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How Penney and Kohl's Ride Their Polo Ponies Home

NEW YORK - Are two of the most important home textiles introductions of the past decade - both from the famed Polo stable - not the prized stallions they once were?
     Their retailers are not saying, but the bedding collections of American Living at JCPenney and Chaps Home at Kohl's, which were both created several years ago in conjunction with design powerhouse Polo Ralph Lauren,

Both Kohl’sBoth Kohl’s, left, and JCPenney have chosen from the Ralph Lauren stable for flagship programs, but several years into their shelf life, are the two lines starting to show their age?
appear to have lost some of their luster. Few of the merchandising bells and whistles that were announced with the debut of these brands are in place and neither seems to have the premium positioning on the sales floor it did at its launch.
     Home Textiles Today editors recently shopped the programs at a New York area branch of each retailer and while these impressions only represent the shopping experience at these individual stores, they may be more indicative of the bigger picture. This report kicks off a new series in HTT called "Face to Face" comparing similar merchandising classifications at pairs of competing retailers.
     Kohl's executives were traveling and unavailable for comment, according to a spokesperson. JCPenney executives could not respond to a request for comment in time to meet HTT's press deadline.
     Introduced three years ago, American Living, created by Polo Ralph Lauren, is the newer brand. The program was the largest brand launch to date in the company's history and was initially intended for the retailer's "best" pricing category.
     There was a big fanfare accompanying the launch, thanks to commercials that aired during the 2008 Academy Awards in February, of which JCPenney was the exclusive retail sponsor.
     Press releases also touted store-within-a-store formats, white wooden fixtures, store associates wearing red American Living polos and American Living shopping bags.
     The white wooden fixtures appear to be the only vestige remaining of the marketing effort at the American Living bedding section at the busy Queens Center in Elmhurst, Queens.
     There are four American Living bedding collections represented, although not all pieces listed on signage could be found on shelves. American Living bedding occupies a narrow 20 foot by 5 foot footprint, with sheets found in a separate area. Additional American Living bedding could be found on the back wall of the bedding department.
     There are two display beds and the first features the Eastborne collection, a damask jacquard in tan and tea. Discounts are steep: The Eastborne queen comforter set, featuring a comforter, bedskirt and two shams, was originally $335 and is on sale for more than half off at $149.99. Coordinating Euro and decorative pillows are slashed from $70 to $34.99 and $60 to $29.99, respectively.
     Prints, especially floral patterns, rule the collections. The second bed displays the Granville comforter set, originally $300, on sale for $129.99. This is also a damask jacquard in gold. The coordinating decorative pillows have floral embroidery or ribbon stripes, they were originally $50 and are now on sale for $24.99.
     While there are prices listed for full/queen and king sizes for a third bedding collection called Blue Point, a traditional quilt pattern with small scale floral print, there are only decorative pillows (originally $60 on sale for $34.99) and shams (originally $50 on sales for $29.99) stocked on shelves.
     Curiously, a small, four-shelf tower held just a small assortment of a fourth look, Somerset Park. There are three quilts in lilac and champagne satin stripes with an all-over damask pattern stitching, (full/queen quilt size was once $170 and is on sale for $59.99). Matching decorative pillows in lilac are on another fixture, while Somerset Park comforter sets are found along the back wall, cut off from view by tall fixtures. A comforter set in queen size, originally $270, is on sale for $99.
     The steep price cuts were probably not part of the initial vision. In February 2008, Jeff Allison, evp for home told HTT that American Living "represents traditional, classic, best-on-floor quality with a real feel of Americana." HTT reported that initial price points were some 10 to 30 percent higher on average than the typical Penney product.
     In what also seemed like a departure from the initial vision that promoted cross promotion, American Living sheets are not in the same area but located separately. Blakely queen sheet sets in a 425 thread count feature a small, paisley tone on tone print and come in six colors. They are $69.99, on sale from $140.
     Online shoppers can buy Landon, a higher 800 thread count in a long staple Egyptian cotton sateen in white or coconut milk. Also online are quilts, comforters and shams for five other collections, but not every comforter and quilt has a matching sham. There are woven cable-knit Supima blankets listed online at outlet prices of $19.99 to $29.99, originally $70 to $100.
     There's no indication to the consumer of the Polo Ralph Lauren connection, at least not overtly, but that is part of the plan. As Allison told HTT in the launch interview, it is "like their Rugby line which also has no [corporate] identification. There's a great connection with the product to the JCPenney customer. It's so obvious [as to its heritage]."
     Chaps Home, designed and developed by Ralph Lauren and sourced directly by Kohl's, employs a similar strategy of communicating the brand through design. It too was a huge launch for the retailer, back in May 2007, becoming the first national brand that Kohl's carried in every one if its major departments.
     A visit to the bedding department, at a Kohl's store also in Elmhurst, finds the Chaps brand on the far side of the area, next to towels and across from sleepwear. The brand occupies a 14-by-6 footprint, plus another 5-by-8 adjacent area where the more steeply discounted bedding is found.
     There appears to be seven Chaps Home bedding collections with one bed on display for a floral pattern collection called Rosemont. A Rosemont queen comforter set with comforter, bed skirt and two shams, originally $419.99, is on sale for $289.99. Sale prices for this collection are 25% to 35% off original, with an additional 20 percent if shoppers open a Kohl's charge card.
     Prices are actually hard to determine. Signage simply lists original and sale prices, for example, $49.99 was now $34.99, but what exactly did one now get for $34.99? For that one has to consult another list to determine $49.99 represents decorative pillows or shams, or if the second list isn't available, compare price tags on products and determine the sale price.
     While there are steep savings to be found on each collection, the chance of pulling together a coordinated bed fell along with the prices. For Montego Bay, a watercolor paisley print, marked down 80 percent on a clearance fixture, there are only five comforter sets and two single shams. On the same fixture, Montauk Studio offers three quilts, six shams and a comforter. Nantucket Studio offers a single quilt.
     Several collections are split up, with half found on fixtures in the center of the shop while along the back wall is the rest of the bed. In the back there are cream and red quilts for the French Rivera collection, as well as a single red floral needlepoint- like decorative pillow that completes the rest of the bedding. There are also additional pillows, shams and a quilt that complement the rest of the Anjou collection, a vintage floral pattern, also found in another location.
     One of the Leighton decorative pillows, in a deep red velvet with a royal-looking crest on in it, offers perhaps the clearest design link to Ralph Lauren.
     Just about every collection has a few pieces belonging to other collections, making an attempt to quantify what was in stock and what was missing, rather dizzying.
     Sheets are in abundance, offered on a couple fixtures. Chadwick queen sheet sets in a 700 thread count, 100 percent Egyptian cotton sateen, are reduced from $199.99 to $109.99, a discount of 45 percent, a point of information that was helpful noted on the signage.
     Online there are at least eight more collections, although some have more components than others. The floral and patchwork Wainscott collection offers a wide range of comforter sets, duvet sets, sheet sets, Euro pillows, decorative pillows and shams at prices that were about 30 to 35 percent off. For Dylan quilt coordinates, there is simply a full/queen quilt in a bold red and white geometric pattern, originally $199.99 now $79.99 and a decorative pillow, originally $44.99 now $21.99.
     On whole, the Chaps area seems tucked off to the side, sort of lonely, so much so that the centrally located Vera Wang bed, with her pale Chrysanthemum collection dec pillows shimmering like a bride, gives one the feeling that Chaps has been relegated, forgive the metaphor, to forever be the bridesmaid.
     While the Chaps line is not identified as a Ralph Lauren brand, it is a label Polo has used previously and one that had been linked to Ralph Lauren. American Living was created especially for the Penney program. Taken with Polo's multiple other home brands, including Lauren Ralph Lauren and Ralph Lauren Home Collection, it represents the company's strategy of multiple tiering, something it has successfully executed in apparel for years.
     Based on these isolated store visits, it remains to be seen how American Living and Chaps will play out long-term in that strategy.

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