Talbots gets unstuck from the middle

Talbots’ stock soared 30% today with news that the retailer was finally ending the Talbots Mens experiment. At face value, the expansion of a women’s luxury clothier to the rougher sex in 2003 seemed a fair idea; why couldn’t a brand known for making women shine do the same for men?

We think Talbots got stuck in the middle.

Michael Porter, in his landmark 1985 book Competitive Advantage, said that firms could succeed only by finding focus. He outlined four basic strategies — you could have narrow or broad scope, and low or high-cost products. Walmart is an example of a firm focused on broad scope with low cost — you can buy everything there, and cheap. Talbots was the opposite — narrow scope, clothing that makes women look really good, and high cost, clothing with quality for which you have to pay.

Porter warned that companies who are niche players risk getting “stuck in the middle” when they expand. You want to grow; so you decide to add on new services or products; and the people who loved you for what you were begin to lose interest. Instead of bacon or eggs, you become oatmeal. It’s a cautionary tale for any business, organization or agency that tries to get too big too fast, and leaves what made it special behind.

We love Talbots; it’s a store that could have been designed by Santa Claus for women, with red and gold logos, shirts and suits tailored to highlight grown women’s figures, and a reference pricing strategy that is brilliant in using “40% off” and “outlet stores” to spur purchases. Talbots is so good at being the ultimate affluent-women’s store that the men they are married to couldn’t think otherwise.

So, welcome back, Talbots. Here’s to growing up just the way you are.

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