Exclusive: Kohl’s CEO puts comeback plan into high gear

September 17, 2014, 7:20 PM UTC
Joel Johnson

Kohl’s has lost its mojo, and CEO Kevin Mansell has a plan for getting it back.

Up until a few years ago, Kohl’s (KSS) was one of the fastest-growing companies in retail history, winning over legions of shoppers with popular, affordable brands, good customer service and neat, well laid-out stores away from malls and closer to where shoppers live.

Then somewhere along the way, the mid-tier department store lost its way, culminating with comparable sales declines in 2013 that have continued into this year, along with shrinking profits.

Kohl’s CEO Kevin Mansell concedes the company caused many of its own problems. Among them: inadvertently sending customers to competitors by missing out on exploding areas of retail such as beauty and a card rewards program that didn’t reach enough of its customers.

So now, Mansell, a 32-year company veteran and CEO since 2008, is looking to kickstart growth through what he calls Kohl’s “Greatness Agenda,” which is as much about giving executives a framework for their thinking as it is about specific initiatives.

“I’ve likened it a lot internally to how Kohl’s developed its original personality: the brands-value-convenience premise,” Mansell told Fortune in an exclusive interview. “We knew we needed to create a new path forward.”

That new path forward entails a number of initiatives that are in many ways standard practice at many retailers already but which are showing early signs they’ll give Kohl’s the boost it needs.

For one thing, Kohl’s is speeding up the rollout of brand new beauty shops within its stores because of early promising results. It is also launching a new loyalty program next month so it can personalize offers, and making it available to any of its customers, not just Kohl’s card holders. Yet another component has been to shift more of its focus back on national brands such as Carter’s kids wear and Nike (NKE) even though its private collections are highly profitable.

For Kohl’s, it is crucial these efforts succeed: shoppers are as bargain-hungry as ever and have shown they are happy to take their business elsewhere. And the retailer is up against tough rivals, particularly a resurgent J.C. Penney (JCP) and an aggressive Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), at a time of chronic shopper malaise.

Kohl’s, founded near Milwaukee in 1962, enjoyed breathtaking growth for years: Kohl’s grew from 79 stores in 1992, when it became a publicly traded company, to nearly 1,150 two decades later, often by snapping up locations abandoned by shrinking rivals like Kmart and now-defunct ones like Mervyn’s. Between 2002 and 2012, revenues more than doubled, reaching an all-time high of $19.3 billion. By in 2010, cracks began to appear: sales per square foot, a key measure of a retailer’s health, started falling, a performance all the more disappointing given the bleeding at competitors like Penney and Sears (SHLD).

After years of massive expansion, many retail analysts weren’t sure Kohl’s knew how to increase revenue without the benefit of opening new stores. (In the last year, it has only added five stores.)

So about a year ago, Mansell and other top Kohl’s executives started formulating this new multi-year strategy. Now it’s showtime.

On the comeback trail

Of all of Kohl’s current efforts, perhaps none is more representative of what it is trying to achieve than its big push into beauty.

On a recent visit to a Kohl’s in Brooklyn, New York, near Coney Island, one could find products gathered in a 700-square-foot beauty department in a prominent location within the store, staffed with four dedicated associates. It boasted exclusive cosmetics brands like Flirt and Elle, in addition to national brands like Lorac and Cargo. Before the makeover, Kohl’s had a far more limited beauty section, and items were given an unremarkable presentation.

While the effort might seem like Kohl’s is just trying to mimic Penney’s massive success with its Sephora stores—those generate $600 per square foot a year, nearly four times the overall Penney average —the company says early results show it is paying off: such beauty sections in higher-volume (more than $15 million a year) Kohl’s stores have helped those locations’ comparable sales beat the chain’s average by 2 percentage points.

The segment currently only accounts for about 2% of overall sales, but the company says that could grow to 5% in the next few years. Kohl’s started out the year with beauty sections at 280 of its stores and should get to about 900 by the end of next year. The calculus is that more beauty will mean more traffic in Kohl’s stores.

“Our core customer is a regular purchaser of beauty products, and she doesn’t buy them at Kohl’s, which means that visit is going somewhere else,” Mansell said. The beauty expansion will also serve as a template for further new merchandising initiatives, he added.

Another misstep Mansell’s new strategy seeks to fix is the overly large focus on Kohl’s private and exclusive collections. They now generate about 52% of sales, compared to about 30% in 2005. (At Macy’s, (M) they account for some 25% of sales.)

Private collections offer higher profit margins, and in many cases, such as Kohl’s Simply Vera Very Wang and Jennifer Lopez lines, have been big hits. But they also have overshadowed Kohl’s assortments of national brands like Nike and Levi Strauss — which collectively for the last four quarters have outperformed Kohl’s in-house brands in terms of comparable sales, and are key to generating store visits.

“We know that we have slipped with consumers in the perception of Kohl’s as a place to get great national brands,” Mansell said, pointing to the need to find a more balanced mix. Still, new exclusive lines, such as its recently launched Juicy Couture apparel collection, will remain an important part of its merchandising.

A big piece of Kohl’s strategy is the loyalty program it is launching next month. Rather than being available solely to Kohl’s store card holders, as its current awards program is, which Mansell said is ill-suited at a time many consumers can’t qualify for credit or simply prefer to use other means of payment like cash or another credit card, the loyalty card will be open to any Kohl’s shopper, regardless of payment method. The loyalty program, launching nationwide in October after successful testing in some select markets, will give Kohl’s a much bigger trove of the data it needs so it can make personalized offers based on a shopper’s habits and tastes.

There is a growing sense on Wall Street that Kohl’s is finally starting to get its form back and these initiatives will help: Kohl’s shares have been trading around a 52-week high.

“They’re probably in the best position they’ve been in five years,” said Brian Yarbrough, an analyst with Edward Jones. Still, Kohl’s knows it is not out of the woods yet—after all comparable sales are down 2.3% so far this year.

“Beauty is successful, and it’s rolling out really quickly,” Mansell said. “But we need more.”

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