The mega-retailer is moving beyond the basics—with some surprisingly tropical shirts.
The new shorts from George, Walmart’s remade men’s apparel brand, are marked very clearly on the waistband’s tag: “ABOVE KNEE.” There may only be a couple inches separating these shorts from other styles customers can find at Walmart, but here, at a press preview for George, the distinction is shouted loudly. That's because the retailer is entering new territory: capital-F Fashion.
Twilla Brooks, Walmart’s head of menswear, knows some of the brand’s loyal customers will be caught off guard by the shorter-than-ever shorts. “It's us educating him to let him know shorts are getting shorter,” Brooks tells me. But Walmart, the biggest retailer in the U.S., is doing its damnedest to convince that customer to get into some shorter shorts. That plan of attack now has a great big shiny new weapon in George, the new menswear label, and its above-the-knee shorts, colorful gingham shirts, and shorts with pineapples printed all over them. That the Arkansas-based retailer flew its executives out to New York to hold a press preview tells you everything you need to know: the retailer wants to push past its core consumer and reach a more style-conscious one that can be won over by basement-priced shorts ($7.50) and shirts ($14.92).
Walmart already sells plenty of clothes (it sold $24 billion worth of apparel in 2016, according to a Bloomberg story), but mostly the vanilla kind nobody pays much attention to. Brooks says Walmart’s successful categories are jeans, underwear, socks, and T-shirts. (She uses the acronym J.U.S.T., as in: customers are just shopping Walmart for J.U.S.T.) But Walmart has never successfully sold what we might call fashion: clothes with a point of view. And these days, fashion is a necessary piece to the puzzle for brands that want to be...well, the whole darn puzzle. Walmart isn’t satisfied with being the go-to destination for a couple categories; Walmart wants to be where shoppers buy everything. And it’s not a stretch for Walmart to wonder: if customers are already buying $24 billion's worth of jeans, underwear, socks, and T-shirts, wouldn’t they also buy some tropical-print shirts?
The newly relaunched George (women’s apparel and girl’s school uniforms have been sold under the George banner since 2003, but it’s been made men’s-only for this rollout) pushes the boundaries of what customers expect to see in a Walmart. “Typically we would have just focused on the tans and the blacks and the grays,” Brooks says. But something new is in the air. On offer: a trio of gingham shirts that have, as Brooks takes pains to point out, contrasting collars and cuffs. Nearby, a mannequin wears flamingo-print shorts; nearby, there are even the trendy camp-collar shirts. While these styles might not impress someone who’s stepped into a J.Crew in the last decade, they feel advanced for the core Walmart shopper. “We have more fashion than we’ve ever had before,” Walmart’s apparel senior vice president Deanah Baker told Bloomberg in February.
And Walmart needs to up its style quotient to compete. Because Amazon, its most formidable competitor in the general retail space, is tackling the fashion space from every angle. Amazon has the still-needs-some-work Amazon Fashion site, ecommerce sites East Dane and Shopbop, plus its own wide range of in-house private label brands. Analysts predict Amazon will overtake Macy’s to become the largest apparel retailer in the world as soon as this year.
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Amazon won’t take the crown without a fight from Walmart, though, which is playing this like any massive entity would: by throwing money at the problem. Since August of 2016, Walmart has gone on a $476 million shopping spree. Acquisitions have included outdoor apparel retailer MooseJaw, ShoeBuy.com, women’s apparel brand ModCloth, and everyman brand Bonobos. (While the Bonobos acquisition was hailed as a way to get the company’s CEO Andy Dunn and his expertise onto Team Walmart, he wasn’t involved in the development of George.) Which explains the George launch to a degree. But it’s not just Amazon that Walmart has to compete with to sell clothes in 2018. Practically everyone wants to sell you fashion in 2018, including your local grocery store. What’s driving Kroger to get into apparel is the same thing that inspires retailers like Amazon and Walmart: these places want to be a one-stop shop to meet all of their customers’ needs. If Amazon can break down the barriers and successfully sell books next to groceries next to an athleisure line dubbed Peak Velocity, Walmart needs to at least try to do the same.
When I ask Brooks why it’s important for Walmart to get into fashion, she tells me in perfect corporate-ese that updated apparel is what the customer wants. These labels are clearly a huge deal to their retailers—an important chip in the ongoing struggle between titans. But there’s a larger fight going on. The proliferation also shows who’s still left standing in the battle to become the first something-for-everyone retailer. If Walmart can successfully sell fashion—a category long dominated by specialty boutiques and the chains and department stores at the mall—the retailer can ask a more important question: why would you ever go anywhere else?
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