This time of year, it’s common to see the racks at apparel stores brimming with clothes in springy floral prints. But set foot into Lord & Taylor this season, and you might notice that they’re going particularly heavy on one flower: The rose.
The retailer has ordered up a big roster of rose-emblazoned pieces, many of them exclusives from labels like Karl Lagerfeld Paris and Calvin Klein, that are meant to cater to the contemporary, trend-conscious shopper it is eager to lure into its stores. In addition dresses and blouses, they’ve lined up offbeat items like rose-flavored gummy candies and rose-shaped temporary tattoos. And in some stores, the products will be featured in a shop-in-shop it calls The Birdcage.
It’s a major merchandising and marketing effort that executives hope will serve two purposes: To telegraph a fresh, contemporary direction for the old-school department store without alienating the loyal shoppers who might fondly remember that the rose was a staple of Lord & Taylor marketing from 1946 until it was phased out over the last 20 years.
Lord & Taylor’s conundrum — that it needs to secure its future by hooking younger customers but can’t afford to evolve so much it puts off existing ones — is a universal one in the world of department store retailing. And the rose campaign, in many ways, typifies the various tacks that the wider retail industry is taking to revitalize brands that have become stale.
And yet some experts are skeptical that the effort will do much to move the needle on sales and foot traffic, perhaps a reflection of how difficult it is to get this kind of balancing act right.
To understand what Lord & Taylor is trying to do with the rose campaign, it helps to know the role the flower plays in the department store’s history. It was first used for marketing by former Lord & Taylor president Dorothy Shaver, who was something of a retailing pioneer as a rare female executive in 1940’s and 50’s Manhattan. (A 1945 Time magazine article dubbed her the “Fifth Avenue’s First Lady.”)
Shaver began using the American Beauty rose in the store’s marketing to convey sophistication and elegance. Today’s Lord & Taylor president, Liz Rodbell, said she wanted to that put an updated spin on that history.
Enter the “Free Spirit” rose, a varietal that is different from the traditional red ones we envision in a Valentine’s Day bouquet. Free Spirit roses are more of an golden, orange-pink color — and, importantly, the name sounds young and adventurous. This is the rose that you’ll see in Lord & Taylor catalogs and marketing materials.
The idea behind the campaign — to harken back to the company’s heritage as a way to give it a patina of uniqueness and cool — is a tactic retailers across all price points are turning to right now based on the belief that millennials will respond to this kind of storytelling. Coach, for example, recently debuted a new marketing campaign that highlights that it is a 75-year-old company that was among America’s first leather makers. The handbag maker has also brought back some of its hit purses from the 1970s and 80s to remind shoppers of its history. Jos. A. Bank, meanwhile, has launched a 1905 collection, pieces it says are meant to be something of an homage to the surprisingly long history of a brand that people largely associate with the shopping-mall era.
But experts said this particular effort by Lord & Taylor might not end up hitting its mark.
“I’m not sure that they’re leveraging something the consumer is really aware of,” said David Zietsma, a strategist at retail consultancy Jackman Reinvents.
In other words, the story of the rose may be so obscure and unfamiliar to young shoppers, it may be hard for them to even understand the collection as an ode to history and heritage.
Ken Morris, a principal at Boston Retail Partners and former Lord & Taylor vice president, was also unconvinced that younger fashionistas would be lured by the rose imagery.
But, he said, “I think the main draw for millennials that underlies this story is the thematic pop-up shop.”
By that, he means it could prove to be a smart move to sell this merchandise in The Birdcage shop-in-shop, which is meant to mimic the vibe of a curated boutique. This, too, is something other department stores are exploring with in their quest for millennial shoppers: Nordstrom has been adding Topshop shop-in-shops in its stores, and JCPenney has been adding Sephora boutiques within its sprawling department stores. Macy’s, meanwhile, hosted a pop-up shop by handmade goods e-commerce site Etsy in its Herald Square flagship.
And then there’s the merchandise itself. Lord & Taylor worked to get designers to make exclusive pieces embodying the rose theme. There’s a pair of red-and-white espadrilles from Franco Sarto, for example, and a white rose-printed shoulder bag from Karl Lagerfeld Paris.
Indeed, as department stores seek to be distinctive in a highly competitive shopping environment, having exclusive product has become a weapon of choice. Stores such as JCPenney and Target have each been building strategies under their new chief executives that lean heavily on beefing up in-house brands or securing exclusive products from well-known brands as a way to stand out from the pack.
It’s hard to know exactly how urgent it is for Lord & Taylor to reinvent itself. It is owned by Canadian retailing giant Hudson’s Bay Co., which also owns Saks Fifth Avenue, Saks Off Fifth, and Hudson’s Bay, a department store chain in Canada. The parent company does not break out Lord & Taylor’s sales; it reports them as part of a combined business segment that includes the Hudson’s Bay chain. That division has lately posted solid sales growth, in the most recent quarter recording a 4 percent increase in sales at stores open more than a year.
Rodbell says Lord & Taylor departments such as dresses and activewear have been performing well, but says she is eager to use contemporary fashion pieces to help make lifetime-loyal shoppers. Many customers, she said, are coming for items like prom dresses, but then they’re not coming in regularly throughout their 20s and 30s.
“We’re getting them very early in their shopping experience, but we want to broaden that and take them through their lifecycle,” Rodbell said in an interview.
Oliver Chen, a retail analyst at Cowen & Co., said he thinks Lord & Taylor is well-positioned relative to other U.S. department stores: With just 50 stores, it already has a small real estate footprint compared to the like of Macy’s, which has far too many locations for the era of online shopping.
And, “It does feel differentiated to me because it has a heritage and it has a point of view,” Chen said.
And yet, that doesn’t mean there aren’t improvements to make if it wants to compete better for the younger customers that are crucial to its future.
“Their locations, their decor, their approach, has been one of the dowdier of the dowdy in the past,” Zietsma said. But, he added,“ They are absolutely making some great moves on that.”