Loft, the younger, hipper sister brand of Ann Taylor, announced its first push into plus sizes on Monday. It’s the latest attempt by parent company Ascena Retail Group to reach new consumers and curtail a period of slumping sales.
Despite the strong holiday performance that signaled promising growth for the retail industry leading into 2018, Ascena has continued to show signs of struggle. In a call to investors in early January, Asenca announced that comparable holiday sales across all brands — including Lane Bryant, Justice and Dressbarn, among others — was down 3 percent. At Ann Taylor, sales dropped by 6 percent, while Loft sales dropped by 1 percent.
“If I were an Ascena executive, these results would keep me up at night,” Sarah Halzack, retail columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly, wrote in January. “When so many troubled retailers were able to ride a wave of consumer enthusiasm, it is deeply concerning for Ascena’s future that it was unable to do the same.”
Seeing an opportunity to capitalize upon the growing plus-size movement after competitors like Madewell and The Limited did the same, Loft will now offer sizes 16-26. The collection, called Loft Plus, is now available online, and Loft will begin to roll out the products to select stores.
The plus-size line follows other efforts by the Ascena brand portfolio — more specifically its subsidiary Ann Inc., the group of brands that includes Ann Taylor, Loft, Lou & Grey, Ann Taylor Factory and Loft Factory — to experiment with new models in attempt to profit. For example, in November, Ann Taylor debuted a subscription clothing service in a nod to the Rent the Runway model. (Jennifer Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway, told Glossy in a previous article that she was skeptical about whether the program’s “monolithic environment will be successful.”)
However, when it comes to expanding offerings that are more inclusive of body type, Loft is the only one of the Ann Inc. brands to sell plus sizes. Jessica Navas, a retail and luxury branding strategist, said while Ann Taylor has been very much stuck in its traditional ways, deviating little from its 1950s origins, Loft has made significant efforts to stay relevant.
“Loft has definitely kicked it up over the last few years,” she said. “The notion to do plus sizes is, of course, something that’s very reflective of inclusivity, but also of fashion, and of this moment that fashion should be democratic and everyone should feel good. They’re almost late to that.”
Jim Fosina, founder and CEO of Fosina Marketing Group, said the success of Loft Plus will ultimately rely on savvy marketing and thoughtful consumer engagement. However, holistically, Ascena will need to continue to evolve its brands across the portfolio in order to stay relevant and competitive.
“The key to the success of this business strategy will determine the way in which Ann Taylor promotes, connects and engages with its current customer base, as well as the way in which the program is marketed to new prospects,” he said. “Brands are understanding the mission-critical nature of evolving their customer strategy in order to keep up.”
Navas said, ultimately, she believes Ascena can rebound, if brands like Ann Taylor can take a cue from Loft, and adopt a more outspoken approach and identity in today’s retail climate.
“This is just where we are as a culture, and unfortunately, we’re so divided in so many ways,” she said. “We’re in a moment where you can’t just rest on your laurels, and your voice needs to be heard. I don’t mean just politically, but just having a clear voice. It feels like Ann Taylor is a very invisible type of voice.”