Talbots aims to break into men's apparel The company knows the

Sunday, August 4, 2002

HINGHAM, Mass.

There's a fork in the mall where couples part -- he to Brooks Brothers, she to AnnTaylor or French Connection.

Retailers who have built their names selling to one gender often dream of breaking into the other gender's market. But such mid-life "sex-change operations" -- as some retailers call them -- can be tricky and have met with mixed success.

The latest to try is Talbots, the 800-store chain that hopes the well-off, professional women who buy its classic and classy clothes will go for a new Talbots men's line when shopping for apparel for husbands and boyfriends.

And eventually, the company hopes, men will no longer think of Hingham-based Talbots as a place for only their wives and mothers to shop -- and will start buying clothes there on their own.

Some comparable apparel industry attempts to branch out have worked; others have not. Brooks Brothers, for instance, is still associated with men, and Liz Claiborne with women. Others, such as Ralph Lauren, have rebuilt themselves into dual-gender brands.

Talbots CEO Arnold Zetcher said the trick is putting the right amount of masculinity into the men's brand without wasting the strength the company has built over 54 years on the women's side.

"We know moving from a feminine brand to a masculine brand, we want to have a slightly different mindset," Zetcher said in a recent interview at his office in this Boston suburb where the company was founded in 1947.

Talbots has been working on the idea for several years. Men in focus groups have been grilled on whether they'll have problem wearing Talbots (no, Zetcher says) and whether the line should keep the Talbots name (it will).

Talbots plans to introduce a line of sport coats, cashmere sweaters, suede jackets and pants, all aiming for a "classic" look that will appeal to the male counterparts of Talbots' current customer base: educated 35-to-55-year-olds looking to dress confidently but not over the top.

The line will debut in a catalog supplement this holiday season, and Talbots plans to test the clothes in six stores in 2003 and 2004 before a bigger rollout in 2005.

Zetcher is not waging the company's future, saying the initial investment "hardly makes a dent" for a company with $1.6 billion in sales last year. But he is dreaming big.

"We think it has tremendous potential," Zetcher said. "We wouldn't be doing this if we thought it had the potential for only 50 or 100 stores. We see it as more than that."

Still, there are obvious challenges. Talbots believes women will buy 60 percent of its men's clothes. But while research shows men often defer to women to shop for them, they can be finicky about a brand, especially if it carries feminine connotations.

"Talbots is wholly and totally identified with clothing and fashion for women," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report. "They do not have the credibility with men they clearly have with women. It might not be easy and might take a long time to persuade men they are a good source for men's fashion."

Bert Flickinger, managing director of Reach Marketing, calls the plan "inspired." But he says the timing -- coming during a tough stretch for the men's apparel industry -- will be a challenge.

On the other hand, competitors have shied away from the men's market, and Talbots might have more room to maneuver.

"Talbots has a very loyal consumer constituency and since many of Talbots women shoppers also do the men's and boy's buying for their husbands, boyfriends and children, it gives Talbots an inherent advantage," Flickinger said.

One of those customers is Lynne Cohen, of Swampscott, who calls herself a regular Talbots shopper. She also shops for her husband, and insists he would have no problem wearing Talbots.

"I think it's a good idea," she said on a recent afternoon while leaving a Talbots store in downtown Boston, but only, she added, if Talbots sticks to the classic style and service that has made it popular with women. She thinks it will.

Despite the current economic uncertainty, Zetcher says the timing of the move into menswear is fine. Last quarter, Talbots saw a streak of 15 straight quarters of earnings growth snapped, but it impressed the industry by holding its own during an extremely tough 2001 and expects profits to grow again this quarter.

In fact, Zetcher says, Talbots could have bought a ready-made brand, but that wouldn't have been as smart in the long run -- or as much fun.

"We could be doing an acquisition if we wanted to, but we decided to start it ourselves and make it exactly what we want it to be," he said.

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