Wal-Mart Apparel Exec Quits

Discussion
Jul 24, 2007

By Tom Ryan

The Wal-Mart executive who led the discounter’s disappointing foray last year into skinny jeans and satin bed sheets is resigning this week.

Claire Watts, executive vice president of apparel merchandising, is leaving
to pursue “other career interests,” Wal-Mart said in a statement. Ms. Watts’
duties will be split between Mark Larsen, who oversaw merchandising for babies,
children and men, and Dottie Mattison, formerly chief merchant for Walmart.com.
Both report to John Fleming, chief merchandising officer.

Ms. Watts, who arrived
at Wal-Mart in 1997 after stints at Limited Brands and May Department Stores,
had been a rising star at Wal-Mart. Under her tenure, Wal-Mart opened an office
in New York to stay atop of fashion trends. She was behind the launch of Metro
7, a trendy store label, and the Mark Eisen men’s line, called George ME, as
part of a new upscale strategy to get the discounter’s more-affluent shoppers
to buy more than just groceries and housewares.



“Claire is a talented merchant,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark told the Washington Post. “The company continues to move in the right direction, and much of that credit goes to Claire.”

While Wal-Mart’s upscale strategy been somewhat successful in electronics, it failed in apparel and home fashions, another area Ms. Watts oversaw until the company eliminated those responsibilities in January. Last holiday season, Wal-Mart reported its worst monthly sales figures in years partly because the lines replaced better-selling apparel basics.

Wal-Mart is back reemphasizing lower prices and more “fashion basics” – i.e., embellished $12 blouses and $14 cardigans – rather than bigger-ticket items like $100 leather coats. At the same time, it has not abandoned its plans to become more fashionable. The design office has moved into bigger quarters in Manhattan’s garment district, according to the New York Times.

But at Wal-Mart’s annual shareholders meeting last month, chief executive Lee Scott said Wal-Mart customers weren’t ready to spend $39 for a sweater. “We have to earn our right,” Mr. Scott told analysts after the meeting. “And we just got up one morning and decided that we could move that customer there, [that] because they trusted us at $13.88, they were going to trust us at $39. And I think John [Fleming] understands clearly…it is a slower transition.”

Discussion Questions: What do you think Wal-Mart has (or should have) learned from its problems selling more fashion-forward and upscale merchandise? Are you encouraged by its new apparel strategy?

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20 Comments on "Wal-Mart Apparel Exec Quits"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

This most recent departure from Wal-Mart is the latest in a line of executives taking the blame for a poorly executed strategy. The leadership at the top has to take some responsibility for what happened, not just the EVP-level managers who have been shown the door. And I’m not sure upper management has articulated the new strategy clearly enough, although the comp sales are starting to perk up.

The opportunity still exists to upgrade the apparel buying experience at Wal-Mart, along with the need to improve the overall shopping experience (neater stores, narrower assortments, faster checkouts). Improvements in design and quality of core basics can help take share away from competitors like Old Navy–and faster than the failed initiatives could steal business from more upscale competitors.

James Tippett
Guest
James Tippett
14 years 9 months ago

Does the typical Wal-Mart apparel shopper really care that the company has an office in NYC to help them catch on to apparel trends, etc…?

Bonny Baldwin
Guest
Bonny Baldwin
14 years 9 months ago

I think there’s something a little broader going on here, which is that WM has alienated whole segments of the population that may be much of the very target market they’re trying to reach with a more fashion-forward line (and with things like organic produce, but I digress). IKEA, Target, and H&M have done brilliant business in recognizing that an eye for sophisticated, high-end design can be independent from the means required to buy it. And they have also recognized that education and perhaps political orientation ARE NOT entirely independent from one’s having an eye for high-end design. Someone who thinks that cool, urbane, fashion-forward design is appealing is probably not going to want to set foot in WM at this time. A company misses the point if it on one hand demonstrates that it scoffs at what a group of people finds important then tries to sell to them without sincerely changing what it stands for.

Michael Tesler
Guest
Michael Tesler
14 years 9 months ago

Sometimes companies act like people…not surprising since they are made up of people. My point is that Wal-Mart is not content with being the largest, most successful and most powerful retailer ever. They are sometimes petty and sometimes jealous and sometimes obsessed with the fact that “cool” and “intelligent” people like Target better and that Target is perceived as more fashionable. If they were smart they would say “so what, Target can have all the good press and all the positive perception, we will take the money!”

Joel Warady
Guest
Joel Warady
14 years 9 months ago

Wal-Mart’s attempt at selling upscale merchandise is a strategy based on arrogance and greed. If a company has become the largest retailer in the world based on selling inexpensive items, including fashion, what could possibly suggest to management that they should change their strategy?

“Dance with the one who brung ya.” Wal-Mart’s success is based on selling low-cost goods to consumers who are watching their dollars. They should learn to focus on their core competency, and their core customer base. They should not attempt to get every dollar spent by every consumer.

Carol Spieckerman
Guest
Carol Spieckerman
14 years 9 months ago
I don’t believe Wal-Mart gave the more fashion forward looks enough time, pure and simple and they have just as much of a right to try and snag the upscale shoppers that are already in their stores with higher margin items as Kohl’s does by launching Simply Vera this fall! One can only hope that Kohl’s will not abandon Vera if sales don’t skyrocket in the first two or three seasons. I would think they can ill afford to with the commitments they have made to the line and in that sense, Wal-Mart has a distinct advantage. They didn’t attach their fashion star to a fashion star (Mark Eisen does not count) and can therefore recover and change direction. That said, it isn’t as though they are taking an all or nothing stance when it comes to fashion. For Wal-Mart to move its women’s apparel operation to New York sends a very clear signal that they intend to be closer to the action, not further away. I would also bet on a renewed and focused… Read more »
Michael L. Howatt
Guest
Michael L. Howatt
14 years 9 months ago

Being all things to all people just never is going to work. For the lower income family that shops at Wal-Mart, there just isn’t any interest in a self-imposed updscale clothing line. They just want everyday goods at a cheap price. They can get their apparel at the Dollar Store. And really, do they need a fancy pillow of the couch to clash with the plastic cover?

For the more affluent customer who shops Wal-Mart, and yes they do, they are looking for good prices on things they can’t find elsewhere (pictures frames, pool supplies and the like). If they want fashion they will visit Ann Taylor or Pier 1 for their around the house items.

MARK DECKARD
Guest
MARK DECKARD
14 years 9 months ago
Wal-Mart will get it right eventually with improved core designs, regionally-refined selection, perception of quality, and merchandising execution at the point of sale. They may not be the #1 top-of-mind destination for softlines purchases, but they are #1 in most frequent visits. So by taking advantage of HUGE foot traffic, they can beat the #1 softlines destinations to the punch by having great product on the floor and getting the impulse purchase from the shopper that had a certain something in mind but hadn’t yet made it to their destination clothier. If softlines are about 10% of Wal-Mart’s business, there’s close to $30 billion reasons to keep trying. (Who else out there can claim that volume of softlines business?) Fashion is fickle. Even retailers whose ONLY business is fashion struggle with hitting the mark on design and assortment (i.e. Old Navy and also Wet Seal who is now back on track, but almost went down a few years ago when customers didn’t respond to their latest offerings). Wal-Mart will find the core of the ever-shifting… Read more »
Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

If Wal-Mart does more consistent, careful, unbiased market research, its fashion strategy will roll out with much less risk. Given their long-term impressive profitability, there’s no reason for them to impose a speedy timetable that doesn’t allow for appropriate market research. The recent fashion rollout timetable speed was destructive. Usually it pays to test, pilot, get customer market research, and go carefully, making adjustments along the way. That doesn’t mean Wal-Mart’s fashion turnaround has to take forever. But it’s OK to take some reasonable time. And who says it has to be implemented in all stores? Wal-Mart wasn’t built in a day, and Wal-Mart fashion doesn’t have to be, either.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
14 years 9 months ago

Another situation where Wal-Mart has lost customer focus by selling products that no one would go to Wal-Mart to buy. Wal-Mart has customer traffic that most retailers envy. They should concentrate on servicing their core customer group as opposed to trying to compete in the high-end apparel market. Skin tight jeans and satin bedsheets may alienate the regular Wal-Mart customer.

Laura Davis-Taylor
Guest
Laura Davis-Taylor
14 years 9 months ago

This is a tough one because there are likely a multitude of factors that were behind the lack of success for this initiative that no one of will likely be privy to. Did they aim too high from the start? Did they segment merchandise by demographic/psychographic at the store level? How “on” was the fashion…or was it acceptable but not as cool as the standard Target designs? The questions could go on and on.

When this new fashion effort was at it’s peak, Wal-Mart won me back as a customer. As it has petered out, they’ve once again lost me to Target full-time. I don’t know what the numbers looked like in the end, but one would imagine that somewhere in the middle is a winning strategy that could have secured the more affluent, pickier shoppers while also appealing to the die hard Wal-Mart price loyalist. Personally, I’m sorry to see this happen.

David Biernbaum
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

Lee Scott nailed it exactly right; “We have to earn our right….” Wal-Mart’s consumers trust the store for the $13.88 garment, but not yet for the $39 item of clothing.

Ian Percy
Guest
14 years 9 months ago
There’s a classic book titled “As a Man Thinketh” written by James Allen and published in 1902. Many regard it as the most influential 28 pages outside of the Bible. You can easily find it for free on the internet. The title comes from a proverb written by King Solomon reported to be the wisest man who has ever lived. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” On a personal level it means that what we think about at the deepest level is what becomes reality for us. Our thoughts (the cause) says Allen become our circumstances (the effect). Many will deny this but the circumstances we are experiencing automatically reflect how we think. If a lottery winner ‘thinks’ as someone who makes $35,000 they will waste their winnings until they revert to $35,000 circumstances. So how does Wal-Mart ‘think’ in its heart? There is a corporate mind-set that as far as we can tell is set on cheap and mass merchandise. It can ‘wish’ to be in luxury items all it… Read more »
Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
14 years 9 months ago

In the vernacular of the street, “you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” no matter how energized the animal might be.

Wal-Mart’s problems in selling fashion-forward and upscale apparel were caused by too abrupt a switch in its assortments while its army of customers were only interested in, or capable of buying, lower priced merchandise.

Additionally, potential customers of “$39 sweaters” weren’t magnetized to come into Wal-Mart’s world and integrate into their gigantic customer base. Like Mr. Scott said, Wal-Mart has to earn the right to sell upgraded merchandise and that will take a well-strategized marketing plan and tolerance for a long gestation period. Let’s trust that’s what Wal-Mart has learned.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
14 years 9 months ago

Opening an office in New York to stay abreast of the fashion industry and selling merchandise at a higher price point was a management decision based on a new direction they wanted to take the company.

If you notice, nothing in that previous statement relates to the consumers. Wal-Mart’s heritage has everything to do with the consumers. Changing strategy to attract new consumers is certainly feasible but it doesn’t work to keep current customers and the image of the store makes it difficult to attract those new consumers.

Wal-Mart needs to get back to its consumer orientation.

Kurt Jetta
Guest
Kurt Jetta
14 years 9 months ago

Perhaps they should be learning that Senior Management has lost its way and that every new “Strategy of the Month” has failed. “Getting back to basics” also won’t deliver the results they’re looking for because basics for Wal-Mart also entails a philosophy on how to treat Vendor-Partners and Customers. That respect is no longer a reality.

Don Delzell
Guest
Don Delzell
14 years 9 months ago
I am impressed with many comments. Ian’s note about changing the mindset of the organization is extremely accurate, and probably worthy of attention within the walls at Bentonville. However, I think a key point to note is that WM had done a great deal of analysis on their existing customer base. They knew that there were a substantial number of consumers who bought in some departments (appliances and electronics) and did not buy in others (apparel and soft home). It is an entirely appropriate business decision to segment your existing mix of consumers to leverage current foot traffic. I think, this is precisely what the execution of the fashion strategy was intended to do. As has been pointed out, we may never know what was intended and what the actual results were. From an observer’s viewpoint, I did not see a coordinated approach to accomplish the expanded market basket strategy. Rather, I saw a series of disjointed efforts, most accompanied by blaring publicity, few of which seemed to be part of a cohesive and synergistic… Read more »
Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
14 years 9 months ago
When Wal-Mart entered the grocery business it did so in stages and over a long period of time. The HyperMarts that they opened in the late 80s taught them a good deal about operating really big box units and while ultimately not a going concern, the lessons learned helped them along their way to dominating Grocery retailing. Purchasing the Phillips Grocery Store chain in Arkansas, and brining on many of their merchants and management was another tool used successfully by Wal-Mart in building their knowledge of the business. The Supercenters were pretty rough in the beginning; who remembers how awful the fresh and meat sections were? Yet over time they added the right mix of outside talent and along with their aggressive expansion and testing of formats ultimately paved the way to become a real top notch Grocer. In those days, little was written at large about the foibles and mis-steps of this learning curve as it was such a small portion of the companies business and their core business, the discount store, was rolling… Read more »
Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
Guest
Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
14 years 9 months ago

I do not think Wal-Mart has learned anything from this experience. A store which has created an image of a “low-priced” store over the years can not simply start selling merchandise that customers do not identify with a “low-priced” store and expect to be successful. It is not just a matter of selling better priced merchandise, the corporate culture should also be in sync with the type of merchandise being sold. If I were running Wal-Mart I would continue and sharpen focus on what Wal-Mart does best and leave rest to someone else.

Alok Sharma
Guest
Alok Sharma
14 years 9 months ago

I think Wal-Mart should sell what the customer expects from the store. You cannot sell high price apparel just because you are selling high fashion. This is a disconnect with the customer’s desire and their buying habits for such a category. They should concentrate on the high selling categories/price points and increase width in those categories so that more options can get more conversions and thus more sales per category. Also, how many customers accept Wal-Mart as a fashion innovator? They see it as a mass seller at fantastic prices.

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