Express, a legacy apparel retailer with 600+ stores, has taken a novel approach to changing consumer trends by launching an online-based independent direct-to-consumer (DTC) spinoff. UpWest is an e-Commerce “purpose-driven” lifestyle brand designed to emphasize comfort with a wellness message and give-back component. The brand offers a range of casual apparel, loungewear and sleepwear items, along with a selection of wellness products and home goods items from third-party vendors.
Under the DTC model, UpWest will keep its inventory, merchandising, design and e-Commerce operations in-house using the Shopify platform, while leveraging Express for areas including the supply chain, logistics and HR.
With the continued growth of DTC brands within retail, the RTP team discusses whether Express is making the right decision to launch a brand of its own, and debates whether this provides a model for other retailers and brands looking to enter the DTC space in the future.
Adam Blair, Editor: As several RetailWire contributors have pointed out, the DTC route Express is taking provides a low-risk way to launch and test a new brand — with the benefit that if it does take off, there’s a backend infrastructure all ready to support solid growth. And as my colleague Glenn points out below, this model blazes a trail for other retailers struggling to stand out in a sea of sameness. My specific concerns with UpWest are that its assortment and messaging choices also seem to be playing it safe. Comfort and wellness? Great, but not exactly revolutionary in today’s market. Ditto the charity choices (service dogs, mental health and “random acts”). They’re certainly all worthy, but they feel like a group selected by a committee to cover as many bases as possible without offending anyone. I’m not saying UpWest should have chosen Hong Kong protestors or anything as divisive as that, but this group doesn’t feel like they are contributing to a strong brand identity. And what does the name UpWest signify? The Upper West Side of Manhattan, or the inverse of Maine’s nickname Down East? Or is it nothing but a pleasant sound?
Glenn Taylor, Senior Editor: Express is just one of several examples of retailers that have had a tough time finding their footing in recent years, facing the same sales and traffic declines as many of its mall-based counterparts. As an apparel company, Express operates in the same “middle ground” where it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd. That means sheer fundamental changes across the board are a likely necessity to turn the company in a positive direction. While the UpWest brand launch doesn’t necessarily cure all the ills at Express, I do applaud them for experimenting; they are making a play to get to customers in a way that taps into their mindset (comfort can be a big sell). If anything, this test can be a good attempt for Express to examine where its own shortcomings exist, all while gathering more data on a different type of consumer. I think more retailers stuck in the middle (i.e. with products that are neither “value” or “luxury”) should watch how this experiment unfolds to see if a DTC brand is a worthwhile investment.
Bryan Wassel, Associate Editor: I don’t think launching a DTC brand is a particularly good cure for any retail woes, but it is a (relatively) cheap way to expand in new directions. As my colleague Glenn points out, UpWest will put an emphasis on comfort that may not be associated with the mainline Express brand — and other retailers may take similar approaches as a way to expand the boundaries of their usual portfolio. By making these brands online-only, retailers can preserve precious shelf space in their stores and minimize disruption of their core offerings, while letting new ideas sink or swim on their own merits (rather than being shaped by the health of the overall brick-and-mortar footprint). Larger companies with established e-Commerce operations already have the infrastructure to design a web site, handle delivery and properly measure customer response, and the cost of a doomed web site and a corner in an existing warehouse is significantly less than a failed brand eating up valuable sales floor real estate across the entire chain. So while UpWest alone won’t save Express from its current troubles, it could provide a lifeline that leads to a broader solution.