NEW YORK — Supermarkets are dressing up their general merchandise offerings.

Seeing the success of their British counterparts in selling apparel and other soft goods, some North American supermarkets have experimented with merchandising these categories in traditional stores. The latest effort is from Loblaws, based in Brampton, Ontario, which recently launched Joe Fresh Style in its larger stores.

The response to Loblaws’ apparel line far surpassed original forecasts. “It’s exceeding quite extensively what our original estimates were for performance and the customer response has been much greater than we anticipated,” said Louise Drouin, Loblaws’ senior vice president of hard and soft goods, in an interview.

Named Joe Fresh Style after designer Joseph Mimran, the name behind the Club Monaco and Cabin labels in addition to Holt Renfrew fashions, the line was introduced last month at 40 of Loblaws’ 80 superstores across Canada.

The collection includes 300 items for men and women with a top price of $34 for a lady’s trenchcoat. The average price for the line, which is predominantly manufactured in China and India, is around $12.

For most supermarkets, soft goods represents an “in-and-out opportunity” for items such as leather jackets and women’s handbags of increasingly better quality and variety. But many retailers and observers wonder if it’s time for stores to move beyond the traditional mix of hosiery and undergarments that comprises their permanent merchandise sets.

“There is a potential for selling more soft goods in supermarkets as a way to differentiate from other formats,” said Jon Hauptman, vice president of consultancy Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill. Hauptman cited Loblaws’ Joe Fresh Style line as a way to “keep people at their stores as opposed to going to supercenters or other formats, where they certainly will be stocking up for foods.”

In an environment where everybody is looking for growth, “getting into new categories and adjusting what you stand for is a good idea, and I think soft goods can be one of the ways that a supermarket can help stand apart,” Hauptman said.

“You’re going to see more soft goods in the food class of trade,” predicted Mike Lumadue, director of health and beauty and general merchandise at Weis Markets, Sunbury, Pa. “If a chain like Wal-Mart can sell general merchandise, why can’t a food store sell soft goods and general merchandise?”

This story first appeared in the May 8, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Weis successfully ran a white sale, including towels, comforters, sheets and pillows, he said.

The stores of Penn Traffic Co., Syracuse, N.Y., do well with apparel and domestics, said Mike O’Shell, the retailer’s director of general merchandise and health and beauty. “If we have good-quality items priced very fair, the customers will pick them up instead of making that extra run to Wal-Mart,” he said. Sports promotions, such as Pittsburgh Steelers apparel and novelty items after they won the Super Bowl, do very well, he added.

“We have done three different manufacturers of coats and jackets, and it comes down to negotiating the right deal and merchandising it correctly. Just piling stuff on a table doesn’t work,” he said.

“You have to hang it, you have to merchandise it, you have to sign it. The customer has to be able to determine in a relatively short amount of time while they are shopping that it’s a heck of a value,” O’Shell said. “We can definitely sell jackets and coats.”

Retailers need to consider the option of going beyond underwear and socks, and merchandise more upscale soft goods, said Roy White, the New York-based vice president of education for the Educational Foundation of GMDC, Colorado Springs. “Seasonal merchandising allows you to do that. The tickets in seasonal merchandising, particularly for supermarkets, have been generally increasing,” he said.

“Over the last five years, there have been some opportunities for grocery stores to come in with some really nice soft goods — everything from clothing apparel to blankets and licensed products, home fashion — and, as a retailer, that has been good for us,” said a general merchandise executive with a West Coast chain. “You can only design a value-priced T-shirt or Hawaiian shirt so many ways. We’re trying to continually raise the quality of that product,” he said.

In supermarkets, “there’s more soft goods than ever before because it’s successful,” said former supermarket nonfood executive John Tucker, president of VAM Corp., a Southboro, Mass.-based supplier. “People used to laugh at selling soft goods in supermarkets, but they’re not laughing any longer because it’s happening.”