While it’s not couture, the mass channel has more power over the fashion industry than most people realize.
“The map of retailing has changed dramatically in the last few decades,” Gerald Storch, chief executive officer of Storch Advisors, a retail advisory firm and the former vice chairman of Target, told WWD. “The bulk of business is done through a very small number of retailers. Walmart and Target are by far the largest retailers now, and you can add Costco in there and of course Amazon and the internet. And they call the shots.”
The mass channel’s popularity is a combination of convenience and value in everything from apparel to furniture, essentials to food to electronics. But those industry standards also trickle down to consumers — and not just in terms of lower prices.
When Target and Walmart said masks were optional for vaccinated consumers and employees (on an honor basis) earlier this year as the coronavirus vaccine continued to roll out, several competitors quickly followed suit, whether they liked it or not. Many did so in an attempt to keep shoppers in stores that already had declining traffic.
Then late this summer, Target and Walmart were among the first within the retail industry to reverse course. Both firms updated their mask recommendations after the Centers for Disease Control urged everyone — even vaccinated individuals — to wear masks inside public spaces on account of the Delta variant’s rapid movement across the country. Other fashion retailers followed.
Same goes for offering vaccines in stores, giving incentives to those who receive the vaccine, offering to fund college tuition to eligible associates, gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, promoting sustainability, elevating Black-owned brands in stores and even offering a more expansive assortment of styles and sizes. Target and Walmart have been on board for all of these things — although they have been widely criticized for not moving fast enough and not doing a lot more in these and other areas — causing competitors to at least examine their own policies.
Although some mass-channel merchants are gradually raising their minimum wages, rather than in one quick swoop — and receiving pushback for it — last summer and in February, both Target and Walmart, respectively, said they would increase their floor wage to $15 an hour over time. (Walmart said earlier this month that it would increase its minimum wage by $1 an hour for more than half a million people, effective Sept. 25, upping the average hourly wage to $16.40.)
This summer, Lululemon, Under Armour and Tapestry, parent to Coach and Kate Spade, followed suit, revealing similar plans to increase their minimum wages to $15 an hour.
Real estate is another hot topic. While many retailers continue to shutter stores, Target is among the handful to say it’s opening more — but in new, smaller formats, helping attract younger consumers in urban areas and college towns. Last year Target opened 30 stores and said recently that it has plans to open more this year in locations such as New York City, Hawaii and next to Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
Express took the formula to heart, revealing recently that it would likely increase its Express Edit stores, or smaller stores with a more curated assortment in high-traffic areas, from five to around 10 by the end of the year with the goal of increasing customer acquisition and prompting lapsed consumers to return to the brand to see what’s new.
Target, Walmart and Costco are also leaders when it comes to using solar energy in stores and facilities, long before sustainability became the latest buzzword.
In addition, both Walmart and Target have pledged to donate tens of millions of dollars to organizations that fight racial inequalities and focus on issues affecting Black communities, since many of their employees — at least in stores and distribution centers — are people of color. And while the majority of the retailers’ management remains white, both Target and Walmart, like many companies, have vowed to increase representation of people of color in both stores and leadership positions, while also increasing representation of people of color in both stores and leadership positions.
But the big-box retailers’ ability to stay ahead of the curve also extends to what consumers want to buy. Target launched its popular All In Motion activewear line — which came in sizes XS to 4X for women, small to 3X for men, and XS to XXL for kids at launch — before the start of the pandemic and the fitness boom kicked into overdrive. Less than a year later, the retailer revealed the venture had been quite lucrative, helping rack in a billion dollars in annual revenues.
Walmart, meanwhile, rolled out Eloquii Elements in sizes 14 to 28 last fall and added PSK Collective, the activewear brand created by World Rugby Hall of Famer Phaidra Knight, to its online assortment earlier this year.
Old Navy, owned by Gap Inc., is just one national brand to follow suit, expanding its size range of women’s apparel to 0 up to size 28 in all stores (30 online) this summer. Victoria’s Secret now has plus-size mannequins in stores and promised to soon offer larger sizes, while dozens of other indie brands and start-ups are conforming to a new baseline of extended sizing.
Fashion retailers, including Tapestry, American Eagle Outfitters and Kay Jewelers, have also taken a cue from the mass channel, adding drive-up services, such as curbside pickups — once reserved for grocery stores and big-box players — for apparel purchases during the pandemic.
Part of the mass channel’s strength comes from each company’s sheer size — Target has a market cap of about $122 billion and about 1,900 stores, while Walmart’s market cap is more than $410 billion with roughly 10,500 stores around the world — forcing competitors to follow their leads, even if somewhat reluctantly.
The multi-billion question then is, what will they do next? And what influence will they have over other retailers?
Earlier this year, after Target said it would invest $4 billion annually to grow its ecosystem, the move was met with skepticism from the investment community. But it is one that will be equally watched by the competition to see if it pays off.
“The days when department stores set the pace are long past,” Storch said. “Department stores have lost mass and market share and really are relative cul-de-sacs on the landscape of retailing right now. The mass merchants, they have all the volume; they have all the customers — all constituents: customers, vendors and shareholders. That’s where the action is right now. So, they’re going to set the direction for a long time.”