By almost any measure, the third quarter was a rough one for apparel retailer Lands’ End. The company said Thursday that its profit sank 40 percent, revenue plunged 10 percent and sales at stores open more than a year were down 8.9 percent.
The gloomy results come as the retailer, known for its catalogs of sensible, sailing-trip-ready attire, is swallowing a bitter pill in an effort to remake itself for a younger, more digital-savvy customer. And the speedbumps it is hitting along the way are emblematic of broader challenges faced by the retail industry in a moment when customers aren’t spending big, especially on clothes.
Under a new chief executive, Federica Marchionni, Lands’ End is in the early stages of a multi-pronged effort to improve sales that includes splashier marketing, a revamped Web site and more stylish clothes.
As part of that plan, the retailer is also rethinking its approach to promotions, which have been eating into Lands’ End’s profits and, Marchionni believes, hurting the brand. This quarter, the company tried to put the brakes on its promotion train, offering fewer of them in hopes that it would improve profit margins, even if it temporarily hurt top-line sales. And yet by the second half of the quarter, the company decided to change course and ramp up the promotions again, because the impact of the pullback, Marchionni told investors Thursday, was “larger than we expected.”
In other words, as competitors continued to offer the eye-popping discounts that have been de rigueur since the recession, shoppers balked when they didn’t see those types of offers at Lands’ End.
This is a conundrum for retailers across the industry right now: They want desperately to wean shoppers off the frequent promotions they have come to expect, and yet what happened at Lands’ End this quarter is exactly what they fear will happen if they do.
Still, retailers such as American Eagle Outfitters, Foot Locker and children’s apparel chain Justice are all giving it a try, tamping down on promotions in hope of shoring up their businesses. Meanwhile, you need only look at your email inbox full of “40 percent off” or “30 percent off” offers from the likes of Gap and J. Crew to see that plenty of retailers are still relying heavily on this tactic to move merchandise.
Of course, Lands’ End also cited “lack of product acceptance” as a reason for its weak sales this quarter. That’s a delicate way of saying that shoppers just weren’t that interested in the line-up of cable-knit sweaters, twill blazers and flannel shirts that it was hawking on its Web site and in 250 brick-and-mortar locations. Like some other major retailers this quarter, Lands’ End chalked up the lack of interest in part to unseasonably warm weather, which may have kept shoppers from springing for new sweaters and coats. But Lands’ End has also admitted that, like many of its apparel-category peers, it is simply struggling to deliver clothing designs that customers are excited about. In the previous quarter, the retailer said it had too many knit dresses and went too fashion-forward with its men’s casual shirts and shorts.
Fashion miscalculations have been a key culprit of the recent woes at Gap, Banana Republic, J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch, among others, which have all seen their sales take a hit as they’ve failed to deliver clothes that their customer believes are stylish.
And yet Lands’ End’s slow sales also seems to reflect a softness seen among apparel retailers more broadly in the third quarter.
When Nordstrom delivered lackluster third-quarter earnings three weeks ago, company president James Nordstrom summed up the troubles this way on a conference call with investors: “We’ve got less people buying clothes this quarter than we expected and there’s really nothing else to point to.”
With consumers shifting some of their discretionary spending to categories such as restaurants and travel, this is an issue plenty of apparel retailers are being forced to consider as they try to lure shoppers to their stores and Web sites. And it is one reason why many of them are trying to spiff up their stores to make them more experiential.
Indeed, Marchionni, who served in leadership roles at ultra-luxe brands Dolce & Gabbana and Ferrari before taking the reins of Lands’ End, a brand known for outfitting suburban moms, is among the many retail executives trying to steer her brand into offering a more inviting store experience for its shoppers. (Lands’ End has a brick-and-mortar presence within many Sears stores, its former corporate parent, along with some standalone and outlet stores.)
Now, in recently-opened holiday pop-up shops on Fifth Ave. in New York and Copley Place in Boston, it is testing new products and merchandise displays in an effort to better understand how it might pump sales in this channel. It also regards these outposts, decorated to have the vibe of a cozy ski chalet, as an opportunity to build brand awareness and perhaps attract new customers.
Lands’ End executives likely hope this quarter marks the depths of their rough patch and that Marchionni’s strategy will start bearing fruit soon. But with the stock down 8.2 percent Thursday and some 59 percent so far this year, it appears investors still aren’t convinced that the chain has a bright future.