In April, Lands’ End announced it was re-launching Canvas, a collection of clothes aimed at younger, style-conscious shoppers that had debuted back in 2009 only to be abandoned several years later when executives decided its aesthetic wasn’t quite distinctive enough from the main brand.
Still, the label had a bit of a cult following among fashion bloggers, and so its return and reinvention is likely a move by chief executive Federica Marchionni to try expand the struggling retailer’s customer base and give Lands’ End a sheen of cool.
But what’s more interesting than the return of Canvas is what the retailer launched with less fanfare in the weeks that followed: Lands’ End is promoting on its website a new program it is calling the Canvas by Lands’ End Circle Membership. For $50, customers can receive free shipping and free returns on all Canvas by Lands’ End purchases, as well as 20 percent off all full-price purchases, among other perks, such as early access to sales.
Essentially, its Lands’ End’s version of Amazon Prime. And it might serve as test of whether that model can work for stores that don’t have the e-commerce Goliath’s “everything store”-style selection.
It’s not hard to see why Lands’ End and other retailers think they might benefit from a Prime-like subscription. For Amazon, the program has been a powerful loyalty-building tool, an incentive for customers to come back to the site again and again. Prime is estimated to have more than 40 million subscribers, and perhaps more than anything else Amazon has done, it has helped turn occasional shoppers into habitual ones.
In today’s highly competitive retail environment, surely any store would like to have customers come to it as reflexively as many go to Amazon: In a poll conducted by the business channel CNBC last year, some 49 percent of shoppers said they “always” or “most of the time” search for products or check prices at Amazon when they shop online.
With the Circle Membership, Lands’ End seems to be trying to make shoppers come to Canvas as if on autopilot. And the membership appears to be designed to eliminate some of the risk — something that’s particularly important in the clothing category. Many women are hesitant to shop online because it’s too much of a gamble when you don’t know if the pieces are going to fit and you might have to spend money to send them back.
And yet there are some obvious challenges to the Circle Membership gaining traction, and they are similar to the hurdles other specialty brands might face if they try to go this route.
For starters, the Circle Membership covers a fairly limited array of goods; it only applies to Canvas products — not even Lands’ End’s full assortment. With a general merchandise store such as Amazon, or even Sam’s Club or Costco, it’s easy to imagine how you can offset the cost of membership because you can make so many different kinds of purchases with that retailer. It might be harder to get people to plunk down $50 for a membership that only applies to purchases of clothes.
Plus, dangling features like free shipping and free returns might not prove to be enough to persuade shoppers to pony up.
“That may be a tough sell, comparatively, to millennials who are used to getting free shipping both ways. That’s the norm more than the exception today,” said Anita Bhappu, a professor who studies retailing at University of Arizona.
And it doesn’t help that promotional pricing almost has become table stakes in the apparel business.
“Twenty percent is certainly a discount — but I wouldn’t say it’s an enormous sum that is going to drive a different buying behavior. A lot of consumers are trained to almost never buy at full price,” said Andrew Billings, a retail strategist at consultancy North Highland.
Billings said the program may ultimately be more successful in luring existing Lands’ End shoppers to spend more than it is at attracting new shoppers.
Michele Casper, a spokeswoman for Lands’ End, said the company believes that the offer of early access to deals will be crucial to getting customers of all stripes to sign up.
“We wanted to make sure that it was definitely the opportunity that you feel that you get to experience some exclusive offers,” Casper said.
Lands’ End is not the only retailer experimenting with a Prime-like service. Sephora recently launched Flash, a subscription that allows customers to pay $10 per year for two-day shipping on all online purchases. And Walmart has been testing an offering called Shipping Pass, in which customers pay $50 a year for free three-day shipping on all purchases. (It’s not clear yet whether Walmart will roll that pilot program out to the masses.)
And other iterations of subscriptions, too, are popping up in the marketplace. Restoration Hardware recently launched a program in which you pay $100 a year to receive 25 percent off all purchases, in addition to some other perks. And, of course, there is an ever-growing crop of curated subscription boxes from the likes of Birchbox and Trunk Club.
But membership programs are a hard model to pull off. Remember how Jet, the startup that wants to rival Amazon, launched with a $50 annual membership fee that it promised would give shoppers access to lower prices? It killed that model in a matter of months.
Whether or not Lands’ End is able to amass Circle members, and whether those members become big spenders, will offer some insights to other retailers that might be toying with implementing a similar model.
(Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)