Can These Styles Save Talbots?

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

Now, as Sullivan is presenting her company’s 2010 earnings report, she sketches out her latest strategy to overhaul the struggling brand. First, she says, Talbots is going to shed dead weight by closing 100 stores by year’s end. Next, the successful stores in the chain will get a “facelift” that will involve updating the window displays and painting over the iconic red doors. Other fresheners include a more modern product line and increased financial flexibility. It’s all part of the carefully calibrated approach that’s needed, she says, for Talbots to attract new customers without alienating its base.

The nips and tucks that Sullivan is prescribing seem to do little to appease the retail analysts on the call, though, especially when the CEO reports that early returns on the updated clothing line have been less than promising. Shoppers were confused by the more fashion-forward approach in the January catalog, which Sullivan acknowledges “didn’t resonate with our customers.”

Finally, one analyst, an exasperated edge in her voice, demands, “Who is the customer and where does Talbots sit? Do you think you have the product figured out? That’s what I’m struggling with. Maybe you don’t have it figured out.”

LESS THAN THREE MILES down the road from the Talbots headquarters is the crisp white 17th-century Colonial in Hingham where Nancy and Rudolf Talbot first started the company. Today it remains just as they left it: The legendary bright red door still has its shiny brass knocker cocked slightly to the side.

Inside, several women dressed in Easter-egg-colored raincoats — their ash blond hair trimmed into neat chin-length bobs — weave their way through the racks of ruffled tees, linen pants, cardigans, and chinos.

When the Talbots opened the store in 1947, their timing was perfect. The postwar boom had ushered in an era of prosperity, and the couple was selling quality, well-priced American sportswear — twinsets and blazers, ballet flats and pearls — to a new generation of young families. After procuring the addresses of 3,000 New Yorker subscribers, the Talbots expanded their reach by launching a catalog in 1948. Working with the Beans and other New England retailers dabbling in the mail-order business, they increased production and inventory until their circulation reached more than 10 million.

  • M. L.

    It is very sad to see my favorite brand crumble. My daughter is graduating college this spring, and she has been offered numerous jobs with the top accounting firms. When I suggested Talbots as a place for career clothes — she laughed and said, “oh mom, that’s for old ladies…”. But when I asked her if she would like some suits from Ann Taylor, she jumped at my offer. Brand image is everything. Personally, I have worn Talbots clothes for 30 years and had been very happy up until the last 5 years. What happened? Talbots must differentiate between my daughter’s fashion and mine. No 50 year old women dresses like her daughter, not even the Kardashians…The best examples of product differentiation would be Ann Taylor and the Loft; Chicos and White House Black Market. Talbots just cannot keep running the brand into the ground and making all of us miserable. Talbots is trying to be the retailer to all women of all ages and all sizes. I don’t want to shop at Lane Bryant. I am a Talbots size 2 or 4. This broad of a market approach will never ever work. Further, republican women don’t really want to…

  • D.M.

    I am in my mid-forties and my mother has always loved Talbots but I always thought of them as “old lady” clothes. A couple of years ago I was struggling to find some dress pants that fit well and my mother suggested Talbots. I was very pleasantly surprised, and I have been a loyal Talbots shopper ever since. I really appreciate the personalized attentive service, although I don’t always receive it, depending who is working in my local store. Maybe Talbots needs to remember why women have shopped there. I LIKE that the clothes are not super trendy or funky (which is why I shop less often at Lane Bryant than I used to) but I do bypass a few of the styles in Talbots because they can be a bit frumpy.
    I was a little puzzled by the previous commenter’s remark about not wanting to shop at Lane Bryant? I am a plus size, and good quality clothes are VERY hard to come by – I hope she wasn’t suggesting that Talbots shouldn’t be selling plus? I am lucky enough to live near a store that has a plus store, and hope it stays. (and it’s completely…