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Express Execs Detail Evolution Away From ‘Store at the Mall’

Express is on a mission to remake itself from “being known as a store at the mall to a brand with purpose, powered by a styling team,” according to CEO Tim Baxter.

The fashion retailer’s Expressway Forward agenda—a “very clearly articulated strategy,” Baxter told CommerceNext attendees this fall—required new talent in the form of chief merchandising officer Malissa Akay, who came aboard in September 2019, and chief marketing officer Sara Tervo, who previously steered marketing for Justice and Victoria’s Secret Pink.

The brain trust was tasked with reinvigorating Express’s product and point of view after the company restructured prior to 2020’s tumult. “The brand was very relevant, but it kept putting out assortments that were past [their] relevance,” Akay told Sourcing Journal.

As part of its “top-to-bottom, soup-to-nuts transformation,” Express not only infused both the men’s and women’s assortments with new energy but also inked a new deal with Stylitics, an outfitting technology platform that “embodies our brand purpose” of creating confidence and inspiring self-expression by showing customers how to style a piece of clothing or accessory multiple ways, Baxter said. What’s more, customers engaging with Stylistics-driven outfitting content convert at two times Express’ average, driving a 60 higher average order value, Baxter added, and fueling the company’s goal to reach $1 billion in e-commerce in the next few years.

But first, Akay’s merchandising team scoured the Express archives to find the “nine enduring style codes” that could serve as the brand’s guiding light.

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“We were obsessed with our customer, and we spent a lot of time with our customer,” Akay said, noting the ongoing dialogue over product, brand philosophy and lifestyle that helped “co-create” the company’s well-received denim assortment. Denim has become the retailer’s new core basic, with 24 percent of customers now purchasing in this category, up from 8 percent about two year ago.

Express’ results back up its success with denim. The company sold over a million units in the category, fueling a positive double-digit comp in the retail channel across men’s and women’s over 2019. In August, Express reported its “best denim performance in recent history, driving a 21 percent comp increase on a two-year basis.

The introduction of stretch and curvy silhouettes—a fit that’s smaller in the waist and wider in the hips—helped Express deliver on customer feedback.

“We knew denim is the cornerstone of any versatile wardrobe,” Akay said. “What we found through our analytics was that only 17 percent of our customers were buying denim from us. Eighty percent were wearing denim to work, and more on the weekends.”

August saw the arrival of FlexX Jeans for men and women, offering a hyper-stretch fabrication, flexible waist size and 24/7 comfort—accommodating the “pandemic pounds” that many are losing or gaining during Covid-19’s disruption. Consumer testing prompted Express to go with XS-XL sizing instead of the usual numerical range.

The retailer incorporated customer feedback around styling, color and prints into Express Essentials, a “core” assortment comprised of style staples, essential tops, high-compression tops and bottoms, and its new Body Contour line of double-layer bodysuits and halter neck tops, asymmetric tees, crew necks and camis. Serving as the “foundation for every outfit,” the lines offers versatile pieces that pair with jeans, cut-off shorts and sneakers, or work “under the power suit” at a board meeting,” Akay said.

The style codes for women’s also apply to men’s wear, which previously relied on a streetwear-leaning aesthetic. “Our male customer has an incredible appetite for fashion. He’s not afraid of color, and he’s not afraid of print,” Akay said, adding that men play an integral role in “our styling community and are a part of our transformation.”

The men’s polo is the “most versatile shirt” in the collection, according to Akay. Express also reconsidered how it approaches men’s underwear in what Akay calls a “major acceleration” of the product line’s trajectory. “It was a business that we just sort of had, but we are thinking about it now as an entirely new category,” she said. “We have a really, really exciting innovation in fabric waistbands.”

Express-designed footwear offers the “latest trends in a woven slide or incredible stilettos or a suede Chelsea boot,” Akay said, although the retailer also includes third-party brands to augment its existing selection.

Akay is optimistic about the holiday season for Express, despite the disruption roiling supply chains.

“I’m really proud of our cross-functional teams in terms of how we have thought about these [challenges, and] how we have surgically planned for them and created some mitigating actions to just get the product here,” she said.

And for Baxter, fashion—and other sectors like home—should pay attention to the promise that artificial intelligence-based outfitting tech offers. “In my perspective, if you’re managing an apparel and accessories business, I can’t think of [a reason why] you wouldn’t want to adopt Stylitics and give your customer the opportunity to experience your assortment in an entirely new way,” he said.

The focus on styling versus a straightforward buy-sell transaction could be Express’ ultimate differentiator. “What’s really remarkable is that we’re actually beginning to see our customers interacting with each other, and giving each other confidence and actually inspiring self-expression in each other,” Baxter said. “I try very hard to read as many comments in social media as I can. Some of them are painful, others are very inspiring. But that interaction between our customers is starting to form the foundation of that styling community” and an evolution toward “community commerce.”