Lululemon plans to open standalone men's shops. But could this be another "bend over" moment for the activewear brand? Michael Baker reports.
After Lululemon Athletica's chief executive, Christine Day, announced she was stepping down this month, the company posted a tongue-in-cheek job ad on its website with a list of phoney requirements, including "can hold a headstand for 10 minutes" and "you already have a plan to bring yoga and luon [the fabric it uses to make its garments] to Mars by 2018".
Joking or not, there's one qualification that is a must for Day's successor: the ability to recognise a bad idea and stamp on it fast. One new idea that could qualify for the chop is among the biggest on Day's watch - that the activewear brand, which has been universally associated with women since its foundation in Canada in the late 1990s, is to begin opening standalone men's stores.
The company has already had one scrape with disaster as recently as March when it had to recall a batch of black luon pants that were transparent when the wearer bent over. Could the men's store idea be another "bend over" moment?
A lot hangs on the answer, and not just for Lululemon. How Lululemon navigates the crossover will be a case study for many stagnating womenswear retailers. Lululemon was a pioneer in upscale technical apparel, primarily for yoga but touching other categories such as running. Its worldwide store sales per square metre of more than $US22,000 ($23,675) are staggering by the standards of most apparel retailers. (For comparison, an apparel specialty store in a large Australian shopping centre generates average sales of less than $8000 per square metre.)
The company says in its annual report: "Our primary target customer is a sophisticated and educated woman who understands the importance of an active, healthy lifestyle."
However, the women's technical apparel space is becoming crowded, with North American brands such as Nike, Lucy, Under Armour and Athleta, and Australian brands such as Lorna Jane and Running Bare, all going after lookalike customers.
So shifting into new categories that could be engines of growth was on the cards for Lululemon. But the men's department at the back of most of the retailer's 200-plus stores has always been understated; men's gear is believed to account for only 15 to 20 per cent of Lululemon sales.
Selling a few items from the back end of the store is one thing, but can a brand so closely identified with women hack it as a standalone menswear brand?
Doing men-only stores has been a go-to strategy for womenswear retailers in the past, particularly American retailers that were saturated in the US market and had no place else to go. But the track record has not been encouraging.
In the case of Talbots and Express, two US chains that spun off men-only concepts in recent years, the men's stores had to be shut down and the merchandise brought back into the women's stores.
Can arguably the world's best purveyor of women's tights make a better go of it?
There has been plenty of scoffing. Among the criticisms is that there is too much competition, that men will not want to get caught dead going into a store called "Lululemon" and that they will not want to pay Lululemon's high prices.
These doubts are justifiable and the risks are great if Lululemon's execution is poor or its rollout too fast. It will be critical to try a few pilot stores in some test markets and then either fine-tune the concept or pull up stumps if it isn't working. The pressure for a retailer in Lululemon's position to dally too long in a failed enterprise will be substantial, since there are a limited number of alternative opportunities for brand extension.
However, Lululemon has a key advantage: its e-commerce site, which has given the company intelligence about where its men's products have been selling well and where a men-only store is likely to work. This gives the company a market research tool that other retailers who have failed to cross over either did not have or did not heed.
Lululemon can do a lot better than these other brands at scaling up to a men's concept. Its history has been brilliant, but then so too was Myer's for a time. If it fails, the consequences will be more embarrassing than a pair of see-through tights.