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Kohl’s bets on more activewear, fewer store brands to finally get back to growth

October 20, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC

On the eve of the pandemic’s outbreak in mid-March, Kohl’s had a new turnaround plan it wanted to unveil to Wall Street that it hoped would finally shake years of stagnation.

But the COVID-19 outbreak, which forced Kohl’s to close its stores for weeks, thwarted those plans, instead putting the retailer in survival mode as sales fell 33% in the first half of the fiscal year.

Now that business has stabilized—though far from returning to pre-pandemic levels—Kohl’s is unveiling its plan, which shifts it away from fashion, where it has stumbled, and further into activewear. The plan also calls for Kohl’s to lean more heavily on national brands like Nike and TOMS, as well as newer partners like Lands’ End and Cole Haan, and shed many of its store brands.

“The Kohl’s store and brand is going to look and feel different,” Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass tells Fortune. “Active and casual are going to be at the center of that.”

Apparel spending has been one of the biggest victims of the pandemic. Shielding Kohl’s from the worst of the clothing armageddon buffeting other department stores and specialty clothing chains is activewear from brands like Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas. Kohl’s wisely placed a big bet on sporty apparel after Gass joined Kohl’s in 2013. That category now generates 20% of Kohl’s sales and Gass thinks that can hit 30%.

While COVID-19 took a hammer to the business of many Kohl’s rivals— notably bankrupting mall-based J.C. Penney and decimating Macy’s—other competitors have fared much better, adding to the pressure on Kohl’s to finally get back to growth.

Having 95% of stores away from malls helped it avoid from much of the ravages felt by Penney and Macy’s. Yet as a strip-mall based chain, Kohl’s is going up against very strong competitors in Target, Ulta Beauty, Dick’s Sporting Goods and T.J. Maxx.

Gap Inc’s Old Navy chain, which competes directly with Kohl’s for the business of young American mothers, among other demographics, saw a sales decline much smaller than Kohl’s, while Target reported an increase in apparel and home goods sales.

And this has forced Kohl’s to rethink its merchandise strategy and what makes it appealing to shoppers. While Kohl’s isn’t alone in selling athleisure, it has carved out a niche by focusing on such items for the whole family and not just women. “We can own that space,” says Gass. Kohl’s is also testing out new ideas, like personal care products, at 50 stores. “It may or may not work—we’re really stretching the boundaries of where we can go and take this active and casual lifestyle,” Gass adds.

For years, Kohl’s bet heavily on store brands, which offer higher profit margins, more control, and ideally, something customers want—but can’t get elsewhere. Kohl’s problem is that too many of its store brands grew stale, particularly in apparel. That weakness stands in stark contrast to Target’s remarkable ability to quickly launch new brands that send consumers flocking.

Kohl’s has so far ditched eight of its exclusive brands, including JLO, Rock & Republic and Dana Buchman, with more exits to come, even as it has lined up more national brands, like Lands’ End and Cole Haan. The retailer now gets 37% of sales from its exclusive brands in apparel and other categories, down from more than half just a few years ago. “We will be more focused,” Gass said of the paring of brands.

Beauty call

Kohl’s has been trying for years to become a serious player in the beauty sector after having ceded it to Macy’s and J.C. Penney, which houses Sephora shops. In fact, building a sizable beauty was a linchpin of Kohl’s “Greatness Agenda” in 2014, with the company hoping beauty would grow from 2% of sales then to 5% in short order, helped by so-called “beauty concierges.” While Kohl’s has shown strength in fragrance, beauty has not yielded the upside the company planned on, as it has faced stiff competition from strip mall neighbors Target and Ulta Beauty, and to a lesser extent CVS and Walgreens.

Kohl’s is now planning beauty shops three times the size of its current ones, staffed with beauty advisors. The category is crucial to solving a riddle that has bedeviled Kohl’s for years: how to get more shoppers to come to store and indulge, rather than just popping into the store for a quick in-and-out trip.

A big part of its plan is to keep building its e-commerce business. Online shopping, which accounted for nearly a quarter of sales pre-pandemic, spiked to as much as 40% at the peak of the pandemic. Ultimately, it’s expected to settle in somewhere in the middle of those two percentages.

In-store, Kohl’s will reduce its assortment within some brands as much as 40%. It will shrink its offering of handbags, fine jewelry, and men’s suits—areas that have seen sales decline—making space to increase inventory of healthier categories.

“That gives us the flexibility to lean into growth categories, test, learn, iterate—kill what’s not working, scale what is,” says Gass. And hopefully finally yield that long elusive growth.