Will Walmart’s new private clothing line have ‘staying power’?

Photos: Walmart
Sep 22, 2020

Will a new more upscale men’s and women’s private clothing label help elevate Walmart’s fashion sales? That’s the question after the retailer announced the launch of Free Assembly, a new 55-piece line offering “high-quality pieces” at prices between $9 and $45.

The new brand, according to a blog post by Denise Incandela, SVP of women’s group, elevated and online brands for the retailer, was created by Walmart’s in-house design team. The line will be available in 250 select Walmart stores and on walmart.com.

“At its core, this new brand is born from thoughtful, simple design, quality fabrics, modern silhouettes and styles updated for today,” Ms. Incandela wrote. “It’s as timeless as it is versatile, with wardrobe staples that are easy to mix, layer and assemble freely. These are pieces designed to have staying power.”

Fresh Assembly is part of a concerted effort by Walmart to raise the profile of its apparel and accessories business in recent years. The retailer has added more than 1,000 apparel brands to its online selection, launched exclusive brands such as EV1 from Ellen Degeneres, Scoop and Sofia Jeans by Sofia Vergara. It has also partnered with thredUP to offer previously owned fashion merchandise at a fraction of the original prices.

Ms. Incandela praised the work of Walmart’s in-house design team, which designed the Free Assembly line. The team is led by Dwight Fenton, whose previous design experience included work with Bonobos, J.Crew and Old Navy.

“There’s really nothing else like it on the market,” said Mr. Fenton about Free Assembly. “We’ve created something familiar enough that anyone can see themselves in the clothing, but unique enough that it has a twist and is intriguing. And, when you consider the style and quality we’re offering for the price point, Free Assembly is truly unmatched in the industry. In fact, I don’t think there’s been a great new modern brand offering this level of quality for such incredible prices — and at this scale — since the mid-1990s.”

Brett Briggs, Walmart chief financial officer, told attendees of Barclays Global Consumer Staples Conference earlier this month that expanding its inventory and selling more apparel and home goods products on walmart.com has helped boost the retailer’s profit margins.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will Walmart’s Free Assembly line be a hit? Do you think the retailer’s moves in apparel are helping to improve its fashion image? Will this lead to higher sales and market share?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Hey, fashion works for Target, why not Walmart?"
"Walmart does their market research and I’d imagine this will be a strong line for them."
"Maybe the third time will work. The first two times Walmart tried this it did not."

Join the Discussion!

28 Comments on "Will Walmart’s new private clothing line have ‘staying power’?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Mark Ryski

Fashion is fickle and so picking hits is unpredictable, but what is clear is that Walmart is serious about advancing their apparel business. These new moves certainly won’t hurt Walmart’s fashion image, and I suspect that they will help – perhaps considerably.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
1 year 10 months ago

It is hard to imagine Walmart apparel appealing to fashion conscious consumers, but they are making some smart moves to change the perception of their apparel selection. Early in the pandemic, consumers had very limited options for purchasing apparel in physical stores as many apparel stores were not considered essential and were closed for a couple months. I have heard through word of mouth stories that shoppers were surprised what styles they found at mass merchants and many more consumers are open to buying clothes at Target, Costco and even Walmart. Walmart continues to impress me with their strategies and it will be interesting to see how the Free Assembly line performs.

Neil Saunders

Walmart is big in apparel, but this is mostly because of its size and reach. It is an easy and convenient option for existing customers to buy basics, but it does less well at taking share of wallet from more fashion-focused shoppers. Introducing more fashionable own-labels is a potential way of increasing market share. However Walmart needs to think about how the assortment looks in-store and online and how it will reach new customer segments that currently don’t associate Walmart with fashionable clothing. As Target has shown, own-labels can be really successful but it takes great execution as well as great product to make them work.

Suresh Chaganti

This is a move keeping in line with the brand promise – everyday low prices. Clearly this is not aspirational. The idea is to get more of the wallet share from their existing customers. And I think it will work. Mid-market retailers like Kohl’s might be the ones that will be impacted.

Georganne Bender

Hey, fashion works for Target, why not Walmart?

Walmart has been talking about fashion for a while now; its clothing has been featured on BuzzFeed and in other media – if I didn’t know the video in the article was for Free Assembly I would swear it was a Gap ad. Walmart is on a roll, I have no doubt it will make fashion work in its stores.

Brandon Rael

Just as Target, Amazon and other leading retailers are reaping the benefits of having their own private label fashion brands, Walmart is entering the competition at the right time. Walmart, which may have historically not been synonymous with fashion, are taking the necessary steps to change their brand perception and appeal to the Gen X and Millennial consumers who influence the family shopping decisions.

Walmart will have to learn, adapt and evolve their fashion operating model based on how the market responds. If they are able to provide quality clothing at the right price for the value driven consumer, the private label brand may just have some staying power.

Stephen Rector

Walmart.com’s target customer is different than the in-store customer. They are targeting families with incomes at $100,000 plus in metro areas. Therefore this move to offer more expensive apparel lines makes sense in terms of the product offering and price. They will learn from it and take the data for future brands both in-store and online. Walmart continues to offer new and interesting ideas and concepts on a weekly basis these days.

Ed Rosenbaum

This is possibly a weakness in the Walmart portfolio. I rarely see anything more than a t-shirt or running shorts in their inventory that is appealing. Taking this step will certainly boost sales. But will it bring new shoppers to the store and will they become repeat shoppers? The answer to this may be the answer to the success of Walmart’s apparel line. I am guessing the answer is no.

Scott Norris

After watching the video, Target has nothing to worry about. Heck, even the Gap might not have anything to worry about. This line is about on par with Amazon Basics – I can’t see it being an attraction to the stores.

Paula Rosenblum

For as long as I have been in retail (too long, I think sometimes), retailers have looked at higher-end products (especially fashion) as an opportunity to gain more gross margin dollars in each sale.

For as long as I have been in retail, none have succeeded.

I suppose there’s no harm in experimenting, but I don’t see any opportunity for success.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader, Advisor, & Strategist
1 year 10 months ago

While this is certainly an uphill battle for Walmart in the hearts and minds of the fashion-conscious consumer, they have clearly learned from the Target private label playbook! Clearly Walmart has witnessed Target’s success in this area and wishes to mimic that. They have created interesting copy and multimedia visuals for this new line on Walmart.com that may appeal to a new audience. They will need to focus on getting those consumers to their website as the target for this apparel line might not be the usual Walmart customer. I feel this is a good start and if supported by strong marketing to drive the fashion consumer to their website they may see some gains in apparel sales from this effort. Interestingly, if you didn’t know this was Walmart, you might think you were watching Gap or Old Navy promotional material!

Jeff Sward

Free Assembly might improve Walmart’s apparel image, but that’s not the same as improving its fashion image. It’s kind of a “if you build it, they will come “strategy and one could say overdue. The line consists of “wardrobe staples that are easy to mix, layer and assemble freely.” Great. Operative word being “staples.” Let’s not confuse that with Walmart going into the fashion business. I’m sure they have worked hard on identifying great key items and offering great value. It never needed to be “unmatched” or “nothing else like it on the market.” That’s not Walmart’s brand promise. High quality and incredible prices are perfect. That’s Walmart’s brand promise.

Laura Davis-Taylor
Laura Davis-Taylor
Founder, Branded Ground
1 year 10 months ago

I went through this almost 20 years ago while working at one of their store design firms when they decided to up their game with the merchandise and apparel category design. The products and upgrades to flooring, fixtures and signage were really, really nice. Back then, it backfired because their core shoppers felt that the more upscale approach was translating to higher overall store cost. Corporate slowly backed away from it and I recall the overall disappointment, but it made sense – Walmart has never been associated with quality or cachet, and their core shoppers wanted to keep it cheap and accessible.

I wonder what motivated this move during a time of such unprecedented financial strain on the middle and lower classes? The store experience (in many locations) is still bare bones and is also not ready to support a more upscale product and price point — at least not in the ones I shop often. I like the idea, but I question the timing and feasibility. I suppose we’ll know soon enough!

Cathy Hotka

Ms. Incandela knows what she’s doing. That said, Walmart is going to need a lot more than 12 women’s pieces to get people excited about this line.

Harley Feldman

Free Assembly has potential for Walmart. The line is low priced to sell and it has mix and match items which should help sales. However apparel is a hard category to predict and will need to be refreshed in the future. Walmart has such a large reach in-store and online, Free Assembly will get plenty of exposure. Time will tell as to Walmart’s success in improving its fashion image and lead to higher sales and market share. Given Walmart’s breadth and support, Free Assembly should be successful.

Raj B. Shroff

For the 140 million shoppers who visit Walmart every week, the line will be a hit just due to sheer numbers. The only thing I am curious about is how much of the target’s discretionary income will be going toward new clothing items, including those who are working from home. Obviously the launch could have been bigger if consumers were out and about more.

Walmart seems to have hired designers and other staff who come from the industry. I would think all this will lead to higher sales. As for market share, if they are moving people away from TJ Maxx, Target, Old Navy, outlets and online, yes.

Lisa Goller

By reflecting market trends and classic pieces, Free Assembly will enhance Walmart’s sales and fashion image.

Affordable quality staples will give consumers more variety and value during the pandemic. Private labels give Walmart more control over its profit margins and supply chain reliability. This line could appeal to coveted Gen Z and Millennial shoppers, especially in tandem with a TikTok deal. Unlike online rivals, Walmart has an abundance of physical stores to give consumers an immediate, multi-sensory experience, which can minimize returns. Notably, private label apparel sets Walmart apart from many value rivals, including dollar store chains and discounters.

That said, Walmart faces even more aggressive competition, including Target’s glorious cheap chic private label apparel. Also, Amazon will continue to invest in private label apparel across all price points, especially if voice commerce becomes a more ingrained habit, as these two strategies are tied together.

Overall, this is a smart, strategic play by Walmart.

Lee Peterson

After literally decades of cultivating a customer base around low prices and rural and outer-suburban consumers, this will be a tough sell for Walmart. I’m not saying they can’t achieve success, especially given their half-trillion dollar revenue base, but it will not be an overnight mega-boom. They’ve never lacked the ability to attract talent, so that’s not the issue. The rub for them is brand. Target built a brand on apparel, flashy ads and a completely different consumer than Walmart, so it’s always been easier for them to succeed in this world. In order for fashion to thrive on a mass scale, Walmart’s going to have to put on their long term thinking hats, which would include a pretty fair tweaking of the force behind their brand as well.

Dick Seesel

Based on a rollout to only 250 stores (for now), this seems to be a play for more apparel share on Walmart.com. Walmart can’t sit on its hands while Amazon and Target continue to gain online share in apparel, and at some point it needs to leverage whatever it’s learned from Bonobos and other similar acquisitions.

However Walmart’s history of upgraded apparel offerings goes back years and has not been particularly successful. Free Assembly may turn out to have a halo effect on the rest of Walmart’s clothing business without turning into a huge sales driver on its own.

Peter Charness

The future of online is all about brands, if you don’t own one, then you are just another choice someone may make if Amazon is out of stock of the type of item the shopper is looking for and isn’t brand loyal. Not a good place to be.

Gene Detroyer

Really? Maybe I am having trouble with definitions. “High-quality pieces” at prices between $9 and $45. Is that an oxymoron?

Ryan Mathews

This may be similar to the plight of the Honda Element. Honda introduced the Element as a vehicle for Millennials. Its value propositions included maximum internal flexibility and the ability to hose out the car after a camping trip or tailgate party. Only problem? Millennials didn’t buy it, their parents and grandparents did. So the product simultaneously succeeded and failed. There’s a little of this here. For the fashion shopper “value” is often defined not by affordability, but rather by how much you pay – sort of an anti-Walmart position. Some fashionistas pay more than $45 for a pair of socks. So since the haute couture crowd won’t be swarming Walmart anytime soon, the question becomes, “Who is the target market here, and what do those consumers want and value?” I don’t know the answer, fashion after all being more difficult to predict than the weather, but I’m sure we will find out soon.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Maybe the third time will work. The first two times Walmart tried this it did not. Given that people are not going out much and mostly communicating digitally, seems like fashionable tops and face masks are the only pieces of clothing in demand right now.

Kenneth Leung

It makes sense as Walmart evolves to compete against Amazon and Target. Personally I do have a concern about $5 to $45 “high quality pieces” because we are trying to move away from fast fashion/ the “wear a few times and discard” mentality for sustainability reasons and we are seeing, because of COVID-19, the issues of supply chain upstream in terms of the low cost labor needed for such apparel. From a business perspective for Walmart it makes sense.

Allison McGuire

I like the product line they’ve put together and it’s pretty middle of the road so anyone could wear the pieces. Especially during this time when people want comfort while they’re at home, but still want something new to wear when they venture out. Walmart does their market research and I’d imagine this will be a strong line for them. They’ll need to expand it over time to capture market share.

Cynthia Holcomb

Sustainability, cheap prices, and decades-old classics are a toss-up for a Walmart “knock it out of the park,” success. Online, Walmart.com has done a nice job of portraying the Free Assembly as cool and modern, Gap-like, even Old Navy basics in feeling. In-store, merchandising and display will play key roles in garnering customer attention. All the effort could be lost if this small collection is lost in a sea of Walmart signage. The bottom line the collection is clean and easily understood by a range of both male and female consumers. Walmart Free Assembly is a cleaner version of the basics Costco sells and a more traditional version of classic basics Target sells. Success will be measured in-store. Is Walmart’s version of “fashion” viable or important to Walmart shoppers?

Craig Sundstrom

I don’t doubt that assuming a sustained effort, Walmart can increase both its sales and share, but I think the bigger question is “will it be worth it?”

My thought is that WM’s biggest obstacles are perceptions about the brand. When your whole purpose for a half century has been to offer (what are essentially commodities) for the lowest price, it’s difficult to convince people you’ve shifted gears, regardless of how true that might be (and of course we’ll have to make some jump of faith to assume the shift is real). Combined with the less-than-ideal atmosphere of the stores, which have a bargain basement feel and a mindset in non-customers — i.e. the potential audience — of what a “Walmart shopper” is, and it’s a tough hill to climb.