Eagle debuts mom-friendly '77kids' line
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The role of mothers -- soccer or hockey -- may be controversial in some circles, but their power is not in question among the staff leading American Eagle Outfitters' carefully plotted strategy to start dressing some of the youngest Americans.
Hence, the inclusion of a "play. wash. repeat." feature on the Web site for the company's new 77kids by american eagle line, which launches today. What, you think the kids are worrying about how those jeans will look after 77 trips through the washing machine?
The mom-friendly laundry tool goes live today at the online store targeting children ages 2 to 10 years old, and it adds a reassuring value message to the virtual showroom featuring cute kids dressed in a colorfully, stylish goulash of hoodies, skinny jeans, tanks and even a tutu.
"We want to think like a mom and see like a kid," said Chris Fiore, senior vice president for 77kids. That means making clothes that look cool, feel good on the body and can stand up to a few washings.
American Eagle's timing in trying out a new concept -- any concept -- could be better. The nation's economic kerplunk has been hard on retailers and has drained consumer traffic from many malls.
Yet, the South Side company isn't taking this to the malls right away. The children's store at www.77kids.com marks American Eagle's first attempt at birthing a new concept entirely online, a move that protects the company from real estate expenses and payroll issues inherent in physical stores.
The teen retailer last year sold $250 million in goods online, and sales have continued to grow through that venue. The number includes merchandise from core American Eagle stores as well as the aerie line of intimates and the Martin + Osa line targeting "thirtysomethings." The children's concept takes its name from the year American Eagle was founded.
The retailer's considerable base gives 77kids a head start in gaining attention. But to really get in front of its young audience, the marketing staff called in tween heartthrobs the Jonas Brothers. Tens of thousands of e-mails were collected from households trying to win tickets to a special Nov. 14 concert by the band.
Video of the concert will be streamed on the Web site on Sunday, Nov. 16. It will be shown only once, and those who want to watch will need to register, meaning connections to more potential customers.
"We have a very formidable marketing campaign," said Mr. Fiore, who said ads had been placed in niche magazines, Facebook and MySpace accounts set up, and that millions of e-mails would be sent out in the next two weeks.
Avoiding the malls won't completely shield American Eagle from challenges facing the children's clothing sector.
Abercrombie & Fitch reported a 20 percent drop in September sales at established stores in its children's division, following a 17 percent drop in August. The Children's Place has been restructuring. The parent of the Limited Too stores for 7- to 14-year-olds is converting to the more value-oriented Justice brand.
"Nothing is easy," conceded Mr. Fiore, whose career included an early stint as a buyer for boys clothes at Lord & Taylor. "This is a very competitive market."
He thinks 77kids can find its audience, using jeans starting at $19.50 and knit tops at $12.50 to illustrate good prices, and a $29.50 hoodie to provide an example of distinctive details such as quilted lining and a stylized, stitched bird logo.
In typical American Eagle fashion, the launch strategy has included focus groups with children and mothers. Less typical, models used to test the fit of the pieces had to be changed every three months or so as size 5 and size 10 children grew.
After mothers emphasized their frustration with clothes that fall apart, the team developed the 77wash and 77soft guarantees for size, shape, quality and comfort -- as long as customers followed the instructions on the label. The brocade dress, for example, won't do well in a hot water load.
A company was hired to wash everything at least 77 times. The guarantee does not promise no change at all. As the virtual laundry machine on the Web site illustrates, a pair of jeans does fade over time.
About 20 people are assigned to the children's concept, with work on design handled out of New York but duties involving marketing and e-commerce based in Pittsburgh. Online orders will be packed in the company's Kansas distribution facility.
If sales grow as planned -- Mr. Fiore described his goals as conservative -- physical stores should follow in another year or two. At that point, the plan is to add infant clothing, too.
He expects to learn a lot in the next few months, adding, "I would think the holiday line will give us a good feel for how big this business can be."
First Published October 23, 2008 12:00 am