All the recent hubbub over a certain Connecticut homemaker’s image and brand is only the tip of a major merchandising movement that is starting to consume the home furnishings field. As national brands continue to recede from the category—they are pretty much null and void in soft home categories, like sheets and towels, and hold a tenuous position at best in some smallappliance and housewares classifications—the ascendency of private and captured brands is nearing unprecedented levels.
The spectrum goes from the extreme of Kohl’s where virtually the entire home department is proprietarily branded, to stores like Target, and now Penney, where soft home is all private and hard home is mostly national brands—to ones like Macy’s and Bed Bath & Beyond where the assortments are still…well, assorted.
To Brand or Not to Brand
Some background perspective first: The interplay between national brands and private ones goes back a long, long way in the home business. Sears built the foundation of its very business on the backs of its Kenmore and Craftsman labels. The Supremacy brand at Macy’s —certainly one of the most clever, if somewhat contrived labels anyone has ever come up with—was a mainstay on 34th Street long before Charter Club and Inc. turned up.
And the early generations of discount stores had no choice but to develop private labels due to the fact that they were locked out of the national brand arena by department stores not at all anxious to be kind to their new retail brethren.
When the first superstores like Linens’n Things came onto the scene, they too were blockaded in their quest for national brands and largely subsisted on house brands and non-brands. Not that LNT didn’t resort to some interesting tactics back then. At the time, Royal Velvet was the leading national brand for better towels and the executives who ran the company that produced RV, Fieldcrest, mostly lived in New Jersey. Linens took out a billboard at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel where they knew Fieldcrest execs would pass everyday, urging them to open up RV distribution to the store. It didn’t work —at least not then—but you’ve got to admire the guerilla spirit of the effort. Royal Velvet was a paragon of home furnishings brands back then, so there’s a certain irony that it is now a captured house brand only available at Penney. Because that is the business model that more and more retailers are using for their home businesses.
This spring, we are seeing several major rollouts of private and captured brand programs that are largely replacing national brand assortments. Certainly, what’s happening at JCP is indicative of the trend. Regardless of what happens in the battle for Martha Stewart between Macy’s and Penney’s, Ron Johnson and company are counting on a stable of names including Jonathan Adler, Terrence Conran, Liz Claiborne and the aforementioned Royal Velvet to resurrect the store’s home business.
But there are plenty of other examples hitting retail shelves over the next 30 to 90 days. One of the more interesting is what’s going on Bed Bath & Beyond with Wamsutta. BBB does many things well and is well situated in the name brand housewares business, but has struggled to find its brand mojo in soft home. While a shopper will find labels such as Nautica, DKNY and Barbara Barry in the sheet and towel department, these are technically labels available elsewhere. Now, there’s a new twist on that model. The heart and soul of the Bed Bath sheet department has always been Wamsutta, a long-time brand that had been owned by one of the great American textiles mills, Springs Industries, for decades. Springs—now owned by its former Brazilian subcontractor—has been winding down its American presence for the past decade and last year it sold Wamsutta. No public announcement was ever made by buyer or seller but this spring, a wide-ranging assortment of Wamsutta branded product is starting to appear on the Bed Bath floor, confirming the industry speculation that the store itself was the buyer. So, here you have the epitome of the transition from national brands to captured private ones: Wamsutta is the poster child for the movement.
But it’s certainly not the only example of private brands replacing national ones. Over at the mall, Bloomingdale’s is rolling out an ambitious new soft home brand called Oake. Home furnishings cynics are likely to tell you the program should be called Calvin Klein Wannabe as it takes a very similar design bent as the minimalist home classic. Calvin himself is not being kicked out of Bloomies, but valuable floor space is being reserved for the new house brand. Pick up the store’s new big home book and Oake gets four pages while Calvin is reduced to just two. Clearly, the department store has decided it would rather have an exclusive line without royalties than a nationally distributed label where the brand owner gets a cut of the profits.
Crossing the Threshold
Over at the strip center across the highway, there’s another variation on the theme. Target’s major spring reset of its soft home department puts a major focus on a relatively new name, Threshold, that appears to be the centerpiece of the bed and bath assortments. The label also turns up in some decorative accent SKUs as well. It is not a clear apples and apples equation here. Target has always had strong proprietary brands, but recently they have been captured labels such as Woolrich, Nate Berkus, Shabby Chic and Fieldcrest. All adhered to the royalty model, and while some are still on the selling floor, clearly Threshold is taking center stage, with four full pages and parts of several others in recent circulars.
What’s the central premise of Threshold? Beats me. The tagline for the brand’s Sunday circular debut reads “Quality & Design.” Does this imply that the rest of merchandise offerings contain neither?
It also talks about “updated classics”…whatever that means. Like words such as lifestyle, transitional styling and modular furniture; these things mean much more to the trade than to the consumer.
What all of these stores have in common is their perceived need for proprietary product that can’t be showroomed on the Internet. And that’s true…to a point.
Consider Kohl’s, which continues to struggle, particularly with its home business. There’s no shortage of theories for Kohl’s problems, but one prominent one is that it is relying too much on its own brands to the exclusion of national labels. Its corporate mandate to rollout brands across multiple classifications has resulted in a J Lo home program that defies success…much less logic.
Across the floor, the store has replaced many national brands in small appliances and other housewares products—categories where labels like Cuisinart, Hamilton Beach, Sunbeam and Calphalon still rule the roost—with its own, severely less well-known names.So, while it’s true that nobody is showrooming Kohl’s home assortment, it may be because nobody wants to.
That’s the danger all of these retailers risk with these new strategies. In the meantime, Macy’s seems to be doing quite nicely with its blended hybrid merchandising plan and retailers like the TJX units and Costco thrive with national brands. The pendulum between private and national brands has been in motion almost since the beginning of modern retailing. But this time around, it’s threatening to swing off its hinges.