When Lauren Conrad announced on January 1 that she was expecting her first child, Kohl’s had to act fast ahead of her June due date.
The retailer has been Conrad’s exclusive wholesale partner for her LC Lauren Conrad brand since it launched in 2009, and over the past eight years, the product assortment of the brand has corresponded to a number of Conrad’s big life moments — for instance, a home goods collection launched alongside Conrad’s purchase of her Malibu home.
Following her baby announcement, Conrad’s first maternity collection had to go live in under six months in order for her to model it herself. A race against a strict biological clock started.
“Unlike already established brands that are now exclusive to Kohl’s — like Candie’s or Simply Vera by Vera Wang — we’ve helped the LC brand build organically from the start,” said Michael Gilbert, Kohl’s evp of product development. “We knew that if and when she got pregnant, we would have to utilize our speed model to launch it quickly enough.”
LC Lauren Conrad’s first maternity wear went from design to product development, to sales floor within the six-month deadline, thanks to Kohl’s “speed initiative,” started last year. The initiative has brought 40 percent of Kohl’s proprietary brands (which include both exclusive brands like LC and private label brands including Croft & Barrow) into a production cycle of three to four months, rather than the previous 12-month cycle.
Beyond fitting into its fast-reaction production cycle, the LC brand has also helped Kohl’s tap into a younger customer set thanks to her audience, which Gilbert categorizes as typically older millennials. According to Gilbert, these are important areas for growth for Kohl’s, which saw net sales decrease in the last quarter by 3.2 percent, to $3.8 billion.
Across the board for department stores, falling foot traffic leading to rampant discounting has soured many wholesale relationships, as brands like Coach, Kate Spade and Michael Kors hope to elevate their reputations away from a promotional image. Companies like Macy’s and Nordstrom, as well as Kohl’s, are turning to their private label brands and exclusive brand partnerships to control the shape and speed of their inventory. At Kohl’s, private and exclusive brands make up about half of the company’s inventory, and 30 percent of its merchandise is women’s apparel, its biggest category.
A promotional photo from the first LC Lauren Conrad collection
Kohl’s doesn’t share sales figures for its proprietary brands, but product and category expansion over the past eight years marks the LC Lauren Conrad brand’s growth. After launching in 300 stores with just an apparel collection in 2009, the brand expanded to all 1,500 Kohl’s stores by 2010. The brand’s categories have expanded to include footwear, jewelry, fine jewelry, hair accessories, sunglasses, bedding, bathroom accessories, handbags and now, maternity. Meanwhile, a series of capsule collections designed by the brand have launched over the years, including Disney collections, and swim, festival and occasion wear, as well as an elevated runway brand that premiered during New York Fashion Week in September of 2016.
“I’ve been able to do so much, as far as production and category expansion, because Kohl’s educated me about my customer,” said Conrad. “I took the time to get to know her and see where there was white space, instead of just coming out with a bunch of things I thought could sell.”
Conrad said she’s built her line alongside those customer data points, using intel like what heel height her customers like to wear and what fabrics fit best into their everyday life. In addition to looking at what’s selling, she considers what customers are responding to on social media.
“It’s an open discussion around what’s selling and what’s not working, and social media plays a huge role in that, as [does] Kohl’s transparency,” said Conrad. “If there’s criticism, we can go in and immediately make those changes because it’s a close relationship.”
The focus on social media — Conrad frequently surveys customers about upcoming product decisions on her feeds and shares photos of new items to her six million Instagram followers — has pushed Kohl’s to improve its mobile site functions, as that social media promotion drives traffic to the retailer’s mobile site. Mobile sales currently account for 40 percent of Kohl’s digital sales, which Kohl’s does not break out from overall sales.
“We want to give [Conrad] support to promote the product on social media, so we made it easier to shop Kohl’s on mobile after clicking through from the post,” said Gilbert. “We’ve done more with our digital business to highlight, market and promote the brand, as a result, as well. It’s actually affected our mobile strategy.”
So excited to finally share that I have been working on a @lclaurenconrad maternity line with @kohls! I had so much fun creating a collection that would make soon-to-be mamas feel their best (and I know because I stole all the samples as soon as I could get my hands on them 😉). It’s available in select stores and online June 7th x 📷: @elizabethmessina
That digital-first customer behavior extends to desktop; Conrad said Kohl’s website is constantly being reconsidered in order to improve the experience. Most recently, the brand’s landing page was relaunched in order to include online exclusives and a mix-and-match tool for patterned tops and bottoms.
Investing in the online and mobile experiences (mobile accounts for 66 percent of the company’s overall online traffic) is where Kohl’s is focusing its efforts to boost overall sales as foot traffic in stores falls, according to Gilbert.
“Right now, everyone’s in a bad place, but as they reconfigure, it’s going to come down to cross-channel capabilities,” said Jessica Ramirez, an analyst at the boutique retail firm Jane Halli and Associates. “Buy online, pick up in store, reserve online, store shipping — these things are all very important. If you don’t have this approach, you’re in the dark ages.”