Clothing retailers moving into home? Been there, done that.
The recent news that Banana Republic is expanding into the home category (it even made The New York Times, for heaven’s sake) is being treated as a big deal, when in fact the idea has been around for a very long time—and rarely works. To put matters that much more into perspective, it’s not even the first time the brand has tried this.
For decades, retailers that are primarily clothing stores have mixed in home merchandise—usually soft goods like bedding, bath and decor items like decorative pillows. Urban Outfitters and its upscale Anthropologie brand have featured home products since they opened for business in the 1970s, and the latter has more recently pushed to expand its furnishings assortment. Victoria’s Secret once sold bedding and decor products too.
The reverse has also been common: Independent retailers often mix clothing, home goods and gifts; when it comes to big chains, the original Pier 1 stores featured women’s clothing, and the legendary New York specialty shop Azuma had a similar mix.
Or maybe you’ve heard of this little brand that started out selling men’s ties, became an international giant with annual sales of $6.4 billion, and has been selling a full line of home furnishings for decades? It’s called Ralph Lauren.
More recently, European imports H&M and Zara have each featured impressive home departments. The former, officially Hennes & Mauritz, recently expanded its home push, with almost 400 stores around the world offering furnishings, while nearly tripling the number of freestanding home stores worldwide to 32. Zara has free-standing home stores in Europe, but none in the U.S., where it sells home product in its clothing stores.
Which brings us back to Banana Republic, the upscale brand owned by Gap that started out selling ersatz safari gear with window displays featuring World War II–era jeeps, but has more recently been known for its sophisticated men’s and women’s apparel better suited for the office than the jungle.
It has just introduced (reintroduced, actually—but more on that in a minute) home into 16 of its 400 locations—not exactly a ringing endorsement for the idea—as well as online. Its collection spans home textiles, rugs and other decor items, including the mandatory ubiquitous candles.
But here’s the thing: In the early 2000s—a lifetime in retail years—the brand tested out pretty much the same idea. Its stores featured bed and bath merchandise, usually toward the back of the selling floor—and as this was largely before this internet thing was a viable shopping tool, it was the only place to buy these products.
Apparently few people did. Memory lapses prevent an accurate take on how long this home program lasted, but it wasn’t very long, to be sure. So, the retailer’s new home effort is its return to the category, something that seems to not be mentioned by the NYT, much less Banana Republic. Sandra Stangl, the CEO—who incidentally has spent most of her career at home retailers like Pottery Barn and RH—told the Times that home “gives us a bigger addressable audience” and “stabilizes out the business a little bit.”
Maybe so, but home remains a very different business than fashion, with different buying cycles, margin structures and markdown schedules. Plus, it tends to take up a lot more space on the selling floor than tops and scarves when you show it correctly with display beds and color-sorted wall fixtures—not to mention real furniture like sofas and bedroom sets.
Will Banana Republic be any more successful in its latest attempt to sell home products than it was some two decades ago? Hard to say, but if it’s going to work it will need to have a more widespread physical presence and better differentiated product. Right now, it has neither.
Homepage image: Banana Republic is making a second play for the home category | Courtesy of Banana Republic