Walmart and Gap Go Home

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Walmart has fallen into The Gap. It no doubt hopes it’s a successful journey…even if history suggests otherwise.

Last month the biggest of the big, Walmart, said it was partnering up with casual apparel retailer Gap to bring a line of home furnishings products to, at least initially, its online business and potentially its stores. Gap had announced earlier that it was looking for a home for…well, home, but the Walmart connection didn’t seem to be the obvious choice at first glance. After all, Gap was the store of choice for the counterculture…back in the 1960s and 1970s when there was such thing as a counterculture. In the meantime, Walmart had nothing if not a conservative heritage, and while Sam Walton never publicly played politics, he certainly never seemed to be a fit of hippies, yuppies, and the people they grew up to be.

[callout]Gap and Walmart is only the latest in a long — some would say excruciatingly long — line of odd mash-ups, potentially ill-fitting partnerships and occasionally downright wacky deals we’ve seen in the home furnishings sector over the years.[/callout]

Of course, much has changed since then, and today The Gap is a struggling retailer beseeched by fast-fashion players like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo on one side and the off-price covenant on the other. Gap has not aged well. Walmart, on the other hand, has discovered a newfound streak of social responsibility under current CEO Doug McMillon that has seen it adapt to a number of pro-consumer and pro-worker initiatives.

Target’s Own Jeans Genes

Walmart is not alone in trying to tap this casual apparel connection. Consider that across the highway, its biggest physical competitor, Target, had its own casual apparel tie-in with denim stalwart Levi. It introduced a limited-run collection of home décor items in January which at this point have largely disappeared from Target itself but can be found on eBay for a slight premium.

The fashion-home connection has been around for generations, starting with Halston, Bill Blass and Ralph Lauren … and just recently an Anne Klein program at Macy’s and Eileen Fisher at West Elm. The Walmart-Gap program appears to be more than a pop-up, though of course, its eventual appearance in stores will no doubt depend on its success online. And it seems to be part of a bigger tie-in between the two companies: Walmart’s Sam’s Club recently introduced a limited line of Gap apparel in its stores.
Still, one has to wonder why Walmart went with the Gap brand when its sister-nameplate Old Navy would be so much appropriate given its broader appeal these days to younger generations, not to mention its performance compared to Gap. (Gap is still challenged by its mention in a Seinfeld episode more than two decades ago when it was suggested it was where older white people went to buy their clothes.)

And let’s not forget the irony of the Gap getting into home when some 40 years ago it had the vehicle to do it on its own. In case you don’t remember, that’s when Gap owned a smaller home décor retailer by the name of Pottery Barn. Figuring it had no future and didn’t fit it into its apparel focus it unloaded it to Williams Sonoma and the rest, as they say, is embarrassing to Gap’s history.

Mashups and Misfits

Still, Gap and Walmart is only the latest in a long — some would say excruciatingly long — line of odd mashups, potentially ill-fitting partnerships, and occasionally downright wacky deals we’ve seen in the home furnishings sector over the years. Some of them have not been pretty at all.

One of the odder ones occurred back in the 1980s when a big furniture producer of the time, Thomasville, fresh off several successful licensed brands, introduced a home deal under the Hemingway banner. Whatever your opinion of Papa as a writer or social figure, I’m thinking you never really associated him with a dining room set or a couch. Fishing gear, barware, even–excuse the political incorrectness — shotguns maybe? But a credenza? It didn’t go over very well and has long since been relegated to landfills all across America.

Harder to understand is the lack of success of what maybe should have been a more natural fit: Disney and kid’s furniture. Yet, the Disney connection has been a dismal failure any number of times, most recently (just the past year or two) with well-known national retailer Ethan Allen. As much as kids relate to Mickey and friends — and as much as the companies selling the products designed them to be less kitschy and more stylized — it has just never translated into home merchandise.

No Thank You Very Much

It only took one time for the furniture industry to realize that perhaps a collection built around the Elvis Presley name might not be such a good idea either. Long after the King had passed (at least allegedly to some) Virginia-based Vaughan-Bassett — not to be confused with the better-known Bassett brand — brought out a full-blown Elvis collection, which in fact was kitschy. It created a lot of hoopla at its furniture market debut…but not so much with shoppers. It is doubtful you’ll find any of this stuff on eBay.

While many of the more confounded collaborations have taken place in the furniture segment of the overall home business, there are numerous examples of bad fits in other sectors from home textiles to housewares. You probably don’t remember most of them because many never even made it out of the wholesale showrooms.

So, what makes companies do these kind of crazy tie-ins? Surely, they would have learned the lesson by now that if it sounds screwy on paper (or computer screen) then it probably is. But not always. And that’s the thing. When one of these ideas sounds nuts but is still brought to market, companies invariably point to one of the dumbest sounding ideas ever: Let’s get an over-the-hill ex-boxer who was one of the most disagreeable and grouchiest characters ever in sports and put his name on a kitchen cooking appliance. Better yet, let’s have him do infomercials in the middle of the night touting this thing to insomniacs, drunks and the hopelessly compulsive.

Can’t miss, right? Well, in fact, you’d be right. This product, as unlikely a brand tie-in as ever existed, went on to become the single best-selling kitchen appliance in the history of the industry, selling hundreds of millions of units around the world and making its namesake a very rich man: The George Foreman Grill. Proving that every once in a while, lean and mean beats overly funded smart and savvy.



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