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What Amazon’s private label men’s shirts might tell us about the company’s future

A screengrab of an Amazon webpage showing its private-label men’s clothing collection, Buttoned Down.
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Amazon already makes private-label trail mix, dog crates and surge protectors. And recently, its list of exclusive goods grew even longer, as the e-commerce giant announced that it has begun selling a private-label men’s clothing collection called Buttoned Down. For now, it features a small assortment of men’s dress shirts, but it will eventually include pants, casual shirts and sweaters.

It’s not terribly remarkable that Buttoned Down exists: Amazon long has made clear that it has big ambitions in the apparel business, and it has already rolled out private clothing labels for women. But the messaging around the new men’s line is where things get interesting — and where we could be getting a glimpse of how Amazon generally wants to try to win in the fashion category. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

Peruse the product pages for Buttoned Down shirts, and it is instantly clear that Amazon is trying to position them as premium products. Buttoned Down is not vying for shoppers who buy their clothes from general merchants such as Walmart and Target, it is trying to compete for those who turn to the likes of Nordstrom. The page touts details that are meant to telegraph quality, including shatter-resistant buttons and lay-flat seaming. And it tries to suggest that these shirts, priced from $39 to $49, are comparable to pricier items. “We are committed to making shirts that stack up to brands you would pay double for,” the product page reads. This screengrab of the product page gives you an idea of how Amazon is looking to drive home that message:

Another strong indicator of Buttoned Down’s upscale ambitions? A highly liberal return policy. The company promises a “no questions asked” refund at any time if a customer is not happy with the product. This sounds awfully similar to the Nordstrom playbook: The upscale department store has long been known for its famously generous return policy, which is thought to be helpful in building customer loyalty.

So why does any of this matter to those of us who are not men in the market for new office attire? Because if Amazon manages to deliver on these promises and then replicates this formula across a wider array of goods, it could create an earthquake in the broader retail industry. If Amazon is going to offer premium apparel at non-premium prices, that could put enormous competitive pressure on department stores and specialty retailers that do a big business in these kinds of garments.

Of course, that’s only true if the product ends up being as good as Amazon pledges. If customers start buying Buttoned Down shirts and find they’re not actually comparable to a $92 garment from Brooks Brothers, then maybe it doesn’t quite catalyze shoppers to move en masse to Amazon’s lower-price versions.

In a news release announcing the line’s arrival, Amazon said Buttoned Down was one of the first of its private label clothing brands to be available only to members of its Prime subscription program. Here’s why that is intriguing: Until now, the key reasons to pony up for Prime have been its promise of speedy shipping and the growing bundle of services such as music streaming and photo storage that come with it.

But a Prime-exclusive clothing line could suggest that in the future, one of Prime’s main selling points could be a vast array of products that you can’t get anywhere else. If Amazon can build a solid reputation for those goods, that could prove a powerful lure to an already popular program. And it could also change somewhat the playing field on which other retailers are fighting for your online shopping dollars.

Amazon’s latest foray into the clothing business comes as it occupies an increasingly dominant place in the category. According to one analysis, the online shopping behemoth is on track to overtake Macy’s as the largest seller of clothing in the United States in 2017. And yet, Amazon has key hurdles to clear as it aims to grab more market share here, particularly when it comes to aspirational, upscale pieces. The site still has the feel of an “everything store,” not of an impeccably curated emporium. It remains to be seen whether that ultimately proves to be a compelling environment for peddling fashion.

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