Amazon pushes into no-name apparel market

More US online shoppers plan to shop on Amazon this year than in previous years, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, despite costly efforts by traditional retailers to attract customers to their websites.

NEW YORK •A few months ago, representatives met fashion designer Jackie Wilson. They wanted her to make a knit top for women that would be sold under an Amazon-owned private label.

And they wanted the fabric to feel heavy and high-quality, attributes long associated in the shopping mind with brand-name attire.

Said Wilson, whose company in New York makes clothing for Kohl's, American Eagle Outfitters and J.C. Penney: "They want five-star reviews."

Her knit top is in the vanguard of a private-label push that has upended the US$275 billion (S$371 billion) apparel sector in America.

Amazon, Wal-Mart Stores, Target and other big retailers are beefing up their clothing lines to grab shoppers whose loyalty to brands such as Gap and Nike has waned.

In some categories, such as the active wear that folk increasingly wear all day, private labels combined account for 20 per cent of the market, reported researcher NPD.

Store-brand apparel is nothing new. The Sears, Roebuck & Co catalogue first offered clothing in 1894.

Wal-Mart's Faded Glory house brand began life in 1972 as a department-store label. But for years, private-label apparel was dull, no match for branded threads.

That started to change in 1990 when British supermarket chain Asda Stores asked fashion designer George Davies to create an exclusive clothing line.

The result, George, was a hit and caught the attention of Canadian retailer Loblaws. In 2004, it hired Joe Mimran, co-founder of the Club Monaco chain, to do the same.

His Joe Fresh expanded into standalone stores and a partnership with J.C. Penney in the US. But the brand did not click with Penney's shoppers, prompting Mimran's departure in 2015 and an overhaul of the business.

Despite its recent struggles, Joe Fresh "was a nice surprise to other retailers who said, 'Hey, if they can do this, we can, too'", said Mr Adheer Bahulkar, a partner at consultant A.T. Kearney.

As retailers stepped up investments, connected with Asian suppliers and poached fashionistas to head in-house design teams, the established brands stumbled under the weight of declining mall traffic and heaps of unsold inventory.

Under Armour has been battered by slowing growth in athletic footwear and J.Crew has struggled to reinvent itself after the departure of long-time chief executive Mickey Drexler. Gap's only bright spot lately is its off-price Old Navy chain. Even mighty Nike this year announced major layoffs.

"Every new generation is becoming less and less brand-loyal," Mr Bahulkar noted. "Millennials don't care as much about logos. They will buy anything from anywhere at any price point."

The erosion of brand loyalty has been a boon for Target, the cheap-chic retailer that made its name in apparel via partnerships with top designers Isaac Mizrahi and Jason Wu more than a decade ago.

It has leveraged on that success to create its own private labels in recent years, most notably Cat & Jack, a kids' apparel line whose sales surpassed US$2 billion after little more than a year on the shelves.

Apparel shopping these days often begins with an online search and consultant Bain & Co has found that a surprising number of queries do not mention a brand at all. Consumers just enter, say, "yoga pants", and see what comes up.

Amazon is capitalising on this in two ways. Despite its private-label push, it is also trying to create legitimacy as a destination for fashion by luring established brands that want to improve their digital sales, even if it means submitting to Amazon's pricing algorithms.

Heads turned when Nike began selling its shoes directly on the site over the summer. Calvin Klein recently opened two pop-up shops in New York and Los Angeles whose fitting rooms are outfitted with an Echo, an Amazon device that lets users submit photos of outfits and recommends the best one.

Not every fashion brand is as willing to hop into bed with Amazon, fearing a loss of cachet. But with mall-based department stores falling out of favour, analysts at Goldman Sachs expect the "vast majority" of labels to follow that path.

Luckily for the big brands, three-quarters of apparel shoppers still prefer to feel or try on the product before buying, A.T. Kearney noted.

The likes of Lululemon can counterattack with so-called curated merchandising, industry jargon for showing shoppers that this top goes well with those pants.

Still, private labels do not need to inspire. Like Wilson's knit top, they just need to satisfy a need.

"We don't expect private labels to become fashion houses, but they can create enough newness that they can capture sales," Mr Bahulkar said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2017, with the headline 'Amazon pushes into no-name apparel market'. Print Edition | Subscribe