Supermarkets have the opportunity to dress up their general merchandise offerings.
Seeing the success of their British counterparts in selling apparel and other soft goods, some North American retailers have experimented with merchandising these categories in traditional stores. Loblaws, Brampton, Ontario, which operates supercenter-sized stores in addition to its supermarkets, last month launched a new line, Joe's Fresh Style, in its larger stores. (See separate story, Page 60).
For most, soft goods represents an in-and-out opportunity for items like leather jackets and ladies handbags of increasingly better quality and variety. Many retailers and observers wonder if it's time for stores to move beyond the traditional mix of hosiery and undergarments that comprises their permanent sets.
"There is a potential for selling more soft goods in supermarkets as way to differentiate from other formats," said Jon Hauptman, vice president of consultancy Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill. For example, he pointed to Loblaws' new Joe Fresh Style line. "Bringing in their own brand of soft goods is a way to keep people at their stores as opposed to going to supercenters or other formats where they certainly will be stocking up for foods," he said.
In an environment where everybody is looking for growth, "getting into new categories and adjusting what you stand for is a good idea, and I think soft goods can be one of the ways that a supermarket can help stand apart," Hauptman said.
Ongoing programs distinct from in-and-out promotions and the old standbys of hosiery and undergarments is the way to go. "Supermarkets have always done a decent job of in-and-outs. I think
the real opportunity going forward is through the more consistent, everyday program in soft goods," he said.
"You're going to see more soft goods in the food class of trade," said Mike Lumadue, director of HBC and GM, Weis Markets, Sunbury, Pa. "If a chain like Wal-Mart can sell general merchandise, why can't a food store sell soft goods and general merchandise?"
Weis successfully ran a white sale, including towels, comforters, sheets and pillows, he said.
The stores of Penn Traffic Co., Syracuse, N.Y., do well with apparel and domestics, said Mike O'Shell, the retailer's director of GM/HBC. "If we have good-quality items priced very fair, the customers will pick them up instead of making that extra run to Wal-Mart," he said. Sports promotions, like Pittsburgh Steelers apparel and novelty items after they won the Super Bowl, do very well, he added.
"We have done three different manufacturers of coats and jackets, and it comes down to negotiating the right deal and merchandising it correctly. Just piling stuff on a table doesn't work," he said.
"You have to hang it, you have to merchandise it, you have to sign it. The customer has to be able to determine in a relatively short amount of time while they are shopping that it's a heck of a value," O'Shell said. "We can definitely sell jackets and coats."
Retailers need to consider the option of going beyond underwear and socks, and merchandise more upscale soft goods, said Roy White, the New York-based vice president, education, for the Educational Foundation of GMDC, Colorado Springs. "Seasonal merchandising allows you to do that. The tickets in seasonal merchandising, particularly for supermarkets, have been generally increasing," he said.
"Over the last five years, there have been some opportunities for grocery stores to come in with some really nice soft goods, everything from clothing apparel to blankets and licensed products, home fashion, and as a retailer, that has been good for us," said a GM executive with a West Coast chain. "You can only design a value-priced T-shirt or Hawaiian shirt so many ways. We're trying to continually raise the quality of that product," he said.
However, the neighborhood supermarket is not the place where the American shopper is looking for soft goods, said Jay Goble, vice president, merchandising, Valu Merchandisers, Kansas City, Kan. "It's been our experience that we haven't had the proper sell-through when we've made those attempts," he said.
As in any new or different product or category, space is the biggest issue in merchandising soft goods, said Dan Spears, director of HBC and GM, Ingles Markets, Asheville, N.C. Ingles has done in-and-out promotions with golf shirts, sweat shirts and other fleece apparel, but nothing inline aside from socks and underwear, he said.
"We've done the leather jackets and they were successful, but probably not to the point where we would do it over and over. We are always trying something new just as an in-and-out item to see how it works out," Spears said.
In supermarkets, "there's more soft goods than ever before because it's successful," said former supermarket nonfood executive John Tucker, president, VAM Corp., a Southboro, Mass.-based supplier. "People used to laugh at selling soft goods in supermarkets, but they're not laughing any longer because it's happening."
Drug chains took the lead with promotional goods, but the food channel is following, he said. "Leather has been incredible because of the retail. When you're doing a genuine lambskin leather jacket for a retailer for $19.99, it appeals to the consumer who can't afford the $249 leather jacket," he said.
"They're available because of direct importing, mainly from China. It's as simple as that," Tucker said.
Because of the everyday appeal of soft goods, "supermarkets have realized that there's a big piece of the market there that they're leaving out on the table if they don't offer them," said Adam Napell, principal, Hog-Nap Promotions, Warren, N.J.