Denim jeans for women made their commercial debut in 1934, and ever since then, one rule has held true: Most women do not like shopping for them.
A 2010 Mintel survey conducted in the U.K. revealed that 64 percent of women felt it was “difficult to find jeans that fit them properly,” a rate over double that of men. And 2016 survey from thread-maker Invista found that only about half of women said shopping for jeans was easy. (With endless combinations of waist, hip, length and other measurements, it’s little wonder.) As an influential essay in the Atlantic by the cultural writer Virginia Postrel put it, “Sending a man to the moon is easier than finding jeans that fit.”
Which is why, no doubt, a few heads turned Monday when big-box retailer Target announced it would be launching a new private-label brand built around … women’s denim.
Set for a rollout in early February, Universal Thread will feature shoes, tops and accessories, but the core of the line will be jeans. And the question looming behind the announcement is this: Why would a retailer volunteer itself not just to get into a category as competitive as denim, but one as difficult to please customers with as women’s denim?
The answer turns out to be a complicated one, and one that goes well beyond the clothing rack.
But first, the jeans.
Target spokesperson Jessica Carlson admitted that management knew very well it was getting into a difficult category with Universal Thread.
“We did guest research, and what we heard was shopping for denim was something women really dreaded,” she said. From a sample group of a thousand women across the country, Target heard answers such as (in Carlson’s words), “I don’t really want to go and try on 25 pairs of jeans in all different sizes.”
So what’s the thinking? With no Universal Thread items priced above $39.99, probably not fat profits. Instead, Target believes that if it can deliver on its promise to offer well-fitting jeans at an attractive price, it will give shoppers a virtually unassailable reason to shop with Target.
“The key behind all of this, honestly, is [to] make Target the preferred destination,” Carlson said.
Universal Thread is one of no fewer than 12 in-house labels (including athleisure brand JoyLab and menswear line Goodfellow) that the retailer began rolling out last summer, and Carlson’s explanation echoes what the store’s evp and chief merchandising officer Mark Tritton said in September, when Target introduced its lifestyle brand Hearth & Hand in collaboration with HGTV’s Fixer Upper hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines, “In a retail environment where differentiation has never been more important, we’re doubling down and introducing more than a dozen new brands to provide guests with even more reasons to choose Target.”
Of course, this response only points up the fact that Target finds itself needing to give shoppers more reasons to choose the store in the first place. While Target delivered 0.9 percent comparable sales growth in the third quarter and posted a respectable traffic increase of 1.4 percent, concerns about Amazon’s relentless erosion of old-guard retailers’ market share is well known. And in the analysis of author and veteran marketer Allen Adamson, founder of consulting firm BrandSimple, Target’s broader reason for getting into women’s jean is “the realization that, to beat Amazon, they have to change the game.”
Because consumers know they can go any number of places (including Amazon) to get a pair of Levi’s, and because “the traditional game of competing on price is over”—again, largely because of Amazon—“the only hand left for a retailer to play is private label,” he said.