Kaarin Vembar is obsessed with the luxury and apparel markets. She also has a sassy mouth so her managing editor decided to give her a column in an attempt to harness insight for readers. Kaarin can be reached at [email protected].
Chances are you have something from the Ascena Retail Group in your closet. The company owns Ann Taylor, Loft, Lou & Grey, Lane Bryant, Cacique, Catherines, and Justice. Until this past spring, it also owned Maurices and Dressbarn. Oh, and if Bloomberg is correct the company may be on a road to sell Lane Bryant and Catherines, too.
Earlier in the year, Ascena pushed back hard after the New York Post stated that it failed to communicate with its lenders, a charge Ascena countered by saying that it was in regular discussions with them and "in full compliance under its term loan." In its latest earnings, Ascena dropped to a net loss of $358 million from a profit of $33.2 million in the year-ago period. Interim Executive Chairman Carrie Teffner said on a call to analysts regarding the quarter that the company was considering options to optimize its balance sheet, but "to be clear and for the avoidance of doubt, bankruptcy of Ascena is not one of the options being evaluated."
Less than two weeks later, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the company due to "persistent execution missteps." The report went on to say"[A]scena needs to achieve a significantly higher level of earnings on a sustained basis in order to support its current debt structure and a refinancing at par with higher interest rates."
One reason the retailer may be suffering when it comes to sales is that it is relying on its Loft brand to hold it up. "Quite frankly, the jewel in the crown for them is the Loft," Shawn Grain Carter, professor of fashion business management at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told Retail Dive in a conversation about Ascena earlier in the fall.
“Loft has been able to capitalize as a lifestyle brand," Carter explained. "They’ve got leisure casual, weekend casual, workout casual and then business casual. And their prices are easily 30% to 40% less than Ann Taylor. So, why would a customer want to shop at Ann Taylor now?"
Ann Taylor has been the stuffier older sister of Ascena’s grouping ever since it acquired the Ann Inc. unit in 2015 for $2.16 billion. Ann Taylor has always been a store where a shopper could find a black skirt, a sheath dress or a navy blazer. The items have always been basics, but office staples that were universally appropriate and well constructed, and could be mixed and matched within a larger wardrobe.
Then the office changed.
Really, all of life has changed when it comes to apparel. The casualization of clothing has permeated every area of our lives. Athleisure as a category has performed well consistently, while the lines between workwear and daily life have increasingly blurred. Additionally, apparel spending habits have drastically changed. According to a Deloitte report, in 1987 the average consumer allocated nearly 6% of their spending to apparel and services. But, in 2017, that allocation was only 3.1%. Instead of having a wardrobe with categories of what can be worn on different occasions, everything is now hanging in one closet and thus has equal consideration.
While it’s easy to generalize that office culture has relaxed apparel expectations, the Ann Taylor look still has cachet in Washington, D.C., where I live. So I went to an Ann Taylor store to check out what was going on with the clothing.
It had been a while since I had been to the retailer, and I was going with an eye toward understanding how the items are tied to current styles. Or how flexible items could be utilized in a setting outside of the office.
What I found was something much more unexpected.
Take these sweaters.
This is the Houndstooth Mock Neck Sweater and it retails for $89.50. The two sweaters pictured hanging on the rack both had holes. The sweater on the left had one on the shoulder seam. The sweater on the right, which was directly next to it on the rack, had one on the front. I could put my hand under it and poke a finger through the fabric.
It's important to note that I didn't dig for these items (or any of the others shown in subsequent photos) to get perfect examples. All products were right on top of a stack or the first on the rack — easily accessible to any shopper.
Next is this cranberry colored dress. It's called the Twist Neck Flutter Sleeve Midi Dress and it had a $159 price tag.
The hanger appeal isn't great (although on a mannequin the shape makes much more sense). But, why is it so wrinkly? And, upon closer inspection, there were stains on the fabric.
Wrinkly fabric was a consistent problem throughout the store.
This cape, which has an errant thread, retails for $149.50. It's easy to tell by the folds that it was likely hung straight out of a package.
This pair of black pants were the ones on top of a display — complete with lots of white fuzz.
There was also odd pricing with the sunglasses specifically.
The picture on the left was taken at Ann Taylor earlier this week. The aviators were priced at $48. The pair on the right were found on sister brand Loft's website for $24.50. The pairs are close in design and both tout 100% UV protection. (At press time the price of the Ann Taylor sunglasses photographed in-store had dropped online to $25.)
All of these things individually can happen within a store. People try on things and get stains them. There are random strings on clothes when you take them out of the packaging when doing inventory. In a high traffic area, which this store is in, there is going to be a certain amount of wear and tear.
But, what was happening with the apparel was very different from the overall look and feel of the store. The location was very clean. Items on racks and tables were orderly and the merchandising was neat and welcoming. Staff was friendly and helpful to customers. It was only when you got up close to the product itself that the brand story was muddled.
I personally think that the world still needs traditional work clothing as an apparel option. There is a need for basic, wardrobe-building items that can be found at a decent price point. If you are going to spend some of your salary on those clothes, though, you hope the products will last. Why sink $150 into something that has problems while it is still on the hanger at the store? For that money you can shop at off-price, get a deal and your money will go further.
And therein lies the problem. While the Ann Taylor brand still exudes an essence of sophistication, the reality of the apparel betrays that. So, why does the world need Ann Taylor?