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Doug Howe Flexes Merchandising Muscle at Kohl’s

The retailer is in the process of boosting multiple product categories with new launches.

When Doug Howe was named chief merchandising officer of Kohl’s in May, he joined Michelle Gass, at the time chief executive officer-elect, in looking at the business with a fresh, albeit experienced eye.

Less than six months into his tenure, Howe’s impact at Kohl’s is already being felt. The Menomonee Falls, Wisc.-based retailer has been stepping up brand launches, especially those pegged toward Millennials, editing out underperforming stockkeeping units and driving down choice count while deepening assortments.

“We believe every brand and business in the portfolio has a distinct objective,” Howe said. “Apparel and proprietary apparel is an opportunity for Kohl’s to differentiate. We’re elevating the discovery component and offering product that’s very differentiated.

“We’re taking a little bit of an opportunistic, almost surgical approach,” said Howe. “There’s been tremendous work done over the last few years in terms of driving more clarity with the brands. We want to make it very clear in stores. Customer choices are down by 10 percent this year alone. When the customer sees Apt. 9 [a Kohl’s proprietary label], the selection is narrower, but deeper. Let’s make sure it’s meaningful for her. We’re doing a lot of testing now, including using digital insights on how consumers want to shop.

“Our number-one objective is to drive core apparel for men, women and children,” Howe added. “Consumers have a voracious appetite for newness. The teams are working feverishly to expand and elevate the product. We have a really powerful Lauren Conrad business that’s had incredible growth. Lauren’s very active on social media and we’re exploring opportunities to expand the product categories. She’s strong in women’s and accessories and she started doing home.”

Early results of the PopSugar for Kohl’s launch are “really encouraging,” Howe said. “Most notably, well over 35 percent of the demand is coming from digital platforms. There’s a lot of excitement about what we’re doing to appeal to core customers while planting seeds for new customers.”

EVRI, a new plus-size brand in sizes 0X to 4X in tops, and 14W to 30W, bottoms, will bow in the spring. The brand, which stands for Easy, Versatile, Real (Value) and Inspiring, is part of Kohl’s new approach to the plus-size category, which in 2019 will include new elevated departments with new layouts in stores. “With every one of the brands, we’ll continue to iterate on size,” Howe said, referring to size-inclusiveness.

Another new brand is Scott Living, from Drew and Jonathan Scott, home improvement stars of the “Property Brothers” series on HGTV. Scott Living, bowing in fall 2019, will offer home basics, decor, lighting, bedding, bath, kitchen and furniture. “With Scott Living, we’re definitely envisioning a lifestyle presentation,” Howe said. “We’re also looking at Nine West in that way. We’re going to be aggressively launching Nine West across footwear, handbags and apparel. We may present it as a lifestyle [brand].”

Kohl’s has made no secret about its designs on the active and wellness categories. “We have tremendous opportunity in active and wellness,” Howe said. “We added $1 billion in the last three years [in both areas]. We continue to think about expanding that. We’re in the middle of an active store test where we’re increasing footage by 40 percent and dramatically broadening the assortment, including pushing the envelope on the average retail price.”

Howe said the Kohl’s customer thrives on the retailer’s combination of national and proprietary brands. He cited Tek Gear, a proprietary label that’s part of the larger women’s activewear business, which also includes Nike and Adidas. “We have a nice-size business with yoga/fitness collection Gaiam. That’s been an area of growth for us. There’s other activewear dialogues we’re having. People are seeing the possibility of what we’re doing.”

Kohl’s has been making some inroads in beauty with new brands such as Lancôme, Dermablend Professional, e.l.f., La Roche-Posay, Lorac, Cargo and Pur. “Beauty is a very significant opportunity,” Howe said. “It’s a very small percentage [of total sales]. At the minimum, we can double the total sales in three years. Beauty is becoming more democratized with emerging digital native brands. There’s a lot of excitement from Millennials for incubator brands. In active, wellness and beauty, we’re exploring opportunities under the discovery umbrella that would include collaborations with designers or influencers.”

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