Facing Back-to-School Challenges

Denim manufacturers are revamping strategies for a back-to-school season that just isn't what it used to be.

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Special Issue
WWD Denim In Depth issue 05/22/2008
Jack Gross, group chief executive officer of Jones Apparel Group's jeanswear division, emphasized that business in general, rather than denim specifically, has slowed. Providing retailers with great product year-round has become the overriding imperative, he said.

"These are challenging times and retailers want only the product that puts you on the edge of your seat to distinguish them from competitors," he said. "Stores are not looking for a bunch of stuff, but for a way to offer customers a compelling shopping experience."

With Jones' L.E.I. brand transitioning to 3,000 Wal-Mart doors this fall from its distribution in moderate department stores, Jones is rolling out replacement brands, including True Freedom at J.C. Penney and Glo at Kohl's, Sears and Mervyns.

To motivate consumers, fall product innovations include belts, waist and pocket stitching detail and treatments, from "aggressive washes" to dry sanding and whiskering, said Gross, who added that, despite rising costs of raw materials, retailers are adamant about "maintaining the magic $19.99 and $34.99 price points."

Mark Levy, president of Vanilla Star jeans, agreed retailers are "chasing what's working." While not increasing product for the season, Vanilla Star is beefing up replenishment programs for proven bestsellers, such as with the distressed Eighties-inspired washes that are seeing weekly sell-throughs of 20 percent.

"We see the biggest bump in weekly sales the week after school starts," he said. "Kids wait to see what their friends are wearing before they come in and buy."

Vanilla Star signed teen star Emily Osment as spokeswoman in order to bring a "wholesome image that parents and seven- to 16-year-olds will appreciate," said Levy.

The fall campaign includes a "Smart Girls Rock" promotion and scholarship essay competition on the brand's Web site.

Dollhouse is increasing its marketing budget for fall, but is moving from print to include more direct-to-consumer media, events, social networks and blogs that engage 15- to 25-year-old consumers.

"With a new denim guy out there every day, it's important to get close to the consumer," said Deke Jamison, senior vice president of marketing and licensing at Dollhouse. "Back-to-school, the traditional load-it-up and come in during a two-week period, doesn't exist anymore. Retailers want flow and constant newness and they've trained consumers to come in more frequently."
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