These top-selling dresses at Macy's, Kmart and Wal-Mart show us what retail got wrong

Friday morning’s news that Wal-Mart plans to close 269 stores, including nine in California, will certainly have an effect on walk-in retail -- especially if you’re on the hunt for inexpensive big-screen televisions, ammunition or Garth Brooks’ exclusive-to-Wal-Mart “Blame It On My Roots” box set. But what effect will the closures, which will begin as early as Sunday, have on the way you look when you walk out the door in the morning?

Although the Bentonville, Ark., price-conscious retailer isn’t exactly known for being at the forefront of fashion, it does sell apparel -- a whole lot of it -- much in the form of private label brands with names such as White Stag, Fourteenth Place and Faded Glory or lower-priced only-at-Wal-Mart offerings from well-known brands such as Signature by Levi Strauss & Co. (where a pair of “Totally Shaping Skinny Jeans” for women retails for $19.94 against Levi’s regular offerings that average in the $70-to-$80 range).

Although an admittedly crude measuring stick (since a host of different factors can affect in-store sales), a quick survey of best-selling women’s dresses at Walmart.com reveals a penchant for shoulder-baring private-label maxi dresses by Fourteenth Place ($16.88) and Faded Glory (regularly $15.44, currently reduced to $5.93).

Last week it was Macy’s Inc. -- a decidedly different kind of retailer -- that announced plans to shutter 40 stores and slash some 4,800 jobs as it struggles to adapt to a consumer base that increasingly favors clicks over bricks when it comes to shopping. According to macys.com, the best-sellers currently include two Adrianna Papell floor-length gowns ($259 and $299) and a Rachel Rachel Roy cap-sleeve V-neck sheath dress (regularly $99 but currently on sale for $69.99). L.A.-area shoppers who like to try before they buy needn’t worry too much as the only nearby store slated for permanent closure is the one at the Irvine Spectrum in Orange County.

And just two days ago, news came that the Golden State will be down three Kmart stores and a Sears store by the end of April, as part of an effort to cut costs and “accelerate the transformation of [its] business model.” That transformation probably includes focusing on e-commerce. And, for comparison’s sake, what are Kmart shoppers buying online? As of right now, two of the best-selling dresses are drapey, casual dresses that fall to mid-thigh ($19.99 and $29.99) from the celebrity-affiliated Adam Levine label, another is a black dress from Twenty Four Seven Comfort Apparel ($32.99), and a fourth is a sleeveless skater-inspired dress by Attention ($13.49).   

It’s worth noting that each of the above retailers' current online best-sellers are exclusive (or, in the case of the Adrianna Papell label, practically exclusive) labels that can’t be bought elsewhere.

Once upon a time, that sort of exclusivity might have been enough to get shoppers in the door -- or more recently drive them to a website -- at which point, the theory goes, they’d stock up on the blenders, bed sheets and badminton racquets they didn’t know they wanted. But the faceless, soulless, cold emptiness of e-commerce has profoundly changed the reason for having retail real estate -- especially when it comes to fashion- and style-related impulse purchases.

Being able to offer everything under the sun efficiently in one place is no longer the point (if it were, Amazon would have already won the wardrobe war). Increasingly, what matters is creating a feeling, a brand connection, a simultaneous tug at the heartstrings and the wallet. (Ironically, this is exactly what Wal-Mart was trying to do with its front-door greeters.) And it’s here where the mom-and-pops, the tiny multi-brand boutiques and the kind of luxury mono-brand stores lining Rodeo Drive -- especially the ones with an e-commerce presence -- have the edge.

In November, while waiting backstage before a Wear LACMA panel discussion, Nina Garduno, founder of the L.A.-based FreeCity label shared her retail philosophy, one that keeps her hippie chic-commune-meets-Pop Art FreeCity Supershop outposts (one on North Highland Avenue in L.A., one in Venice, Calif., and a third in Tokyo) insulated from the Internet cutting into her foot traffic. “I want to make coming into my store about a feeling, about an experience. About making a connection and feeling something special. The T-shirt the customer buys before they leave is a souvenir of that experience.”

As bricks-and-mortar retail evolves from transactional to experiential, Garduno’s lesson is one Wal-Mart, Macy’s and Kmart ignore at their peril.  

For the latest in fashion and style news, follow me @ARTschorn on Twitter.

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