Kohl’s Pivots in the Pandemic

Kohl’s is “leaning” into its digital business, determining categories to ramp up and operating more efficiently.

Those are among the ways the 1,150-store, omnichannel retailer has been adapting in an economy ravaged by COVID-19, according to Doug Howe, Kohl’s Inc. chief merchandising officer.

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“More than anything, COVID-19 has accelerated how we are thinking about our business,” Howe said in a conversation with WWD deputy managing editor Evan Clark. “We have definitely leaned into digital. That’s been a pivot.”

Howe also cited Kohl’s active and casual businesses as being ramped up, though pre-pandemic those businesses were already strong for Kohl’s. “Active has been a really strong business for us,” Howe said. “We doubled that business over the last five years. Right now it’s penetrating at about 20 percent of our total business. We believe it can be 30 percent and greater.”

Kohl’s generated just under $20 billion in volume last year, meaning active would represent about a $4 billion business at the value-oriented, promotional chain.

“With Nike, Under Armour and Adidas, there is a continued opportunity to grow all of those brands,” said the executive, who also cited Champion as important to the active assortment, as well as the outdoor category

“Sizing inclusivity is a big driver across those businesses as well. We are just getting starting in those. It’s early innings.”

Last month, Kohl’s launched Adidas x Zoe Saldana, a private collection of active apparel, footwear and accessories for women.

Beauty, said Howe, is a small, “very modest” category at Kohl’s currently, although “it’s one of the areas we feel is worth the most amount of growth.” This month, the company launched Lauren Conrad skin care and makeup as an exclusive brand.

“How we think about the categories has definitely changed,” Howe said. The pandemic, he said, “has given us an opportunity to pause, and reflect back about on where there are opportunities we could further accelerate.”

He said Kohl’s has been “staying really close to consumer trends, being more responsive, and more importantly overall from a corporate, culture perspective, operating more efficiently, leaning into innovation, testing, piloting through these times.”

Howe also said Kohl’s has a significant opportunity to grow women’s, which has been lagging. Earlier this year, the Menomonee, Wisc.-based retailer revealed it was exiting eight women’s brands. “That allows us to focus really strongly on the brands we feel have a runway for the future,” Howe said. “There is a big effort around modernizing our assortment,” reflected by the recent introductions of products from Nine West and Elizabeth and James.

Aside from the introduction of some contemporary labels, Kohl’s introduced Lands’ End this fall, which will help bolster outerwear sales.

The goal, he said, has been to “create more clarity on our brand offering through a significant reduction in brand choices.”

The women’s business this holiday season will have a 40 percent reduction in customer choices but a 50 increase in depth, Howe said. That will lead to “clear messaging for what we stand for and an easier shopping experience,” including making it easier for the customer to find the sizes they need. “It’s a cleaner, much more illuminated environment and a more impactful experience,” Howe said.

The inventory reduction, including removing inventory from the aisles, as well as the removal of some fixturing, has benefited Kohl’s efforts at creating social distancing and has made it safer for customers to shop, Howe said.

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