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Walmart stitching together new identity for its clothing department

Retail giant’s head of fashion Denise Incandela talks about changing discounter’s staid image
(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

Walmart has been long known for its wide array of basic socks, T-shirts and pull-on pants. Now, the world’s largest retailer is betting it can change that image and be a destination for affordable stylish fashion for middle America.

The Bentonville, Arkarsas-based discounter has been adding mannequins and colorful displays of its clothing, while bolstering its fashion to include casual work wear like cargo pants, jumpsuits and trendy dresses. Over the past few years, it’s brought in more than 1,000 brands including Reebok, Justice, and Champs and partnered with celebrities like Sofia Vergara for a jeans line as well as influencers like Rachel Zoe. The majority of the fashion assortment is under $40. Its mission: induce shoppers coming in to pick up bananas and cereal to cross the food aisles and buy clothing that fills more of their wardrobe needs.

The changes — spearheaded under Denise Incandela, who has been with the discounter for six years, most recently as executive vice president of apparel and private-label brands — are happening as the discounter faces increasing competition on all fronts. That includes Shein, the China-founded ultra-fast-fashion retailer. Moreover, in these inflationary times, shoppers have been spending more on groceries and pulled back on discretionary items like fashion that carry fatter profit margins.

Walmart doesn’t break down its clothing sales, but it said it saw its market share in clothing increase in the recent spring and summer seasons. General merchandise accounted for 28% of its U.S. namesake business, according to the latest company filings. Last year, Walmart had a 3.4% share of the U.S. clothing and footwear market, according to GlobalData Retail. So a lot is at stake.

The Associated Press recently interviewed Incandela, whose resume includes executive positions at Saks Fifth Avenue and Ralph Lauren, about her vision. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Your background is in luxury. Why Walmart?

A. For me, to be able to operate at this scale and impact so much of the country and to be able to bring it to this level that makes everybody feel beautiful at extraordinary price points and an extraordinary value felt like an opportunity of a lifetime.

Q. How are you trying to get Walmart shoppers to buy more clothing?

A. We’re not looking to be fancy. We were more (about) opening price point basics. Now, you’ll see a lot more dresses. Things that are hot right now are cargo pants. So it’s making sure that we’re playing in the trends in a way that our customer expects us to and that we’re servicing more of her closet needs. So even things that she can wear to work but more on the casual side and building out our active assortment in a much bigger way as well as the more casual.

Q. Where do you source apparel?

A. We are sourced from all over the globe so we source from South America. We source from Asia. We’re constantly shifting based on where we think we will have the best partnership. We want to make sure that we don’t rely on one particular region too heavily. We’ve been working on shortening our product lifecycle so that we can jump on the trends faster and create a fast track so that where we’re seeing success that we can double down.

Q. Have you increased testing?

A. We have brought a lot of testing into our assortment that we haven’t had in the past. We use an outside service to test CADS (computer aided design sketches) of prints and images and silhouettes with customers before we even make samples. And now we’ve got anywhere from 25 to 50 stores that we test assortments when we’re making changes.

Q. How do you compete with fast-fashion digital companies like Shein and Temu?

A. The scale of Walmart enables us to bring a level of quality and fabrication that’s hard to match in the industry. I think 90% of the country is within 10 minutes of driving to our 4,000 stores. And then we’re a grocery store. There is an extraordinary benefit to working for a store that sells the groceries that we do because of the traffic that comes into our store is unprecedented. On top of that is building out our online presence and continuing to build that out with Marketplace, which is disproportionately growing and online, disproportionately growing and taking share.

Q. How’s back to school and fall selling?

A. I would say it was a slow start to the year (in) discretionary spend categories. But I’m super excited and encouraged and cautiously optimistic about what I’m seeing for fall and back to school.

Q. Influencers?

A. (We are) really doubling down on influencers. We’re able to move at a pace of change that we’ve never been able to do before because we can leverage the credibility of our influencers. So that’s been a big part of our program in changing perception of Walmart so that they consider us for apparel where in the past they might not.

Q. Isn’t it hard to change perception?

A. You can change perception pretty quickly. And I would say for millennials and Gen Z, there’s more openness to where they buy than there was potentially with boomers and Gen X. And so I think this is our time and other companies have done it. The company in Seattle (Amazon) … I don’t know that 10 years ago you would have thought that they would have been a big player in fashion either.

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