MILWAUKEE – As it strives to push sales toward an ambitious, self-imposed goal, Kohl's Corp. wants to speak to more than just the "mom-ness" of its core customer.
It wants to tap her inner sense of style.
The nationwide retailer, which has made moves in this direction before, is looking to enhance its game in women's apparel and position itself as a wardrobe "destination."
For Kohl's, known more for almost-constant price promotions than for fashion chops, it's a critical step. It's also one that won't be easy, industry observers said.
With overall sales rising barely 1.2 percent from 2011 through 2014, and its stock price mostly bouncing in a narrow range since the end of the recession, the company last fall told skeptical analysts of its plans to lift revenue to $21 billion by 2017.
That $2 billion gain over three years would represent a major turnaround for Kohl's, which is based in Menomonee Falls, Wis., just outside Milwaukee. And it's hard to see how the company can hit its target without significant improvement in its critical women's apparel business.
It represents 30 percent of overall sales and is easily the largest of Kohl's six major lines of business.
"Kohl's wins if women's wins," said Michelle Gass, chief merchandising and customer officer. "If women's doesn't perform, we have a major issue."
There are issues.
"You can look at our [women's] performance over the last five years, and it's been choppy," Gass said.
Women's clothing lags
Looking at the period as a whole, in fact, women's apparel has been a drag on Kohl's results. That has happened despite the company's existing efforts to appeal to women with exclusive brands, such as Dana Buchman and Simply Vera Vera Wang, and limited-edition collections by high-end designers.
The retailer doesn't report sales figures for its individual lines of business — women's, men's, children's, home, footwear and accessories — but each year it does disclose the percentage of overall revenue each contributes.
Calculations using the reported number show women's lagging the other lines of business as a group. From the recession year of 2009 through 2014, for example, sales in the nonwomen's lines rose 14 percent. Sales of women's rose less than 4 percent.
Generally, CEO Kevin Mansell said Kohl's core customer — she's a woman, 30 to 55, often with a family — doesn't think of Kohl's as a go-to place for her own clothes.
Rather, Mansell said, she thinks of the store for things like children's apparel or shoes or home goods, "and 'Oh, by the way, I might also buy some tops while I'm in there.' "
"We want to make women's a destination for her," Mansell said. "That's a big change in tone."
So, how to do it?
One step, Mansell said, is to more clearly define the separate identities of Kohl's proprietary brands, which make up roughly 70 percent of women's sales.
Or, in the case of the important but somewhat anonymous Sonoma label, to give it an identity.
Now Kohl's is preparing to "relaunch" the brand next spring with new products, new marketing and new presentation. Sonoma for women, said Bevin Bailis, senior vice president of public relations and communications, will be a modern take on clothing essentials — "the pieces we pull from out closet every day, the great white shirt, the great pair of black pants."
Among other elements of the women's strategy: a major expansion of Kohl's activewear business; increasingly localized merchandise selections (more of the flirty Jennifer Lopez line in Miami, perhaps, and less of the traditional Croft & Barrow); and improved plus size assortments.
Sandi Keiser, a professor in the fashion department at Mount Mary University, likes Kohl's affiliations with Lauren Conrad and other celebrities, who resonate with her students. But she sees a tough task in reinventing the not-so-fashionable Sonoma brand.
On that point, Liz Dunn, a former equity analyst who last year started her own consulting firm, Talmage Advisors, agreed.
"A kind of herculean task," she said.
And she has doubts about Kohl's becoming a women's clothing "destination."
The "Kohl's muse," Dunn said, has been the busy mom, "and you're just not going to get that woman to prioritize clothes shopping ahead of the other things in her life. It's not who she is."