Iconic apparel company Ralph Lauren has been in a years-long rut, its profits sinking and sales lagging at a time when the fashion industry has been upended by new e-commerce players and retailers able to quickly deliver the latest styles to shop shelves.
On Tuesday, new chief executive Stefan Larsson unveiled to investors his sweeping plan for fixing the business. Larsson’s strategy calls for shakeups in virtually every corner of the nearly 50-year-old company: There are plans to shutter 50 underperforming stores, or about 10 percent of the fleet. The business will be restructured to save up to $220 million in annualized costs, and about 1,000 jobs will be eliminated.
Executives also will move to reduce the lead time it takes to produce clothing and they’ll work to rein in bloated inventory, which has often resulted in full-price merchandise having to be funneled to its outlet stores and sold for less.
“Continuing with this vicious cycle is going to hurt the brand,” Larsson said at a meeting with investors.
Under its new plan, the Ralph Lauren company will put particular emphasis on evolving and shoring up three of its biggest-selling labels, including its eponymous high-end line; its casual men’s label, Polo Ralph Lauren; and a women’s line, Lauren Ralph Lauren. Other parts of the business, including imprints such as Polo Sport, Chaps, Denim & Supply and Club Monaco, as well as categories such as home furnishings and fragrance, won’t be as central to the strategy.
“My goal is to focus in on the core of what made us great,” Larsson said.
Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School, said narrowing the focus of the business could indeed prove helpful in connecting with customers.
“There’s a whole lot of sidebar business that Ralph has indulged in. He’s gone off in a whole bunch of directions that are clearly, at the end of the day, not all that successful,” Cohen said.
At a time when some of its retailing counterparts such as J. Crew, Banana Republic and Anthropologie seem to be struggling to get their fashion aesthetic right, Lauren executives believe that’s not quite their challenge.
“I believe in the taste level. I believe we have a handle of what style is,” said Ralph Lauren, the brand’s founder, at the first-ever investor day event in the company’s history. Despite turning over the chief executive job to Larsson late last year, Lauren remains at the company as its creative leader and chairman.
Instead, they are focused on revamping how they produce and distribute the classic American style that has been Lauren’s hallmark for decades. For starters, that means rethinking the supply chain, in part by working to trim the average lead time for producing clothes from 15 months to nine months. It means implementing an eight-week test phase for garments, in which they introduce them to stores at a small scale to better determine how much they should manufacture for sales across the globe.
And it means streamlining the inventory. Today, executives said, some 30 percent of items in its high-end line account for 70 percent of sales. Translation: There is a large of quantity of unproductive merchandise in its line-up, and it is going to work to trim the fat.
The recent struggles at Ralph Lauren are deeply entwined with troubles in the department store category. Ralph Lauren depends heavily on those outlets for its sales, and the likes of Macy’s, Nordstrom and Kohl’s have each seen their sales take a serious hit in recent months. Larsson stressed that he’s still committed to selling through those kinds of retailers, but the company is going to trim its shipments to department stores in order to try to improve productivity in that format.
“On wholesale, I believe that wholesale will stand strong if you look five, 10 years ahead. What wholesale has to do as a channel is become more exciting,” Larsson said.
Some of the playbook that Larsson is using at Ralph Lauren seems to draw on his 15 years of experience as an executive at fast-fashion giant H&M. For example, he has pledged to introduce fabric platforming, a production tactic in which cloth is bought in huge volumes with designers deciding later exactly what pieces to make from it. Fast-fashion players have used this technique to dramatically speed up the pace at which they can get trendy pieces in front of customers.
Larsson also introduced fabric platforming at his last job as global president of Old Navy, where he is widely credit for having imbued that brand with a much more fashion-forward flavor. (Since Larsson’s departure, Old Navy has seen its sales slide.)
“He said a lot of the right things,” said Edward Hertzman, publisher of Sourcing Journal, a trade publication about the apparel and textile industry. “It’s just going to be very interesting to see if they’re going to be able implement them and change the company culture” to one that is conducive to this more nimble, speedy approach.
Before Tuesday’s announcement, Larsson had already started moving to shake up Ralph Lauren by appointing a new team of senior executives, including appointing Frederik Hjalmers, a veteran of H&M, as senior vice president of global expansion and business development.
Meanwhile, the job cuts seem aimed at weeding out middle management. Larsson said Tuesday that company currently has about nine layers of staffers.
“There’s no reason why we need more than six layers from me to the actual doer doing the work,” Larsson said.
Analysts cautioned that Larsson could encounter challenges in pulling off the plan. For one, it is not designed to work overnight — he told investors he’d be first working to stabilize the business and not pivoting to a growth focus until 2019.
“I don’t know whether the board, Wall Street — whether they’ll have the patience to allow him to do it,” said Robin Lewis, chief executive of retail strategy publication the Robin Report.