Ralph is the Greatest!

ralph_lauren_store_frontOk, I confess, I am in love with Ralph Lauren. Not the man, whom I’ve seen up close only once, but the brand, which I think is by far the greatest and most iconic American brand in the both the retail and apparel space and beyond. Ralph Lauren has created a world in which his brand lives. The brand is referred to as “The World of Ralph Lauren.” This is how the company refers to it, and, this is how we, as consumers, have been educated, by Ralph to think about and experience the brand. The World of Ralph Lauren is a place of elegance and luxury, of classic and rugged American style. The World of Ralph Lauren has its roots in a rich and glamorous American past. In an old world “WASP” lifestyle with touches of the American West; of polo players and yachts; of country houses, of Palm Beach, Nantucket, Southampton and the Maine coast; of old-school Boston and the New York establishment; of the Virginia hunt country and the ski slopes of Colorado, Utah and Idaho.  The World of Ralph Lauren presents very specific images of effortless and timeless style and taste. It is not pure fantasy. The images are rooted in an other-worldly reality that some people have actually lived. Picture the extended Kennedy family tossing a football in Hyannis on a fall afternoon, and then dressing for dinner at Downton Abbey. [Read more...]

A Secret (Sensual) Garden

tropicalFor more than 40 years, I’ve been making the pilgrimage to the greenhouses on the campus of Wellesley College. Named for the eminent Horticulturist Margaret Ferguson, the 16 interconnected greenhouses contain some 1500 different types of plants. The Brooklyn and Bronx Botanical Gardens may be bigger in size, but they cannot match the solitude and accessibility of this facility. It is as fast and inexpensive a world tour of nature as you can pack into 7200 square feet. As a troubled teenager in Massachusetts, I’d visit the “tropics” on a cold winter afternoon and experience the rich smells of my youth spent living in Asia. It was as close to the sentiments of The Mamas & the Papas in California Dreaming as I could get.

The greenhouses, then and now, contain rare collections of caudiciforms, mangroves, floating aquatics and my favorite, carnivorous plants. The Desert, Tropic, Hydrophytes and Fern greenhouses are distinctly different climate zones where the look, scent, feel and touch are as sensual and distinctive as any environment I’ve ever experienced. Each is a temple to the synergy of contemplation and botany. [Read more...]

Shoes Are Complicated

shoes_featuredShoes are not that easy to buy. Or wear. If you find the style you like they are often out of stock in your size, don’t fit, are uncomfortable or too expensive. Shoes are the one item of clothing I almost never purchase on sale. Well, I do try to find shoes on sale especially at the twice-yearly Bergdorf markdowns when the high-end shoe department on the second floor of that usually staid and elegant emporium is turned into a partially self-serviced frenzy for a few weeks. But, for me, the calculus of a shoe sale doesn’t work. It is just too difficult because there are so many variables. Like most consumers, I am looking for style, fit and comfort. Especially now, as heels have risen to ever greater heights; five-inch stilettos are de rigueur among stylish women (myself excluded from that category). Finding a shoe that is comfortable, fashionable and fits at the price you want to pay is a tricky business.

Today, we ladies need shoes for every occasion, function and style. A range of sport-specific athletic shoes; mud covered outdoor shoes for gardening and general mucking out; business and evening shoes in a variety of heel heights, colors, finishes and textures for different outfits and occasions; sandals, also in a variety of heel heights; rubber flip-flops, the go-to, all purpose beach and summer shoe; boots for all varieties of weather and fashion in various lengths and heel heights, leathers, patents or suedes; slippers and slip-ons for at-home wear. It seems that only yoga, practiced barefoot, requires no footwear at all.

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Mike Gould, Unplugged

Michael_Gould_RRAn Interview with Robin Lewis

Robin Lewis What do you think about the economy, how do you think it will be for the rest of the year?

Mike Gould I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m always cautiously optimistic. You know, we’re in a business that if you’re a retailer and you’re not optimistic, you’re not a retailer. It doesn’t work. One of my beliefs, and one that I always tell the Bloomingdale’s team, is that my role is balancing hope and reality.

Where are our opportunities that are driving the business, and what is the reality of the moment? So to me, I think there are some really bright things in the economy right now. But I also think it goes back to the great comment by Charles Swindoll who said, Life is 10% what’s given you; 90% how you want to deal with it.”

For example, let’s take last March. It turns out to be the coldest March we’ve had in, I don’t know how many years, up against the warmest March in 100 years, a year ago. All right, that’s the 10% given us. So do we want to talk about that? Do we want to complain about it? It won’t do us any good. But that’s the 10%. So how you want to deal with it, that’s the 90%. So what do I think? I think there are so many good things out there right now. The Stock Market is obviously, touch wood, in terrific straits. The S&P is at an all-time high. The housing market has had an incredible comeback. Our car sales are at a high point over quite some period of time; so, you have to say there are a lot of good things going on. [Read more...]

Rules of Engagement

Cotton’s 24-Hour Runway Show and Push-Pull 2.0

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Click to See Chart Full-Sized

The retail universe has long-since expanded beyond the confines of physical floor space and time. Online retail outlets have made shopping a 24-hour option for brands with or without brick-and-mortar complements. Brand marketing, too, is now a brave new digital world in which presence and consumer engagement are essential cogs in the machine. To succeed, there must be a synchronicity of disparate channels that encompass traditional advertising, digital advertising, social media and most importantly, the often-unpredictable consumer.

Hyper-dimensional marketing, or Push-Pull 2.0, plucks multiple messaging strings in the hopes of striking a chord with consumers. In traditional push-and-pull strategy, push referred to offering incentives to the supply chain, and consumer marketing was the pull. Today, Facebook, Twitter and the like, have shifted the strategic emphasis squarely on the consumer; push is now defined as brand outreach to the consumer, and pull is their outreach to the brand. The objective is to enthusiastically engage the co

nsumer in the brand experience; to have them participate, promote, and eventually purchase. [Read more...]

The Green Marketing Act

cell phone sales_greenYou got rid of the landline three years ago because two-thirds of your calls were from telemarketers. Then you downgraded your cable service wondering why you were paying so much for so little. Now you watch stuff on your Tablet and laptop more and more. And when the price of a New York Times went up to $2.50, you decided to read news online from a wider variety of sources, and like it decidedly better.

Today, you live a new kind of life than you did five years ago. You have several e-mail addresses so that you can filter the spam. The snail mail is more than 90% junk so you’ve even stopped opening it; the envelope gets a glance and often gets chucked. When you drive, it’s commercial-free Satellite Radio since traditional ads, with their crazy voices and incoherent offerings, drive you crazy. You loved Marc Gobé’s film, This Space Available, downgrading billboards, and outdoor media in general, to visual pollutant status. You take a pleasure in buying the store’s house brand, not because you have to, but because the ‘superiority’ of branded products is something you seriously question. We watch commercials at the Super Bowl and Oscars for the entertainment value and once in a while on YouTube; the rest of the time you conspire to avoid them. [Read more...]


iStock_000000315739_ExtraSmallAnd if You Believe It, I “Have a Bridge to Sell You.”

Hogwash is a great word, as I was reminded by my colleague, Judy Russell, CEO of consultancy Markethink. First used in the 15th Century, it referred to swill, slop, nonsense and balderdash. And it’s particularly appropriate when describing the findings of a recent study conducted by none other than the Boston Consulting Group, as well an earlier survey conducted by NPD in the fall of last year.

Up front and to be clear, I am not attaching the “hogwash” description to the methodology, and how the research was conducted by these two revered institutions; and not even the accuracy of the findings. I am describing as “hogwash” what the findings indicate would be consumer behavior in making a purchasing decision based on patriotism and a “made in America” label over price. [Read more...]

The 10 Commandments of Home

tencommandmentsTO: Ron Johnson, Plano, TX
FROM: A Higher Authority
RE: The Way to the Promised Land

Cecil B. DeMille, where are you now that we need you?

The expedition that Ron Johnson is leading the Penney-ites on will not last 40 years – he’ll be lucky if he gets 40 months – but in just about every other way, the trek is of biblical proportions. Johnson is trying to free one of the most enslaved retailers in the business from what seems an eternity of lackluster merchandising, dysfunctional buying and a generally disjointed business strategy that seems to go in every direction but forward.

Frogs and pestilence have nothing on this saga.

Whether he can lead the company to the Promised Land remains to be seen. Frankly, 2012 was just a warm-up and the real test comes this year when JCP has to start anniversarying its lame numbers that started last February. If they can’t beat those comps, Bill Ackman – the hedge fund honcho who has been manipulating this whole thing from the other side of the balance sheet – is going to show why patience is not one of his virtues and there’ll no doubt be a new

sheriff in Plano before long. So, as Johnson tries to part the retail seas and find a route for JCP to succeed, I say it is his Home business that is going to help lead the way. More so than at any other national general merchandise retailer, JCP Home is a larger percentage of overall sales, led by soft home. That has always been a core strength of what those in the trade still call “The Penney Company,” and regardless of the name over the front door these days, if Home doesn’t work, JCP doesn’t work. [Read more...]

Michael Kors – A Tale of Two Brands

MK_Charm-01I’ve long been a Michael Kors fan, buying gorgeous double-faced wool dresses on sale at Bergdorf Goodman or in the Michael Kors store on Madison Avenue—only at 70% or more off, after Christmas and in the early summer.

These dresses, and some pants, skirts, jackets and wonderful cashmere sweaters, are lined up like so many soldiers in my closet ready for almost any outing. The styles remain basically the same year-in and year-out. Beautiful fabrics such as the double-faced wool, along with heavier wools and tweeds, matte jersey, raw silk, satin, and cotton twill for summer. All styled classically and elegantly. Feminine. Flattering. Simple sleeveless sheaths and separates with some accessories, handbags and shoes to round out the collection. Wearable, luxurious, classic American style.

But now, since Michael Kors has gone public, the positioning of a lower tiered line, Michael by Michael Kors, into a global lifestyle brand seems a distinctly different brand proposition and one that is, perhaps, at odds with the couture line. Of additional concern is the thought that the couture line has suffered as a result of the greater attention to, and investment in, the lifestyle brand.

The lifestyle brand is designed and merchandised for a different and younger customer who likely has never seen, heard of, or cared about the Michael Kors collection or its understated, classic American positioning and style. These customers know Michael Kors from his successful appearance on Project Runway; from Michael Kors advertising; and from Michael Kors licensed watches, handbags and small leather goods featuring a prominently displayed MK logo in shiny brassy, brass. The new Michael Kors brand is described by management as a “global luxury lifestyle brand with a multi-channel strategy, unique design and strong infrastructure…a compelling assortment of luxury merchandise and exceptional service in a Jet Set store environment.”

The term “Jet Set” appears often in company communications. As a child of the 60’s when ‘Jet Set’actually meant something—picture Princess Margaret flying off to Mustique, Bianca Jagger going anywhere. And before international travel became so much more like getting on a bus at the Port Authority than departing in style at the Eero Saarinen designed TWA terminal at Kennedy— “Jet Set” was defined as: “An international social set made up of wealthy people who travel from one fashionable place to another.” [Read more...]

Q&A with Ed Schlossberg, Founder & Principal of ESI Design

Robin Lewis: What in the world was Best Buy thinking when they discontinued their Studio D and Escape small store concepts several years ago? You designed these neighborhood boutiques to customize these stores for specific niche demographics and lifestyles. What’s the backstory on this?

Ed Schlossberg: I had this idea in 1998 to do something called a Digital Playground. I thought if these technology companies were going to be successful, they needed to let people play using digital stuff so that they could see what would work. So I made a presentation to Brad Anderson who was CEO of Best Buy, and he said, ‘This is fantastic, we would love to do this.’ He hired us to design the first Digital Playground. It took some time to get it going. When Brad hired James Damien as their visual merchant, he was really excited about it, and we kind of became his team.

RL: What was the design strategy?
ES: Each store was designed and imagined differently, with customized merchandising and service strategies, and all were highly educational. Our design strategy was to work from the customer’s perspective into the design and not from the product or store out to the customer. It was to create a model based on the needs and interests of the customer and then create a way to meet those needs in the store using physical design, staff, virtual tools and an online component. [Read more...]

lululemon: A Cult, a Phenomenon or Just a Great Brand

The Robin Report - lululemon

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A few years ago, I noticed a woman in Central Park with what I thought was a tag or store sticker on the outside of her pants. “You still have the tag on your pants,” I told her as I passed her on the track. “That is the label, it belongs there!” she explained. This was the first time I noticed the Lululemon brand icon. The logo is featured on pant legs in a way that looks like it was stuck there. An rounded A shape that appears like an upside down U, it is inconspicuous, but, for those in the know, it is the sign of membership in what is one of today’s most powerful brands.

Lululemon was founded in 1998 in Vancouver, British Columbia by Chip Wilson, a 20-year veteran of the surf, skate and snowboard business, who noted a need for a more technical and performance-based product after he took, and loved, his first yoga class. Wilson, now a Forbes ranked ‘Yoga Billionaire,’ stepped down from his role as CEO and passed the reins to Christine Day, a former Starbucks executive. Wilson remains Chairman. Together Wilson and Day hold approximately 32% of the company’s outstanding shares. “We like that management has skin in the game,” a Morningstar report noted recently.

Lululemon opened its first store in 2000. The company now has 147 stores in North America. Lululemon is one of the fastest growing companies in the retail and apparel space and is outperforming the industry on almost every level. Lululemon management is projecting FY 2012 growth of 25% with same store sales growth at 25% and direct to consumer growth, which accounts for 14% of sales of 179%. Last year the company reached a billion dollars in sales; this year the company is projecting revenue in the range of $1.3 billion. And it holds no debt. [Read more...]

QA with Eric C. Wiseman, Chairman, President and CEO of VF Corporation

The Robin Report - Eric WisemanROBIN LEWIS So, right off the bat, how the heck can one person run a $10 to $12 billion company?

ERIC WISEMAN You can’t! VF has been, and I hope always will be, a team sport. When I look at the leadership teams around VF there’s no question that we have really talented people, but we don’t have “superstars.” What we do have is people who work extremely well together, who compliment each others talents, and who are committed to the teams success. That dynamic drives whatever success we’ve had. And, since you know me pretty well, you obviously know that I’m not capable of “running” VF….if I was I’d have a much different balance in my life.

RL So, Eric, the numbers on VF under your watch as CEO speak for themselves, and they would say you’re doing a great job.

EW For about five years now, since we’ve changed directions corporately, we’ve been executing on the right things. So, when you execute against the right things it generally works for you.

RL Going into the last half of this year against a rather negative global and U.S. economic backdrop, do you want to revise your earlier 15% growth projection for 2012, or at least hedge your bets, and if so, in what areas of the business? [Read more...]