Walmart Fashion: No Longer an Oxymoron

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As recently as five years ago, I would have said that Walmart fashion is an oxymoron. Denise Incandela joined the value behemoth in 2017 and is now Executive Vice President, Apparel and General Merchandise Private Brands, Walmart U.S. From that moment on, I knew it was the beginning of fashion’s ascendance for Walmart. She has made a remarkable impact on Walmart fashion over the past five years.

Incandela Ascendant

Incandela’s stints in senior positions at Saks Inc., Ralph Lauren, and CEO of Aerosoles represented the kind of leadership and apparel expertise that Walmart needed. Ironically, Incandela entered the world of business with an MBA degree from Wharton. In an interview with Glamour in 2019, she said, “It’s kind of funny—if you’d asked me when growing up what I would be doing, I would have assumed it would be finance. I was a finance undergrad, a finance MBA.” And she did follow a traditional financial path, working at McKinsey and Company, the iconic consulting firm. One of her clients was Saks Fifth Avenue, which ended up hiring her. Thus, her immersion into the world of fashion.

Incandela described her new job at Walmart as, “the opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done before, and to break all status quo. Being able to come here and build a formidable online fashion business at accessible price points, where Walmart fashion was pretty much what was in the stores, it’s an extraordinary opportunity.”

About her initial job with Walmart, she said, “I consider myself a transformational change agent, every opportunity was a transformation within its own right. When I was at Saks, no one believed that people would buy apparel online—forget luxury apparel. From my own point of view, I always felt I had a keen sense of what was coming down the pike, that I could sense from a macro point of view what the macro trends were faster than others. It was never an ‘if.’ It was always a ‘when.’”

Walmart Makeover

While 60 percent of Walmart’s revenues are from its grocery business, the margins are much higher in apparel and other product categories. So, prioritizing growth in apparel is a no-brainer. As is hiring an experienced pro to make it happen, just as Walmart sped up its ecommerce business by acquiring Jet.com, and more importantly, its founder and CEO, Marc Lore. Lore did strategically reposition Walmart’s ecomm business, and with a “mission accomplished,” he moved on. Walmart’s digital growth has been in the double digits.

There is a lesson here compared to Amazon’s flailing around to become brick-and mortar-retailers in grocery, apparel (and other now closed stores), as well as their mediocre initiatives in fashion. My opinion about the reason for the physical store struggles is that there are no experienced retail professionals in Amazon’s leadership ranks. And the newly appointed President of Amazon fashion has 14 years of experience at Amazon, primarily in technology and operational teams. Just saying. The path of retail failures across the industry is littered with CEOs and senior executives who simply lacked retail experience.

Walmart Style Guide

Incandela described her new job at Walmart as, “the opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done before, and to break all status quo. Being able to come here and build a formidable online fashion business at accessible price points, where Walmart fashion was pretty much what was in the stores, it’s an extraordinary opportunity.” She was referring to her initial role upon joining Walmart in 2017. Her appointment as EVP of apparel and private brands broadened her responsibility to include the elevation of fashion in stores as well.

In 2019, Incandela made a presentation at a “Wharton Women” event where she laid out her three key business strategies for success:

Look Stylish

She first noticed how unappealing Walmart’s online presentation of fashion was, which she quickly changed to a more modern, upscale, and stylish approach. She also pursued partnerships with other brands to gain market share. Among them were Sofia Jeans, (with Sofia Vergara), EV1 (with Ellen DeGeneres), and the Scoop line. And since these collaborations leaned into current trends, they also elevated price points.

Build Credibility

Although Walmart is an established brand, fashionable apparel is not their main product  offering, Incandela said, “We needed to establish ourselves as a credible destination for fashion.” She cited the importance of moving beyond traditional marketing methods to appeal to a younger customer base and gain their trust. For example, social media influencers were an effective way to increase credibility and generate positive exposure. With tens of thousands of followers, influencers can produce an impactful ripple effect.

Be Convenient

With Amazon and other companies moving towards shorter shipping times, convenience is essential to remain competitive. Incandela highlighted how working with a company’s core brand and building on its foundations are integral components to the success of a new venture. Walmart’s impressive omnichannel portfolio, with its brick-and-mortar locations, online shopping platform, buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPUS), and ship-from-store options, provide an accessibility advantage.

Incandela believes that Walmart’s new fashion direction is the epitome of the brand’s tagline of ‘Save Money, Live Better.’ “I was excited at the opportunity to have a higher purpose by providing great clothes at an exceptional price point,” she said.

While one could say these are fairly obvious strategies for transformation, implementing them becomes the challenge. So, let’s take a look at some of the initiatives and innovations that have redefined Walmart’s style.

The Incandela Initiatives

  • Denise helmed the expansion of Walmart’s apparel assortment to provide customers with on-trend options no matter their style or budget. She’s built and launched Walmart’s successful Exclusive Elevated Brands portfolio, including Scoop, Sofia Jeans by Sofia Vergara, Free Assembly, Eloquii Elements, Bonobos Fielder, and Love & Sports (created by Michelle Smith and Stacey Griffith). In addition, she helped bring more than 1,000 popular national brands to Walmart’s online and in-store assortment, including Levi Strauss, Champion, Reebok, Jordache, Celebrity Pink, Justice, Lee, Kendall + Kylie, US Polo Assn, and more.
  • For the first time in Walmart history, she brought on private brand design talent, tapping acclaimed American fashion designer Brandon Maxwell as creative director for Walmart’s elevated apparel brands, Scoop and Free Assembly. Denise also brought on external agencies and leverages designers from Walmart’s Direct to Consumer (DTC) brands to drive creative vision behind some of Walmart’s most popular private label fashion brands
  • Under her leadership, Walmart entered the popular and sustainable fashion resale market through a retail partnership with thredUP and Linda’s Stuff
  • With a passion for innovating within the fashion space, Denise championed and drove new advancements by acquiring Zeekit, an Israeli female-founded startup, and its cutting-edge virtual fit platform. Leapfrogging the competition as the first major, national retailer to bring this real-time imaging technology to its online customers with Choose My Model, Walmart is looking to solve what has historically been one of the most difficult things to replicate online: understanding fit and how a garment will look on your body
  • She has overhauled Walmart.com’s online shopping experience by building and launching new online fashion features such as trend editorials, 360-degree spin, and Fit Predictor technology to make Walmart’s online platform an even more competitive shopping destination
  • The new Store of the Future launching in a handful of markets will include mannequins, new lighting, fixtures, and visual merchandisers that will change the way customers experience Walmart fashion in stores
  • She is rolling out RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology and new omnichannel services, such as buy online and pick up or ship from store, to enable customers to shop where, when and however they like
  • Denise recognized the opportunity to expand influencer marketing in a big way, leveraging influencers to help shift perception and drive awareness of Walmart’s fashion offerings, as well as tapping into the social shopping ecosystem and opportunities it provides, Denise drove the launch of @walmartfashion to reach customers across social platforms

Three of Walmart’s private apparel lines are $2+ billion brands. And Denise continues to roll them out into select stores among their 4700 store fleet. Walmart CEO, Doug McMillon said in a Q4 earnings call that fashion apparel was one of their fastest growing categories

What’s Next?

Incandela said in a CNBC interview, “We’re at the beginning of that journey,” she said. “We have a lot of work to do.” And I’m sure she will not only do the work but exceed our expectations.

I can’t close this article until I once again emphasize that Amazon, although achieving the number-one position in ecommerce apparel sales, is still fiddling around in the physical world of retailing and they will never break through as a true “fashion” source because of the lack of professional fashion leadership.

With Denise Incandela as one of the many leaders with professional expertise at Walmart, they will continue the drumbeat of growth in all categories, ultimately becoming Amazon’s biggest migraine.

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