At a hip event space in downtown Manhattan Target (TGT) in early August, Chief Merchant Mark Tritton was marveling at the merchandise from its three newly launched brands. From electronics to apparel, designed and manufactured by the retailer, the items ran a wide spectrum of categories aimed at a whole new cohort of potential customers.
They were: Heyday, its first proprietary electronics brand; Wild Fable, a low-cost clothing and accessories brand for teenage and young adult women; and Original Use, a male-focused brand with an urban feel.
Tritton, who came to Target from Nordstrom (JWN) two years ago with a mandate from CEO Brian Cornell to overhaul Target’s private brand business, a key ingredient in what sets it apart from Walmart and Amazon, has now overseen the genesis and launch of 12 Target brands, with more to come, an unprecedented pace for that chain.
“It’s core to who we are,” Tritton tells Fortune at Target’s Design Center in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. The company had let a number of its brands grow tired in recent years and getting the part of the business that makes Target ‘Tar-zhay’ back on track was key.
Luckily for Target, it’s always been quite good at creating a line-up of brands that are instantly recognizable by shoppers, even those who don’t frequent Target.
In just one year after launch in 2016, its kids’ apparel line Cat & Jack was a mammoth $2 billion brand, roughly as big as Lululemon Athletica. It has enjoyed similar success in home goods like Pillowfort, men’s clothes such as Goodfellow & Co (which has an unmistakable J.Crew feeling) and Opalhouse, an eclectic brand of home decor items.
“They’ve always been very good at understanding trend and being able to tailor the trend to their broad audience,” says Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail.
That has always been Target’s secret sauce: borrowing the best elements of department stores and applying it to a discount big box. Having unique products that have a strong enough identity for shoppers is essential to keep Target on the comeback trail: the retailer has reported a number of quarter of sales increases, and more importantly, store visit growth is picking up, thanks in large part to its store brands. Those recognizable names help a shopper who can buy Tide detergent at any number of store chains to choose Target because they can get something there they can’t elsewhere.
Now there is additional urgency to succeeding here with Amazon.com (AMZN) going all in with its own brands and Walmart entering the fray with purpose. Research by Coresite Research in December found that Amazon Fashion has grown to the point it now tied with Target as the second largest U.S. apparel seller with, 37.3% of Americans having shopped for clothes at there in the last month, just a few percentage points behind Walmart. (There was no data for home goods, another core part of Target’s private brand strategy.)
Others are doubling down too, seeing the need to have more exclusive product and more control over what they sell and when: Macy’s wants its private brands and other exclusive products to generate 40% of sales in a few years up from 29% last year, while J.C. Penney wants to take that up to 70% from about half now.
And this past winter, Walmart, long known for the most basic flair-free clothes, dramatically updated its apparel lines, with items like polo pique shirts and shorts with lobster logos, going well beyond the cheap basics and showcasing these brands at an event in Manhattan’s fashion district in an unusually high profile event for the chain. As Deanah Baker, Walmart’s senior vice president of apparel for Walmart’s U.S. division quipped to Fortune at the time, “I can’t make an outfit out of underwear, socks and tees.”
Of course, private brands for the sake of private brands is not a winning strategy. Shoppers have to want the items, and therefore retailers have to treat them like brands and not just items they sell.
TO WIN SOME, YOU GOTTA LOSE SOME
When Tritton got started, he found brands that were adrift, that encompassed too many items and themes and therefore didn’t stand out in shoppers’ minds. Take Merona and Mossimo: those enormous and once very popular brands felt dated. Rather than try to update them, Target decided to start from scratch and junk them, potentially losing billions in sales, but giving itself a clean slate.
“We took a long, hard look at our portfolio, and said, ‘This feels old, that feels dated,” says Tritton. And it’s hard to revitalize brands: look at how much J.C. Penney and Kohl’s have had to work to rejig their St. John’s Bay and Sonoma lines respectively.
Indeed, Kohl’s found a few years ago that it had gone too far in the direction of its own brands versus so-called national brands like Nike (NKE) and Levi’s after years of ramping up the percentage of sales from its own products, lured by the higher margins. (This week, it reported that its own brands had enjoyed their best quarter in five years.) Kohl’s has reversed course in the last two years and found great success in focusing on national brands, drawing in new ones for the chain like Under Armour, and finding the sweet spot in the breakdown of its brands and national brands was about half-half.
Changing up the merchandise is not enough on its own. To jazz up in-store shopping, Target has hired so called visual merchandisers to give an almost department store caliber presentation of its own brands with mannequins that showcase an outfit, rather than just stacking products in tall piles. And lest we forget, Target and others have erased layers of bureaucracy to facilitate all this.
Target as well as others have sped up production time, something easier to do with their own brands, so they can jump into, or out of, trends more quickly.
Streamlining brands also helps, so their identity doesn’t get muffled. Macy’s reduced its assortment within its private brands last year to focus on making the items that remain more remarkable, and eliminated duplication in different brands, adding embellishments and better fabrics, Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette recently told Fortune. “The gold standard is for a customer not to know a private brand is not a national brand.”
It might seem like splitting hairs to explain the difference between a private brand and a mere private label. But with the carnage in retail, particularly on the apparel side, there is ample opportunity for Tritton to grab for more market share. And entails focusing on giving its products true personality and not just pale imitations of national brands.
“We want to be great storytellers as retailers and that’s where retail is going,” says Tritton.