Brylane: How a Big Fish Is Getting Bigger

Walking toward Brylane’s headquarters on New York’s Seventh Avenue, you’ll trod atop a series of plaques embedded into the sidewalk honoring top-name designers — Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Vera Wang, to name just a few. They don’t call it Fashion Avenue for nothing.

And while few will confuse Brylane with Bill Blass, the $1.6 billion cataloger has been undergoing a makeover of sorts. Not only has it been adding more-upscale offerings to its lower-end apparel titles, but it’s also counting on a push toward private-label products to boost sales and margins. And like many of its Seventh Avenue neighbors, Brylane is expanding its presence in the home market to ease its reliance on the fickle world of fashion. The company started selling home items just four years ago; by 2006, says chairman/CEO Russell Stravitz, Brylane expects home goods to account for a quarter of its sales.

The first Lane Bryant plus-size apparel catalog mailed in 1901; Brylane today includes plus-size titles Jessica London and Roaman’s as well as Lane Bryant; misses’ apparel catalogs Chadwick’s of Boston, Lerner, and La Redoute; men’s big-and-tall clothing cataloger Kingsize Direct; and three home decor and gifts titles. Brylane is part of the RedCats home shopping division of Paris-based conglomerate Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR), which acquired Brylane in 1998. Brylane represents about one-third of RedCats’ roughly $5.65 billion in total sales. Most Brylane catalogs target consumers with an annual household income of $40,000-$70,000.

“It’s a gigantic challenge,” says Stravitz, who spoke exclusively to Catalog Age a few weeks before announcing his resignation from Brylane in November. On competing in today’s marketplace, he notes that “we have plenty of good catalog competition, but we are also competing more with retailers.” Considering that retail chain rivals such as Target and Kohl’s are now deploying private-label brands, “we have to have unique merchandise that you cannot see elsewhere.”

Shaking the tree

Stravitz, 55, took over the reins of Brylane in May 2000, when CEO/chairman Peter Canzone retired after 31 years with the company. Before a two-year stint as a consultant with Cox Interactive Media and as vice chairman of e-commerce services provider Nexchange Corp., Stravitz served as chairman/CEO of Federated Department Stores’ Rich’s/Lazarus/Goldsmith’s unit.

When he arrived at Brylane three years ago, Stravitz says, the mailer was in some ways a victim of its long history. The apparel wasn’t being refreshed, and Brylane was relying too much on “repeats,” basic items such as stretch pants and turtlenecks that customers buy year after year.

The company began adding more seasonal trend items to its merchandise mix. Then, to call attention to its updated selection, Brylane enlisted New York-based AGA Marketing and Design to “add organization and relevance to Brylane fashion titles,” says AGA president/CEO Andy Russell. Editorial-type treatment, with trend reports and mix-and-match features, along with the introduction of boutique-type sections within the catalogs, “has helped differentiate their brands from those catalogs with page after page of monotonous merchandise presentation,” Russell says. For example, Chadwick’s of Boston’s fall 2003 catalog includes a “Priority Report,” seven pages of fashionable T-shirts, blazers, and ribbed sweaters. This helps signify to customers that these items are current and must-haves, Russell says.

Nonetheless, “I wouldn’t say [Brylane’s apparel mix is] fashion forward,” Stravitz says. He prefers to think of Brylane’s portfolio as being “fashion-current,” because many customers still rely on the company for the basics. Striking a successful balance of basics and trend-driven items is tricky, he notes. “You can be overreliant on [basics] and miss the things in the market,” Stravitz says. “We need to be more in the business of want — we need to seduce the customers.”

As part of its seduction efforts, Brylane two years ago started a global sourcing department, which is developing private-label brands for all its apparel catalogs. The Lane Bryant catalog debuted the Main St. Blues denim brand and the casual basics line All-American Comfort last year. Next spring Roaman’s is launching the Allison Woods dress brand.

By carrying private-label brands, “you get rewarded in a couple of ways,” Stravitz says. For one, the customer buys the merchandise from you because you’re the only one that has it. “Then, we are able to have a lower cost of goods because we can buy directly and not pay someone else to provide those goods and services for us.” By 2005, 50%-60% of all Brylane catalog products will be proprietary goods, Stravitz says. That’s up from less than 25% in 2000.

The Brylane Catalog Stable
Title Product niche
Brylane Home linens, home goods
Brylane Home Kitchen kitchen items, home hard goods
Brylane Home Wishes gifts, home decor
Chadwick’s of Boston misses’ apparel
Jessica London women’s plus-size apparel
KingSize Direct men’s big-and-tall clothing
Lane Bryant catalog women’s plus-size apparel
La Redoute misses’ apparel
Lerner misses’ apparel
Roaman’s women’s plus-size apparel

Brylane is also applying its private-label prowess to its fledgling home division. The company launched Brylane Home in 1999; two years later it set up a home decor division, which it calls its lifestyles group. The division, headed by catalog veteran Steve Goldberg, in 2001 accounted for less than 3% of Brylane’s sales; during the next few years, Brylane aims to push that figure to 20%-25%.

“We expanded the Brylane Home book initially with proprietary products and many exclusives designed by us,” Stravitz says. “We wanted to begin to launch the categories that we think we can sell to customers.” The company introduced Brylane Home Kitchen in February 2002 and Brylane Home Wishes this past fall. The 76-page Wishes catalog sells more than 350 gift items in a broad range of categories, including children’s, pets, and holiday.

The lifestyles group, Stravitz says, “has a lot of talent to develop goods. And we have an existing customer file so that we don’t have to start from scratch.” Indeed, Brylane boasts a house file of 7 million 12-month buyers and more than 10 million 24-month buyers.

“Brylane has skillfully leveraged its customer base by offering women’s apparel, but they’ve also built quite a home decor and gift business,” says Craig Battle, managing director of Princeton, NJ-based investment bank Tucker Alexander. By balancing its product offering and migrating into home decor, “the company’s pretty well diversified.”

But apparel catalogers who segued into the home decor business haven’t always prospered, because catalogers often misread their core customers and assume that if they buy apparel from a marketer, they will also buy home products. The apparel companies that have been successful making the transition, Battle adds, are those that have carefully tested their way into the home market with a very loyal and responsive customer base.

The initiatives afoot at Brylane “make sense for that business,” says direct marketing consultant George Ittner, former CEO of New York-based women’s apparel cataloger Newport News. “But the trick to making changes, no matter how positive, is doing them incrementally so that you completely remove any risk of moving away from your core customer base.”

Fashion crisis

For now, Brylane’s biggest challenge may not be mastering the home market but stemming soft sales in the apparel sector. In early November, the company eliminated 130 jobs from its Chadwick’s of Boston distribution centers in Taunton, MA, and West Bridgewater, MA. Not a good sign in the midst of what for most consumer marketers is the biggest quarter of the year. For certain, while Brylane commands a sizable chunk of the women’s apparel catalog market, says Battle, “it’s an increasingly tough business.”

Stravitz admits that Brylane’s apparel business is suffering from what he calls “deflation.” The number of shipments is down, and the customers are spending less. The company is hoping that the introduction of private labels will reverse the trend.

No doubt Stravitz’s replacement, Eric Faintreny, will be working on halting the deflation as well. Faintreny, the former chairman/CEO of Redcats Nordic, PPR’s Swedish home shopping business, will assume that title at Brylane in January.

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