Checking in with…Banana Republic

Blazer ($178) // Top (now $60) // Jeans ($110) // Necklace (now $45) // Bag ($158) // Shoes ($128)
I’d prefer to swap in a pair of skinny destroyed jeans, but otherwise this outfit is perfection to me.

Ahhhhh, Banana Republic. Never thought I’d say those three words together and yet these days this just might be my second favorite store to shop in! (You’ve been warned, Anthropologie.) How do I love thee, Banana? Let me count the ways. The longer silhouettes. The sharper, crisper cuts. The layering potential!!

And yet for some reason while I’m reveling in clothing heaven the rest of the world doesn’t seem to get it quite yet. So, let’s take a look at some of the Banana items I’m lusting after right now and my thoughts on why they’re not getting the market traction they want at the moment…

A workwear shirt that’s lightweight, elevated above a simple basic, and is mostly cotton (97%).
This is what Banana Republic needs to do lots of. The Tux Collar Tunic ($70).
How cute would this be under a sleeveless dress? 
Or under a cardigan, with the sleeves rolled up just above the cuffs of the shirt. Swoon!

I’m rooting for Banana Republic so hard right now. They brought in Marissa Webb, formerly of J.Crew, to be its creative director. This is a brilliant move in my book! During Webb’s tenure at J.Crew I spent a ton of money there to build up my wardrobe because I liked the pieces so much. It follows that I’d do the same at Banana and so far I haven’t been disappointed. Webb’s more urban, downtown chic design aesthetic is right up my alley. It’s ideal city workwear in my mind with plenty of pieces that can be worked into anyone’s wardrobe, regardless of living location.

Design transitions can be rough and Banana is unfortunately hitting some speedbumps right now. Spring 2015, the first released partially under Webb’s vision, didn’t do great. For just last month (July 2015) Banana Republic reported that year-over-year sales dropped 10%.

What are the issues right now? They are many. Let’s start with the broader company issues that would exist regardless of who their creative director is.

Before I even talk about clothing, one thing that annoys me to no end is that Banana Republic’s website breaks in Chrome constantly. As someone who works in the fashion vertical of technology, this is completely unacceptable. You are driving customers away because your website doesn’t work in one of the most-used browsers, BR. FIX IT. It’s not difficult. You just need time and programmers invested in your success. Hire talented folk and pay them what they deserve. The website right now shows a lack of inspiration…and that it doesn’t work half the time is damning.

OK, clothing. Firstly, over the last few years Banana Republic has earned a horrible reputation for product quality. If you’re going to put your price point where Banana’s are and brand it as the upscale Gap (or pretend to be on par with competitors like J.Crew, Michael Kors, Tory Burch, etc.) you need to be using silk, cotton and cashmere. Unfortunately, BR was and still is using a ton of rayon, polyester, nylon blends and so forth. Spring 2015 saw some gains in this area — I bought a beautiful pima cotton sweater that had a sub-$100 price point in two colors because it felt so good and looked so good! BR needs to continue making strides in this direction. It’s up to their sourcing team to find ways to use organic materials mostly and synthetic blends when they make sense for a digestible price point, and fingers crossed using fair labor. No easy task to be sure but customers are not going to pay $100 for a polyester tee shirt. This is not Barney’s Co-Op (where the poly tee would be $218 anyway).

Secondly, the fit from item to item at Banana Republic varies too drastically right now. Read the first reviews on any new product and it says something to the effect of, ‘I really like the design of this item but the fit is off/wonky/I had to size down or up three sizes WTF’. BR certainly isn’t the only store to suffer this problem but it’s important that they work to standardize their sizing production and really nail the fit on their items, especially since they have so many long and/or boxy cuts. If the item doesn’t drape right it’s destined to be a clearance write-off. The designs they’re going for now are too intricate to work with poor fits.

This Textured Blue Pocket Shirt ($70) is ideal workwear but it’s styled far too casually.
Although it would take more upfront investment, BR would do well to show both
traditional officewear stylings along with their new downtown leanings.
This will help customers make the mental leap with all of their products.

Thirdly, while I’m all for the new downtown direction Banana is heading in, they need to remember the core of what their appeal is: workwear! There’s no reason that they can’t do both sportswear and workwear well, but their workwear section is lagging right now. Before I could afford Theory, Vince and 10 Crosby Derek Lam, Banana Republic was my go-to work store with occasional stops at Ann Taylor. But BR had the advantage of not being the 30-something shop I always thought of Ann Taylor as when I was in my early 20s. I can remember buying some beautiful wool skirts at BR, both summerweight and winterweight, along with soft v-neck cashmere sweaters and gorgeous silk blouses and cotton button-downs for work when I was in an office environment. I can remember the day I praised the shopping gods that BR had introduced their Martin pant — the first office pant I could find that didn’t gap in the waist! This hourglass-shaped girl was happy beyond belief. I also remember finding some incredibly beautiful, long layering camis with gorgeous embellished v-necklines that I still own to this day. I’d still shop at BR for workwear if they had items like this!

I’m not saying BR has to re-release those exact products, but in the last few years their work stuff has taken a turn for the far worse. The quality of their wool is awful. I bought a silk blouse where the seam stitches released the first time I wore the shirt (and that’s terribly embarrassing both for me and the seamstress, because a seam stitch is something most sewing machines can do practically on their own these days!). Their button-downs no longer had darts at the bust which meant major gapping no matter what your bust size. But the dealbreaker for me? BR changed the fit of their amazing, curve-friendly Martin pant to be made for straighter cut-shapes. BR already has two pant cuts made for straighter shapes. So us Martin lovers have been shafted…left out in the cold. Not cool, Banana Republic. Not cool at all.

Again, BR can easily mix some more urban-inspired workwear pieces in with their mix, but they need to remember that their core customer cannot sport the urban stuff. Do 20% urban vibe for us delighted city folk, and make you’re nailing the other 80% for the everyday office worker. It doesn’t have to be boring either — an elegant take on officewear would make a hugely positive impact on your bottom line. There is absolutely a hole in the market for exactly what BR used to excel at. They could double their profit by nailing both the sportswear and casualwear they brought in Ms. Webb for, along with this core workwear base.

Lastly, Banana’s own vision for its brand and the design are kind of at odds with each other. Webb’s designs are undoubtedly more fashion-forward than anything Banana has ever offered. And yet, hamstrung by the need to be a mass-market brand, the designs can’t be too fashion-forward the way they are for a boutique or smaller chain. Part of the disappointing sales for the Spring 2015 line was attributed to there ‘not being enough color’ in the mostly grey, white and black collection. But if you live in NYC, those are your basic three colors! So Banana can’t be too upscale, yet they can’t be too mass-market if they want to draw in the higher-spending shopper who might give these new, chic designs at BR a whirl. What’s a brand to do?

One item, three outfits. YES, Banana Republic! 
You need to do this as much as possible, with as many items as possible.
In stores AND online.
Outfit 1 (left): Dress ($130) // Belt ($55) // Bracelets ($40) // Mules ($138)
Outfit 2 (center): Dress ($130) // Scarf ($60) // Jeans ($110) // Bag ($168) // Pumps ($128)
Outfit 3 (right): Dress ($130) // Pink Dress ($130) // Bracelet ($40) // Bag ($168) // Flats ($98)

For me, clothes shopping is a visual and a tactile experience. My purchases are based on two criteria: being able to envision myself in an outfit and feeling comfortable in the piece. I need to see how the piece would work in outfits. I need to feel quality material or at least material that makes sense.

In this area, Banana Republic is starting to take steps in the right direction. I’ve noticed a heavy presence of outfits on BR’s website lately which is just what they need. At the moment they have two sections on their website dedicated to outfits: the Edit which has 3-5 outfits and is updated about once a month; and their newer 3 ways to wear feature which this round features five items shown three ways. These two features are crucial to Banana’s future success. Why?

Here’s the thing about many of these pieces: they were meant to be layered. I think this is where Banana Republic is missing the boat a bit at the moment — when you see this items, alone, showcased on a model in a product shot, it’s very difficult to mentally put together the outfit. Customers like me aren’t getting the full picture from the product pages and that makes us miss beautiful outfits because we can’t see them beyond the oddity of each piece. Ideally, every item should be shown in a complete outfit on the website so we can see how the proportions are meant to work; how the items are meant to marry together; what the designers intended when they designed the item. The outfits assembled for the product pages now are often plain and not proportionally balanced and quite frankly this makes some of the items look terrible. Banana Republic could take a page from J.Crew here — use at least one of the product page photos to showcase the outfit the designers envision us in. Show us the cohesion because online it’s very hard to make that leap on our own.

So the more Banana shows us highly stylized, complete outfits (from head to toe, accessories and jewelry required), the easier it becomes to make sales. Sales of higher totals per customer. And the more they teach their customers to dress in outfits purchased completely at Banana, the more repeat customers you get. The more you earn our loyalty. The better you do in the future.

In-store it’s similarly tricky. Some items are organized by outfit which is super helpful and probably the way I’d set up Banana Republic if I was a store visual planner there. This way, the layering newbies and wannabe-layering-rockstars like me have helpful suggestions of what a well-pulled together outfit looks like. And then the more advanced among us can grab an item from here, another from over there, and mix and match into their own outfits.

But there are missed opportunities here. Among the weirdest one is that some of my favorite buys from Spring 2015 never seemed to make the website at all. This beautiful silk cami from the Heritage collection, for instance (check out the amazingly pretty back!) comes in a wide range of jewel-toned solid colors in-store but is nowhere to be found online. That strategy may have worked in 2003 but it’s 2015 and your customers are checking the website first. You are losing store conversions because your potential customers don’t know these products exist! It’s kind of mind-blowing to me.

Speaking of stores, in NYC alone there are at least nine Banana Republic stores. Each store features different outfits on their mannequins. Can these carefully assembled, visually stimulating, wallet-opening outfits be seen on, say, a Banana Republic Instagram feed? Not as far as I know. How about the BR Facebook page? Nope, not that I can see. (If I’m just missing them, let me know!!)

Banana Republic is starting to make better use of Instagram, but there is so much more it could do!

Banana needs to take a page from Lululemon’s book here. Or Free People’s. Many individual Lululemon and Free People stores have their own Facebook pages, their own Instagram accounts, their own Twitter feeds. What do the stores post? Their own versions of outfits. Mannequins. Store employees wearing new stuff, unboxing new stuff, getting excited about new stuff! This list (assembled by the amazing Suzanne of Agent Athletica) puts all of the Lululemon store feeds in one place on Facebook. Imagine all the eyes these store feeds with their outfit photos and their item excitement get! Not to mention the blogs that compile them and spread them to more eyes…the regrams on Instagram to even more eyes…and so on.

Another missed opportunity is on the product page, Banana needs to have a customer photo gallery that pulls from Instagram, a la Free People’s FP Me or Anthropologie’s gallery. Nordstrom does it now and a bunch of other brands do too. Customers like to show off their goods — let them help you show other customers how to style these items!! Did anyone besides me even know that there’s an #itsbanana hashtag?? I sure didn’t until I started doing research for this blog post…

Another item (the pants) shown three ways — very helpful for envisioning different stylings.
As a city slicker I’m totally digging these looks (though I question the shoes in the left and center look) — 
but what about those of you who live in suburban or even rural areas? Banana tries to appeal to us all.
Outfit 1 (left): Pants ($90) // Jacket ($165) // Blouse ($90) // Scarf ($60) // Bag ($138) // Shoes ($128)
Outfit 2 (center): Pants ($90) // Jacket ($198) // Sweatshirt ($60) // Shoes ($128)
Outfit 3 (right): Pants ($90) // Sweater ($90) // Scarf ($80) // Pumps ($128) // Bag ($150)

And for those of us who want to pull off the effortlessly layered look but need some professional help, there need to be friendly, helpful, no pressure personal stylists in-store. Remembering that Banana Republic is, at the end of the day, a mass-market retailer, most of the customers are going to be uncomfortable approaching in-store associates or stylists for help for one big reason: they will feel a pressure to buy. Personally this is a fear I can’t relate to…but I live in NYC and have plenty of experience working with stylists around various stores, so I have no problem walking out empty-handed if I don’t find what I want. Most customers however, feel a pressure of sorts to buy if they’ve been helped.

The solution here is training. A simple message delivered from a store employee, something along the lines of, “A lot of the pieces this season are meant to be layered with other items we have in-store. I know that it’s not always easy to envision the pieces in one cohesive outfit — I sometimes struggle with this myself — so I’d be happy to work with you on some ideas if you’re interested. If not, let me know if I can help you with anything else.” And a smile. And that’s it — back off after that. Establish a rapport with the customer. When I go into Banana now I will say that I’m almost always greeted in a friendly way, asked if I’m looking for anything specific and then left alone unless I ask for help, which I love. There are enough store associates so that I never have to wander around for long without seeing an employee, who in general is very happy to help me.

I like how Anthropologie maneuvers in their personal shoppers with me. Once a store SA sees me walking around with more than 5 items, they ask if I’d like a personal shopper to come and assist me. Very low-pressure, offered in a friendly and non-binding way. I often say yes! Banana Republic would do well to mimic this.

What I’m trying to say is that Banana needs to hold its customer’s hands a little bit right now, walk them through this sea of pieces that alone might not make sense, but together deliver a killa outfit. Do they hold in-store shopping parties? I’d be curious to know, I’m on their email list but haven’t seen anything. Quite frankly 95% of your customers don’t care if BR shows at New York Fashion Week, just like they wouldn’t for any bigger market retailer (sorry J.Crew, Kate Spade, et al). What they do care about is ease of putting together looks. So focus your marketing, your visual efforts on that while the operations side focuses on getting the fit and production sourcing nailed. Those two huge items alone will help make great strides.

I also sincerely hope that BR will make a commitment to solving the larger company issues while giving Ms. Webb’s team time to settle in. Banana Republic needs to repair its reputation with its customers and that’s something any head of design would face. Too often now companies are so short-sighted, kind of like NFL teams that fire head coaches in year 3 of a 4 year plan. Then in year 5 when things are great the team thinks it was firing the coach that did it, when in fact it was just that they finally got the payoff of those 4 previous years. (And then things again sink quickly in year 6. So predictable.) These turnarounds take time and it’s important to let customers evaluate for a year, then come back in years 2 and 3. The new design team deserves 4 years to see how things go.

In addition to all the items showcased above in outfits, here are a few other Banana Republic pieces on my wishlist right now: the Multi-Stripe Long Cardigan ($110), the Damsel D’Orsay Pump ($128, looooove the pink!), the Sloan-Fit Faux-Leather Front Skinny Ankle Pant ($110), the BR Monogram Shirred Silk Dress ($198) in black, the BR Monogram Cutout Cami ($80) in cocoon, the Leather Drawstring Backpack ($298), the Edged Bangle ($40), the Sparkle Edge Bangle ($40).

Have you visited Banana Republic lately? What has been a hit for you? What has missed? I’ll be posting some try-on photos from recent store visits on my Instagram today…


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