In 1997 I left my job as assistant manager of a local boutique to work for the apparel company Express. This was back when Express stores had a French theme and carried sweatshirts with big floral EXP letters sewn on the front, reminiscent of sorority billboard letters. I worked at a large store connected to a Structure that wasn’t a top volume location in the district but kept itself busy and had many regular and loyal customers.
At that time, Express was part of Limited Brands along with Structure, Bath & Body Works, The Limited, Limited Too, Lane Bryant, the lingerie store Cacique, Victoria’s Secret, Abecrombie & Fitch, the department store Henri Bendel, Galyan’s and Lerner New York.
In my years at Express I saw Cacique close, Lane Bryant be sold to another company, Lerner change its name to New York & Company and become an independent company, Abecrombie leave the fold, Limited Too spin off on its own, and Structure become Express Men. I saw ‘Compagnie Internationale‘ Express change to Express World Brand then switch to just Express and with each name change a change of style, branding, and preferred customer. During my tenure at Express they dedicated an entire department to hosiery then ditched the whole thing, had a season where they sold athletic attire, another where they sold formalwear, created an extensive lingerie department that included popular outside brands like Wonderbra and then ditched the whole department. My point? Retail changes a LOT, and in a very short span of time.
In 1998, I had a mother/daughter combo who would come in the first of every month to see me at my store. They would only shop from me, and each time they visited they would drop hundreds of dollars on clothing. I would hold in the back room new merchandise I thought they’d like in their size, knowing that they were likely to buy at least 80% of it. I’d schedule myself on the first in the evening, as they would come by after work. I’d staff an extra employee so I could dedicate myself to the fitting room, knowing such an investment in payroll would pay off with us beating plan, and me often winning an award for one of the largest sales in the region. These women would stop by to say hi every time they were in the mall, even when they weren’t planning on shopping. And each time I’d take the time to chat because not only were they great customers, but they became friends. When I was promoted to a different store, the mother cried and brought me a going away gift.
By 2000 such relationships were nearly impossible. Payroll was cut so drastically we were struggling just to have enough staff to open fitting room doors and ring up customers. Even though our hours were cut we were still expected to maintain the same sales goals and the same stock and cleanliness expectations. I was a Visual Merchandiser and my job was to make stores look great, ensure new merchandise was put out promptly and in the correct manner, and train employees on how to sell new collections (call it Toyo green not lime, explain how this collection was inspired by Sex and the City or Marc Jacobs), how to stock, and how to dress and style the brand. I was to work 6am – 3pm Monday through Friday with staff continuing my vision evenings and weekends. But since I was salary (AKA no overtime) and a previous store manager, I ended up working many a double shift and would go weeks without a day off just to ensure there was enough coverage to ring up waiting customers and ensure the front table wasn’t stolen from under our noses. I remember one week I worked over 100 hours, and when I shared that with a friend at another Express, she said that was nothing, she had done that for five weeks straight. I won a regional award at that time for top denim sales and was congratulated by my Regional Manager and chewed out by my Regional Visual for the honor. When up on my ladder folding denim and adjusting lights, I was supposed to ignore customers waiting for fitting rooms or searching for their size but the 1998 me just couldn’t disrespect them in such a manner or miss the opportunity for a sale and potential loyal fan. I mean, isn’t the whole point of us being there to make money? I left Express in 2001, frustrated and disappointed that a company I loved had lost sight and direction, however I learned after leaving that it wasn't just this corporation. The retail tide was changing.
Recently, there’s been a lot of news of retailers liquidating, being sold, consolidated, filing for bankruptcy and being bought out. As I saw in my years with Limited Brands, such trends are nothing new, it’s just that with the rise in social media there’s more opportunity for the public to hear about such transactions and more of a need for new news. However, I think a lot the reason lately for company changes is the Internet. Costs have been cut even more in brick and mortar stores to be able to keep up with the great deals found on the World Wide Web, and the most expensive cost (after that brick and mortar) is labor. That loyalty I saw in 1998 hardly exists any more with a decline in service, decline in consistent quality or style of brands, and the increased ability to shop around for the best deal.
A couple of you wanted to know my thoughts on the recent sale of ANN INC. (the current parent company of Ann Taylor and LOFT) and how it would affect the style and quality of the brands. To be honest, the sale was completely off my radar until you all notified me of it because it feels every day some company is thinking of selling, going public, filing for bankruptcy, or rebranding. I’ve been an Ann Taylor customer for decades and even though it hadn't been sold since it became a publicly traded company in the '90s, one could have thought change happened more recently with the constantly changing style direction and quality. One year the brand is into bright colors and selling mini skirts and dresses with plunging necklines, the next year they’re channeling Jackie O, and the year after that they’ve decided again to be a power suit destination. But this isn’t specific to Ann Taylor, as I mentioned earlier most retail is constantly changing. In fact, some of the companies that used to be part of Limited Brands ended up under the fold of the company that just bought Ann Taylor.
I don’t know what the future of Ann Taylor and LOFT holds, but I doubt we customers will see any more dramatic a change in quality, style, or branding than we’ve already seen in the past decade of these brands. The only thing I can wish is that the new owners don’t forget that while customers want great deals, they do also want to be respected whether they enter a store or click a mouse.