The Ever-changing Landscape of Retail

express clothing labels history

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.

express logo history

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.

25 Comments

  1. June 1, 2015 / 8:06 pm

    Wonderful post! I love how you have pictures of all of the tags side by side. So interesting to see how it has progressed over the years. Retail is always changing.

  2. Aimee
    May 30, 2015 / 12:24 pm

    Thanks for a great read. I enjoy articles like this.
    I was not aware of the Ann sale. Oh boy. It’s one of the few stores I can actually shop in locally these days. There is hardly anything out there for my demographic… somewhere between young and old. I have always appreciated their quality and hope that doesn’t change.

  3. Cynthia Washburn
    May 29, 2015 / 10:46 pm

    I loved Lerner New York – when they became New York & Company, they completely lost me. Nothing fit right anymore and the style & quality of the clothing completely changed.

    In recent years, I’ve had the same thing happen with Banana Republic and J Crew – I just don’t know what it going on with them in terms of style and quality. I’ve tried to hang with Loft as they’ve gone through their mood changes, but I find fewer and fewer reasons to go in there as time goes on.

  4. Sonia
    May 29, 2015 / 10:15 pm

    I recall way back when I was a teen, I couldn’t wait to be able to afford Bobbie Brown clothing. It was classic, pricey for my pocketbook, but never went out style. I lived in the store when I started working my first real job. Then the stores all closed. The brand can now be found in Dollar General stores. After that, I switched to Casual Corner, again, classic styling with mediocre prices. Again, it was sold and then the name disintegrates into oblivion. The only clothing brand I’ve been loyal to for the past 17 years has been Ann Taylor, despite all the ups and downs in their styling, fabric and pricing. I am sad to learn that it has been sold, but am keeping hope alive that the new owners will keep the brand classic for a woman of my age without resorting to becoming trendy, off the wall or down right cheap looking. Thanks so much for your take on retail. You’ve really seen the ins and outs of the business from behind the screen.

  5. loubeelou
    May 29, 2015 / 9:43 am

    My shape has changed a fair amount since this time last year and I needed to do some stocking up on quality shirts for spring/summer faster than usual. I did a power shopping trip through the mall on a weeknight after work, hoping I’d maybe get more one-on-one attention then. It was a weird experience! Most places offered zero help or consultation – not even in the dressing room for grabbing different sizes. Based on what you say here about working conditions, I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. I ended up at a local boutique chain (not in the mall) where they provided a far more personalized experience. I spent more than I originally intended too, but it was crazy how much more attentive they were…paid off for them!

  6. Anon
    May 28, 2015 / 7:36 pm

    This kind of insider info and your analyses are FASCINATING. The kind of insight you can’t get from other fashion blogs. Thanks for writing this!

  7. circafashion
    May 28, 2015 / 1:32 pm

    wonderful article. It make me think about why I dont really shop at most of those brands anymore, the quality and fit of clothes has gone down.

  8. May 28, 2015 / 12:20 pm

    Lands End is one of my examples of this. It’s a brand built on a reputation of good quality materials, good quality merchandise, good customer service, and a “returns forever” policy. They were bought out and now the clothing is getting shoddier, the materials are more see-through or shrink faster or have threads unravel within a couple of wears, and they charge for returns but hide that information as best they can so you don’t know until after you’ve purchased. I still buy from them fairly often, but now have to buy tall sizes in shirts (I’m only 5’6″!) due to shrinkage and routinely exchange or return when I never did before.

    When a quality brand is bought by another company, you can always expect two things to happen – customer service will depreciate due to payroll cuts (either they cut employees or cut wages, and the resulting insane turnover takes good customer service and turns it into I-get-paid-just-enough-to-stand-here-and-be-surly customer service) and the overall quality of goods will deteriorate as well.

    Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way – but those are pleasant surprises.

  9. Mary
    May 28, 2015 / 11:53 am

    I’m plus sized, so I’ve never felt like most retailers wanted me in the store, so the advent of online shopping is the best thing that could have ever happened to me.

  10. eds_77845
    May 28, 2015 / 11:03 am

    I worked my way through high school and college in the 70’s at a department store. We even kept clientele books, sending cards and notifications to our regular customers. Service was everything. The store was part of a small local chain, but was bought by a large chain (the 90’s I believe) and both the quality of merchandise and the service plummeted. I guess I am dating myself, but we are paying a huge price for cheap fast fashion.

    • crtfly
      May 28, 2015 / 10:01 pm

      Indeed we are paying a high cost. I thought things were bad in the retail clothing world, but it’s even worse that I feared. Elizabeth Cline’s “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” is a real eye opener.

      Chris

  11. SDawsonH
    May 28, 2015 / 9:55 am

    Spot on! I worked part time in retail throughout grad school and beyond to supplement my income. I continue to shop at the store I worked in and the changes really make me cringe. I also realize, however, that it appears to be super-hard to get quality, long-term employees in retail. Gone are the days when recent college graduates take assistant manager positions in retail; it seems to me many just choose to start a fashion blog or take positions in social media (which are so visual in nature). Would love to hear your thoughts on staffing being such a difficult part of the equation. Love the blog! Hope your recovery continues to go well, Sara

    • May 28, 2015 / 9:17 pm

      If you can’t pay them decent wages, can’t promise them a regular number of hours, and expect them to jump through hoops you’re going to have turnover and a hard time hiring quality staff. When I was in retail management, the hardest thing was not being able to promise someone even 12 hours a week. We’d cut shifts last minute to not blow payroll, we’d ask people to come in last minute, and they had to work really hard (mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, frantically processing shipment, staying until 3am for a floor change/new collection and season look). There was a lot of poaching from other retailers too – are they working you too hard? We pay $1/hour more and have a better discount and you don’t have to wear our merchandise, etc. Employees bounce because they know they’ll be snagged by another retailer likely for better benefits and employees suck because management doesn’t have the resources to motivate and train properly and can’t afford to lose anyone because it’s so competitive for quality staff.

  12. Happinessatmidlife
    May 27, 2015 / 10:34 pm

    I worked in retail during college in a surf shop and though it was tough work, I made a lot of $$ for selling t-shirts. It was such a fun atmosphere that it didn’t feel like work. Some of my best friends today I met from the surf shop. I remember I used to send Thank you notes and send them advance notice of sales to keep the personal touch.

    Those personal touches are long gone. I used to get really great service at WHBM but that has changed due to the personnel at the location I shop at and I shopped there less as a result.

    I do love Ann Taylor and Loft and actually worked for Ann Taylor for a few months. I was disenchanted with the way they took care of me so I quit.

    Retail is a tough space these days with so much competition from online and international companies that sell things so cheap.

    Alice

    http://www.happinessatmidlife.com

    Hope to see you Thursday for TBT Fashion link up.

  13. amicable
    May 27, 2015 / 9:22 pm

    This was a really great read – thanks for tracing the history of change in Express and your experience with it. Express used to be the store where I went to buy great fitting professional pants but they changed their cuts and style along the way to the point where it was clear I was no longer part of their target demographic.

  14. Little Red
    May 27, 2015 / 8:25 pm

    I totally remember the French themed “Compagnie Internationale” Express and even bought several things there. What a blast from the past!

  15. Dawn
    May 27, 2015 / 7:04 pm

    Lerner definitely brought me back. I never realized it was New York and Company. Is it my imagination that the quality of Lerner clothing was higher than NY&CO? I tend to think of NY&CO as home of the unlined pants. :p

    • May 28, 2015 / 7:36 am

      When I worked at Express I wouldn’t shop at Lerner, I remembered it as “cheap mom clothes” and when it became NY&Co it started to get more hip. As for quality, not sure.

      • Dawn
        May 28, 2015 / 11:54 am

        The mind plays tricks on my memory! But my mom DID like that store now that I think about it. Casual Corner was her fave though.

  16. Karen
    May 27, 2015 / 6:38 pm

    What a great post. I enjoy learning what retail is like “behind the scenes” as it’s a world I know absolutely nothing about.

    I was telling my daughter that I feel most retailers WANT us to buy online. At least in our case, we’re both short and prefer to buy petite sizes. And although we know some of our favorite retailers sell petite sizes, it’s only online (Gap, Old Navy, J Crew for example). Lately, I’d be hard pressed to find anything above a size 6 or Medium in my local J Crew, that’s even worse for this size 12.

    Ann Taylor and Loft were one of the few stores that did carry petites (Talbots is another) but this is the first I’ve heard of their sale. I suppose that will be changing, sigh. Makes me wish I could sew more than just buttons!

  17. Lee4
    May 27, 2015 / 6:30 pm

    Very interesting. There was a time in my early 20’s when I shopped regularly at Express but I stopped shopping there at least 15 years ago. Too many changes…

    It’s sad that corporations lose sight of the fact that customers want to be treated well while we’re in their stores. I also want employees treated well! At my favorite Loft store, there is an employee there who always remembers my name & has been so friendly & helpful to me. I prefer to shop when she’s working. i can just imagine how good you were with your Express customers!

  18. Michelle Van Ellis
    May 27, 2015 / 1:17 pm

    Lerner… that takes me back.

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