Monday, June 25, 2012

Can Talbots Be Saved?


I received my email from Talbots today advising me of the semi annual red hanger sale and naturally, went immediately to the website to see if I could nab any deals. Other than 3 pair of bermuda shorts, which were a fabulous price, I ordered nothing. And I am a black card holder who has been a loyal customer for at least 30 years.
The deterioration of a venerable brand such as Talbots has been difficult to watch. The company seems to have engaged in retail practices that sent it on a path to a slow, agonizing death. For those of us who have been long term customers, the twists and turns the management team has taken in attempts to woo new customers have been perplexing.
There have been many financial analysts who have provided opinions as to why the brand has gone awry. I am not an expert in analyzing the stock market or the retail industry overall; however, as an avid shopper and long term Talbots customer I, as those similarly situated, are uniquely qualified to offer insights. In fact, many decades long customers have offered suggestions to the powers that be through the Facebook page. Those suggestions and opinions have been disregarded by all except the customer service representatives who are forced to reply with the standard company propaganda. Trudy Sullivan has taken Talbots from a go-to store for professional women who appreciate quality clothes for business and business casual styles with top flight customer service to an unfocused brand trying to appeal to a broader demographic with lower price points. The result of the debacle of an experiment – a loss of the core customer.
Talbots regrettably gained a reputation as a brand that targeted and appealed only to conservative, woman of 50 plus with with a higher disposable income and extremely conservative tastes. That, however, was not alway the case. When I started shopping Talbots I was 22 years old and aspired to climb the corporate ladder. I could always find appropriate business wear and casual wear that would be right for any occasion. My peers also shopped Talbots. Talbots was the first place we would go to find the interview suit, the LBD for a special occasion, or the smart casual outfit for weekends. The company mixed the Talbots brand products with suitable clothes from other companies. The fit was predictable. The fabrics natural fiber; the sizing consistent. The shoes were all leather including the sole and were true to size. The quality was consistently reliable. And the customer service was equal to that of Nordstrom – guaranteed for life, period.
When I lived in Asia and could not find clothes to fit my normal North American size, I ordered by fax or mail from Talbots. Talbots would ship my order to the World Trade Center in Taipei, which was duty free. If there was a problem with the order, I would call customer service and the company would send a replacement without additional charge and tell me to return the problem item when I was next in the U.S.A. And, I always did. While living in Hong Kong I ordered several items by fax. A sweater I ordered was labeled hand wash or dry clean. I had the sweater dry cleaned for a couple of years and then decided to hand wash. The colors ran. I intended to throw the sweater away; but my mom reminded me of the guarantee. I contacted customer service, explained the situation, and mailed the sweater back to Hingham MA with a letter explaining when I'd bought the sweater and what other items I 'd ordered with it. They sent me a refund check. This customer service assured my loyalty – even when the quality and offerings began to shift.
In the last few years, since Trudy Sullivan assumed the helm, the direction of the company went south. The attempt to appeal to a different type of customer failed and lost the loyalty of the core business oriented customer. There were a few years where it was impossible to find a suit for business wear. While it is true that corporate America has become more casual, business wear is not obsolete. The analysts argued that Talbots was attempting to appeal to a younger woman – but that isn't true. Talbots already appealed to the younger woman in her 20's and 30's– but it was the younger business woman. When the company steered its focus away from business wear – it lost its way. Talbots further alienated long term customers with misguided promotions, a no return policy on certain sale items, and an antiquated website that lagged far behind the competition.
There have been abundant rumors over the last months and weeks as to whether the buyout by Sycamore Partners will go through and if it does, whether Sycamore can rescue the brand by focusing on what worked for most of the company's history– predictable sizing, quality fabrics and construction, modern conservative styles, updated classics that are always appropriate. Some analysts have predicted 2013 with be the swan song for Talbots. It certainly hope not. Talbots fills a niche in the retail environment that cannot afford a void. Let us hope Sycamore will start fresh with a new strategy, a new management team , new buyers and a fresh perspective. And by the way...bring back the red doors!









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