Every day the list of victims of the faltering economy grows longer.  Circuit City (#32 on National Retail Federation’s, Top 100 Retailers), among the most notable of recent retailers to fall prey to slow sales and tight credit, will certainly not be the last.

Others include Steve and Barry’s, Linens ‘n Things, Domain home Furnishing, Gottschalk’s Department Stores and Carolina Custom Golf to name a few.  At the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in New York, Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s outgoing chairman said, “We all hope that by next Christmas it certainly isn’t any worse.” This perspective that the retail downturn will last much longer than originally anticipated is now reflected across all media.

A few key retailers uniquely supportive of licensing are demonstrating what it will take to survive in this economic climate. These retailers share one commonality, their innovative use of brands to generate traffic. All are using private label programs, corporate brands and trademarks, and licensed properties to create innovative direct-to-retail exclusives that are generating excitement and demand from consumers.

The Power of Licensing for Department Stores

Department Stores, a particularly hard-hit category, continue to try to discover the secret formula for success. Saks Fifth Avenue shook the foundations of the luxury market with steep mid-November discounts that, according to the Wall Street Journal are, “bankrupting some firms, toppling longstanding agreements on pricing and distribution, and destroying the very air of exclusivity that designers are trying to sell.” As the leaders in this category continue to struggle with dwindling mall traffic, others are finding unique ways to reach consumers.

In May, Macy’s (#13) announced a partnership with FAO Schwarz to bring toys back to Macy’s stores with children’s departments. The company announced that 275 stores would initially receive the new FAO Schwarz store-within-a-store concept. Additional plans were announced for 75 full size FAO Schwarz toy stores, and an additional 200 smaller stores where FAO will sell its private label collection. Macy’s tested the FAO Schwarz concept in Chicago during the past year and has been extremely pleased not only with the added toy business but also the boost to the children’s apparel sales.

JCPenney (#18) has been shoring up its private label brands with new offerings from licensed brands that consumers recognize and trust. Penney is focusing spring advertising campaigns on their exclusive fashion forward clothing lines hoping to attract fashion-hungry shoppers with reasonable prices. In addition to exclusive lines by trendy names such as Kimora Lee Simmons and Nicole Miller, Penney was the exclusive retailer for the debut of the NIKE EB1 Shoe; launched a new baby and gift line, Messages From The Heart, with award-winning author and artist Sandra Magsamen; announced the forthcoming launch of a complete women’s fashion sportswear line called I “Heart” Ronson with recognized designer Charlotte Ronson in Spring 2009; and launched a mid-priced women’s line called Allen B. with Allen B. Swartz, LA-based creator of the high-end ABS line.

Like Penney, Kohl’s (#22) investment in building and marketing its growing private label offering is what truly sets this leading retailer apart from the pack. Known for its exclusive offerings with unique brands like Simply Vera Wang, Elle Contemporary Collection, Abbey Dawn by Avril Lavigne, Daisy Fuentes, Chaps, Food Network, and celebrity chef Bobby Flay, they continue to add to their licensed portfolio.

In sportswear, Kohl’s has built on its early 2006 success licensing the Tony Hawk brand by recently adding FILA Sport and the Hang Ten brand licensed from American Brand Holdings for a Spring 2009 Launch.  Kohl’s also announced in December an expanded multi-year deal with Iconix Brand Group for the Mudd brand in apparel, accessories, jewelry and domestics. The line includes girls’ and juniors’ apparel, intimates, sleepwear, and accessories significantly expanding existing lines. In addition, Kohl’s has an exclusive relationship with Candies, also from Iconix.

Then in January, Kohl’s announced its new license agreement with Liz Claiborne for its Dana Buchman brand, a high end line currently sold at high-end department stores like Nordstrom,Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Bloomingdales. If the Spring 2009 launch is successful, Kohl’s leadership promises to extend the line into home, beauty, and fragrance.

 

The Changing Grocery Retail Landscape

In another category dominated by private label, the grocery retail landscape is being shaped by a number of important health & wellness trends including organics, locally produced foods, as well as by the move to smaller footprint “local” markets led by the UK’s Tesco. Grocery retailers however haven’t embraced the licensing-in strategy that we see in department stores. Instead they have been investing in their store brands with such great success that store brands are no longer perceived as second rate knock-offs and some are even licensed out to other retailers.

Safeway’s (#11) success with the O Organics line highlights Safeway’s strategy to build private label brands that can stand alone. O Organics, now the biggest organic brand in the country, generated $400 million in sales in 2008. Similar to Safeway’s previously launched Eating Right brand, research shows that consumers think the brand is indeed a stand-alone brand which was always the intent. Safeway brought in execs from leading CPG companies like P&G and Nestle to create the look of a national brand and then hired DDB in Chicago to develop print and television advertising to drive awareness. Even more interesting is Safeway’s recent move to “monetize the brands” through partnerships to sell the line in Asia and South America as well as through a partnership with food service giant, Sysco Corp. What started as a line to stave off competition from Whole Foods Markets is now being actively promoted and marketed like licensed brands. About half of the O Organics and Eating Right lines are available to other retailers through Safeway subsidiary, Lucerne Foods, Inc.

The success of private label brands at grocery has been unmatched. According to the Private Label Manufacturer’s Association (PLMA), private label increased by $5.4 billion last year to an all time high of $74.2 billion.

The rapid growth of private label is no surprise to Trader Joe’s (#54), more of a specialty-food store than a chain grocery, which is filled with private label offerings. Owned by Aldi, Trader Joe’s manages to sell twice as much per square foot as other grocery stores with only 2,000 products per store versus 30,000 for the competition. Its all specialty product, all private label formula, as legend has it, was modeled after Stew Leonard, a Connecticut-based specialty grocery.

Aldi, which some predict to be the next WalMart, is the 3rd most respected brand in Germany after Siemens and BMW. The company plans to have 1000 stores in the U.S. by 2010, owning 2% of the grocery market by that time. Because each Aldi store only has 700 Aldi-exclusive products as compared to 150,000 products at a WalMart Super Center, Aldi has extreme control over quality and price. Experts say that Aldi is more efficient than Wal-Mart and estimate sales at $4.8 billion in North America, growing 8% a year since 1998.

Hannaford (not listed in the top 100 retailers) has 165 stores in the northeast and is the largest certified-organic supermarket in the region.  Its Guiding Stars nutrition labeling program is a patent-pending credit and debit system for evaluating foods and grading them with one, two, or three stars for good, better, and best for you foods.  The program has demonstrated the demand for better awareness of healthy food options with many starred foods outpacing the selection of non-starred foods as much as 4 to 1. Hannaford is increasing its efforts to make the program widely available by launching a subsidiary, Guiding Stars Licensing Company, incorporated in 2008, to market the Guiding Stars program to other grocery retailers, food manufacturers, restaurants, convenience stores, hospitals, and schools.  Even relatively small retailers can use the program to differentiate their brand from the competition based on health awareness.

Conclusion

While the headlines for department store and grocery retailers have been bleak, innovative retailers are successfully connecting with customers to meet their needs in a very challenging environment. 2009 will provide yet more fascinating examples of retailers getting back to basics, exciting consumers with their unique private label products, and adding value to the relationship through innovative shopper-centric programs to differentiate from the competition.

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