lace women’s top would be shown with a pair of jeans or a black skirt. Versatility has become an underpinning at Express for developing fashion and telling product stories. It’s about mixing and matching to create different outfits, and building wardrobes with fewer pieces appropriate for more occasions and settings.

“There is a white space for brands like Express — a dual gender fashion brand that crosses multiple different wearing occasions and can help a customer put their entire wardrobe together and can teach a customer how this suit breaks down into great separates,” Baxter explained. “That’s one of the things our customers are absolutely looking to us to help them do. It’s ‘how do I build a wardrobe, what are the foundational pieces that I have to have, and how do I add on to those pieces.’ Versatility adds value. It’s huge. I have been through quite a few focus groups. I was shocked at the number of times the word ‘versatility’ was used by customers. Like, I love these pants to wear to work, but they’re also very comfortable so I like to wear them on the weekend with a polo shirt. Even guys were describing this. That’s why denim, too, has become such a staple because it is so incredibly versatile.”

By next fall, “a very dramatic change” in the Express presentation will be apparent, Baxter said. “You’ll see the full impact of our thought process,” he said. “We implemented the change in the merchandising strategy on the women’s side last August and now we are about to embark on that same change on the men’s side. But we will test and learn just as we did on the women’s side. The men’s customer is actually more driven by ease. A man is a buyer and a woman tends to be a shopper. When he comes in, he’s buying. He knows what he wants. A woman wants to shop and look around. She wants to be inspired. So we are going to test into the new merchandising.

“In terms of actual product assortment, we were able to impact a certain percentage in the fourth quarter,” Baxter added. “We really focused on very specific categories where we needed to turn our business around — women’s tops and sweaters, and we needed to develop a gift strategy.”

For the holiday season, electronic gadgets and jewelry were introduced to men’s, and cosmetics bags were introduced in women’s. “We were testing categories that were not currently a part of the assortment but are big gift-giving categories and it worked very well. You’ll see an expansion of that as we move into 2020,” said Baxter.

As he sees it, reinventing Express also means creating a better experience for customers, in stores and online. To that end, “remerchandising is the first initiative,” Baxter said, with The Express Edit as the foundation.

“I do believe that we can have a more compelling store experience. Experience became the [industry] buzzword. People have been asking me about experience. Here’s what I always say — that customers expect to be greeted by a friendly, knowledgeable sales associate who helps them when they need help and leaves them alone when they want to be left alone. They expect to have a great fitting room experience. And they expect to be able to check out very quickly when they actually want to purchase something. If you get those things right, you create an experience customers love. It’s as simple as that. It’s the fundamentals. We are getting really focused on those. We don’t need Ferris wheels. We don’t need cotton candy machines.”

Baxter said he gets “crazed” when he thinks of the billions of dollars retailers and brands have spent on improving online checkout time by half a second, while doing little to speed checkouts inside their stores. “There is no congruency between those two experiences. We know that the customer values time. We continue to push to have greater speed in e-commerce and we know you get better conversion when we can make the process faster. We’ve got to take that and make that faster in the store for the customer.”

Express has stagnated for the last three years, suffering losses and seeing its stock price decline, though following the disclosure of the new corporate strategy the stock soared 20 percent to just over $5.

In some ways, Express has been embodying what’s been wrong with specialty retailing in the U.S., specifically the women’s sector.  “It’s boring,” Baxter said without hesitation. “Women’s specialty apparel retailers have just not moved forward at the same pace that the customer has moved forward. When you see brands that are winning, like Zara, like Aritzia, it’s because they offer compelling fashion. We are going to get back to offering compelling fashion at great value across multiple wearing occasions and I know we can win when we do that.

“The men’s business alternatively, when you look at what happened over the last five years, you actually see a pretty dramatic increase in the amount of fashion and an increase in the number of men shopping for themselves. So you see better results across the board in men’s. It hasn’t been boring. There has been innovation in fabric, in fit, in styling. Men’s has been outpacing women’s. That has been driven by fashion. Our men’s customer definitely responds to our fashion. We are differentiated from what he can find in other places. It’s also been driven by our very strong performance in suits. We have a compelling offering in suits and great price value.”

In men’s, the range generally is from dress shirts at $69.90 and denim at $88, to suit pants at $128 and suit jackets at $298. In women’s, the range is from $29.90 to $59.90 for tops; $88 for jeans, to wool blend moto jackets at $198.

Express was launched by the legendary Leslie Wexner in 1980. He recruited Michael Weiss to expand the business and it was Weiss’ flair for merchandise and leadership that catapulted Express. By 1986, the chain had 250 stores. Express launched the Structure men’s brand in 1989, which eventually became Express Men. Dual gender Express stores began opening and the Structure label was sold to Sears.

The Express look. 

In the late Eighties and through the Nineties, Express was the destination for sexy, fun, trendy styles, at good values. It was known for bestsellers, some of which continue to drive volume, including the Portofino top, the “downtown” cami, the Editor women’s pant, and the 1MX shirt for men. They will remain part of the assortment, though they will be updated. In some cases these key items are perceived now as commodities, not fashion, and will be presented in fewer styles or color choices, while newer fashion will represent a greater portion of the assortment, including current best-sellers such as feminine tops, refined blazers and denim with new leg shapes, and suits, denim and outerwear in men’s. Express denim tends to be cleaner in style and more tailored compared to other brands emphasizing torn, destructed and heavily embellished denim looks.

In 2007, Limited Brands sold a majority stake in Express to Golden Gate Capital Partners and in 2010, Express went public.

But for too long Express stuck with items and categories “past their point of relevance,” said Baxter. “We also stuck with an archaic approach to product and merchandising.”

A too-rigid lifestyle approach passed its point of relevance in a way that wasn’t in touch with how the consumer expects to experience a brand or how they want to shop. “We really commoditized a lot of our assortment. Many retailers have commoditized their assortments. If customers want commoditized assortments they have a whole lot of choices.”

Express has never been a go-to store for ath-leisure, which continues as a strong category in the otherwise wilting women’s market.

And on sustainability and social causes, Express hasn’t exactly been high-profile, though Baxter said, “We are predominantly working with our manufacturers on how to improve sustainability. There’s more to come,” on the subject.

“It was important for us to outline the total company strategy, which we have done. Now we need to align on philanthropy and what our philanthropic voice is going to be. We need to align on sustainability goals and what those are going to be. We are very aware that those things are important to address.”

Regarding ath-leisure, “We had great success in the fourth quarter,” Baxter said. “It was one of the categories we added for holiday to see whether it would be meaningful to the (Express) customer.” He said the product was “elevated, contemporary, modern” and that customers were presented with different ways to wear it. “She understood she could wear this sweater jogger with a great jacket and a T-shirt. But we showed many different ways you could infuse ath-leisure into a broader wardrobe. It goes back to versatility. Ath-leisure is a category that we will continue to experiment with, but you will see it in context of how it is a versatile component of a bigger wardrobe. It would be integrated into the five areas of The Express Edit. For example, in the “modern tailored” merchandise grouping for spring, Express will offer a men’s suit with an elastic waist jogger pant and a matching jacket.

“The reality is we will continue to see sequential improvement as we attack different pieces of the assortment, and as we pivot the assortment so there is a greater percentage of newness. We will see impact quickly but to see the full impact I think it does take almost a year.” He’s referring to next fall, roughly a year after his senior team was put in place and started to take action.

At Macy’s, Baxter was instrumental in directing the department store’s approach to attracting Millennials, as one of his responsibilities. At Express, “It isn’t about an age. I feel pretty passionate about that. It’s about mind-set, style preferences, lifestyles, choices and attitude. I know women who are 65 who have a greater propensity to buy a fashion trend than women who are 25.”

Express largely does have a younger customer, which Baxter acknowledged. “Where we are most attractive to a customer is where they are shifting from a life that’s based in education, to a career. That’s the time when we would like to get them into shopping the brand to help them build that wardrobe. To drive lifestyle. We believe that with what we are doing and how we are repositioning the brand, we can keep them.”

Based in Columbus, Ohio, Express has a design office in New York that creates products.

“When you talk about speed to market, what is most important to me is the ability to react quickly — concept through delivery,” said Baxter. “We had built into our go-to-market process a lot of layers of approvals and presentations. There were a lot of unnecessary management touch points, built late in the process.” Various functions, such as design, merchandising, marketing, planning and allocation and e-commerce, all need to be aligned “at concept,” Baxter said. The company was able to eliminate a lot of meetings by getting various areas aligned at concept. As a result, “We are going to reduce the amount of time it takes us to get product to consumer by 20 to 30 percent.

“We have also instituted an “Instabuy” process, Baxter added. “If a trend emerges, we have the ability now to work very closely with our manufacturing partners or with certain domestic partners to get that product in our stores and online very quickly, within two or three months.” With this process, Express buys product directly from suppliers, to be faster to market with current trends.

Baxter is also seeking to bring a consistent look to the stores. “I call it “Project Visine. It’s to take the red out. We have stores that are red and white. The storefronts are jarring. The color palate is wrong. We have been black and white for a very long time. For whatever reason, we went to this red and white thing for a while. It was a moment — a  100-store moment. We are going to get consistency across the fleet.”

The $2 billion Express operates about 600 stores and will be closing 100 by 2022. Nine of them closed in 2019, 31 will close by the end of this month, and 35 will close by the end of January 2021. The closings will result in a reduction of $90 million in sales by 2022.

Last week the company confirmed that 10 percent of the positions at the headquarters and at the design studio would be cut, amounting to about 100 slots. That cutback includes jobs currently filled and those that aren’t filled. The job losses were across the board in design, merchandising, marketing and production, and at various levels.

Express reported a $3.1 million loss for the third quarter ended Nov. 3, amid a 5 percent decline in comparable sales. For the fourth quarter, the retailer expects fourth-quarter earnings-per-share of $0.17 to $0.19 on an adjusted basis and comparable sales to be negative 3 percent. “New product for the fourth quarter sold very well. We just didn’t have enough of it,” Baxter told the investors and industry analysts at the meeting. However, Express expects to have about $200 million in cash by the end of fiscal 2019.

“The fact we are closing 100 stores does not mean we are not looking for opportunities to open new stores,” Baxter said. “I believe in brick-and-mortar retailing. I believe the customer is there and we need to make the experience better and that we can win with brick-and-mortar retailing. The customer is omnichannel.

“I know the headlines will be about fleet rationalization and the $80 million in cost reductions. I am proud we accomplished those things in a very short amount of time. It is a necessary reset. But they are part of a much more optimistic strategy going forward.”

The Express collection has a wide reach from occasion wear, to office attire and casual weekend. 

NEW ON BOARD THE EXPRESS

Tim Baxter, ceo, joined June 2019.

Malissa Akay, evp, chief merchandising officer, joined September 2019

Sara Tervo, evp, chief marketing officer, joined September 2019

Carlye Bills, svp, planning & allocation, joined September 2019

Aparna Tewari , svp, production & sourcing, joined January 2020

Brian Seewald, svp, e-commerce, joined January 2020

Michael Rengel, svp, men’s merchandising, joined January 2020

 

SOUNDBITES FROM TIM BAXTER

“The company has a new brand purpose to create confidence and inspire self-expression and edit the best of current fashion for real-life versatility.”

“Things change quickly and we didn’t. That’s the key,” to what went wrong at Express.

“This is an industry where you don’t have time.”

“Women’s specialty apparel retailers have just not moved forward at the same pace that the customer has moved forward. It’s boring…With the men’s business, alternatively, when you look at what happened over the last five years, you actually see a pretty dramatic increase in the amount of fashion and an increase in the number of men shopping for themselves. It hasn’t been boring. There has been innovation in fabric, in fit, in styling.”

Men’s suits have sold well at Express. 

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