Why Target Is Gambling on the Tricky Task of Making Jeans for Women

The strategic thinking behind its new Universal Threads brand

The core of the Universal Thread line will be jeans. Getty Images

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.

Universal Thread will offer jeans in a variety of fits, lengths, rises and silhouettes.
Courtesy of Target

While private labels suffer from the obvious problem that they’re rarely as prestigious as mainstream brands, they also offer a number of key advantages, according to retail expert Bruce Winder. In-store brands mean higher gross margins for retailers, for one. Plus, “women’s apparel is a must-win category for Target,” Winder said. “That has a huge strategic importance for them.”

Women have long been Target’s bread-and-butter customers, and if Universal Threads can help the company attract and retain them, it’s a benefit both in terms of jeans sales and because once a customer comes to a store, there are ample opportunities to sell them other goods. “They are using their store network as an advantage, as you need to try these products,” Winder added. “Having stores is a big plus in this case.”

With annual revenues of over $69 billion, Target’s brick-and-mortar system stands at 1,828 stores. And while the company has focused significant attention on its web-based business (its comparable digital-channel sales grew by a whopping 24 percent in the most recent quarter), it’s hardly abandoning the big box. In the third quarter alone, the company opened 12 new stores and remodeled 37 older ones.

Carlson noted that buying Universal Thread jeans on Target’s website will be easy thanks to an “online shopping experience [that] is pretty straightforward,” but she also pointed out that “while online shopping is becoming more prevalent, the majority of people still shop in store, and being able to offer an in-store experience is still really important.”

Of course, none of this lessens the fundamental challenge of providing jeans that fit well to a population that’s long suffered from a dearth of jeans that fit well.

“They’re flying right into the fire,” Adamson said, adding that Target “could lose a fortune” in stocking all the jean sizes necessary (and charging so little for them). “[But] if they can solve that [fitting] problem and get that woman in the store and deal with them trying things on—if they can capture that woman—[then] they can build around it,” he said. “Which is not to diminish how hard it is. This is a real pain point for this group of consumers.”

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.