Beginning with its name, Lululemon Athletica Inc. has been a bit of a mystery. The company had figured out how to entice women to hand over $100 for a pair of pants to wear to yoga class, and for years, sales were good and getting better.
But last March, things hit a snag when the company’s signature yoga pant, made from a patented material, had to be recalled because it was too sheer. The production problems didn’t seem to be properly addressed and continued well into October. Then, the company's cultish image got an ugly slap when company founder Chip Wilson said that only women too big to wear his pants would have problems with them. As it turned out, that wasn’t even Wilson's weirdest or most worrisome opinion, and he was out by the second week of December.
Investors are looking for Lululemon to put all of that behind them, but some analysts and observers say the brand will never be the same.
Competition in the stylish performance yoga space has heated up beyond hot yoga levels. While Lululemon dithered about fixing its production problems and its founder dissed its customers, brands like The Gap’s Athleta, Nordstrom’s Zella, Under Armour and others got busy designing their own lines of yoga and Pilates gear and expanding their reach.
Lululemon’s competitors are stealing its best ideas. Athleta has taken a page from Lululemon’s approach to cozying up to the namaste crowd by offering free yoga classes. It's also reaching out to yoga and Pilates instructors, giving them promotional materials and discounts heavier than Lululemon’s.
Lululemon’s competitors are skipping its worst ideas. Lululemon’s signature yoga pant is $98 and The Gap’s Athleta pant is $69 — and price point differences are comparable throughout both stores. Yoga pants at stores like Target and Old Navy are even more affordable, and the stylish design and performance fabrics that are Lululemon influences are more common. But Lululemon’s competition boasts more than better prices. Many have what Lululemon doesn’t, including sale racks, plus sizes, a better return policy, and a better selection.
What’s next? Arguably, American Apparel has suffered similar founder-inflicted public relations wounds — in fact, possibly worse, and it came closer to bankruptcy. Key to that turnaround was ending nutty expansion plans, closing underperforming stores, and using Groupon to move inventory.
As the yogis say, “Change comes irrevocably, we can resist or we can embrace the new.” Departing CEO Christine Day would never have said it, but without its skinny-rich-girl sense of exclusivity and even the vision of its weirdo founder-executive Chip Wilson, Lululemon is a different brand. Lululemon clothes for a plus-size yoga enthusiast? Apparently, there was a time where you wouldn’t hold your ujjai breath for that one. But Lululemon’s days of demanding some kind of Lululemon-defined perfection on the part of its customers — without meeting its customers’ expectations — are over.
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