Walmart (WMT) is hardly known for its fashions but the discount retailer is hoping that will change at least a bit with the launch of four new house brands.
Seeing an opening in the market with the difficulties of many specialty apparel chains like J.Crew and The Gap, and a slight shift away from clothing by department stores, Walmart on Tuesday unveiled four brands: Time and Tru for women; Terra & Sky for plus-size women’s apparel; Wonder Nation for kids; and a major overhaul of its George apparel brand, imported from its British Asda chain. (The brands replace older Walmart labels Faded Glory, White Stag, and Just My Size.)
The move reflects Walmart’s bigger play for middle class shoppers with more inviting apparel beyond the basics (jeans, underwear, socks, and t-shirts) its customers have long favored, both in-store and online.
The brands’ launch in a sleek Manhattan showroom at an event for the fashion and business media comes at a time arch-rival Target (TGT) has also launched new brands such as its successful Cat & Jack, and Amazon.com’s (AMZN) apparel sales keep growing. A recent report by researcher Coresight Research found Amazon and Target tied as the second-most popular clothing U.S. retailer behind Walmart.
To better compete, Walmart decided it had to go beyond the basics and add style, fabric types, and better presentation to inspire shoppers rather than just displaying items on the store floor, Deanah Baker, senior vice president of apparel for Walmart U.S., told Fortune. For instance, some items in the Time and Tru line have lyocell (related to rayon) to give it a softer feel, even though that costs more than cotton. There is more embroidery in some items, and stretch in others.
“We really wanted to land in the place where we had all of the relevant trends of the season that she can mix and match into a lot of different looks,” Baker said. According to a Walmart presentation Bloomberg News obtained earlier this month, Walmart’s assortment will be 10% trendier fare and updated every three months, 40% will be “fashion basics” updated less frequently and the rest will be basic.
That means Walmart is not trying to position itself as a fashion house. Walmart went down that road unsuccessfully before in 2011 and later closed a New York design office.
These efforts don’t exist in a vacuum at Walmart. The company has bought brands such as Bonobos, Modcloth, and Moosejaw in the last year as it looks to improve its online clothing offering. (Denise Incandela, a former Saks Fifth Avenue executive, oversees Walmart’s e-commerce fashion business.) It is also gearing up to open an online store for HBC’s (HBC) Lord & Taylor department store chain. But last week, Walmart startled investors when it reported a sharp slowdown in online sales growth, adding urgency to these efforts.
Each of Walmart’s four brands will have its own landing page. The improved presentation will also be apparent in stores. At 1,000 Walmart locations, the chain is remodeling the apparel areas, with new apparel floors, the removal of walls and creation of more space between racks along with new fitting rooms, and a brighter environment, Baker said. These are touches more commonly found in higher-end stores than a big-box general merchant.
Walmart is going after a bigger share of the apparel market at a time when it’s shrinking as a percentage of consumer spending. But as chains like J.C. Penney (JCP) look to reduce their reliance on apparel by offering items like appliances and many clothing chains languish because of a surfeit and sameness of merchandise that has sent prices way down, Walmart likely sees an opportunity to take another stab at more stylish clothing than mere socks and tidy whities.