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Lululemon’s Grand Ambitions Are Within Reach

Sarah Halzack
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Lululemon’s Grand Ambitions Are Within Reach

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s a testament to the strength of Lululemon Athletica Inc. that this is how I’d summarize its new medium-term strategic plan: It is extremely ambitious and yet plenty achievable.

At the athletic apparel retailer’s investor day on Wednesday, its first since 2014, executives outlined bold financial targets, including annual revenue growth in the “low teens” for the next five years. That’s a blistering pace, but it’s not unrealistic because the company is counting on the right pieces of the business — men’s and international — as key drivers of the growth.

Men’s apparel is a newer area for a retailer that got its start courting female yoga devotees. There are clear signs that the retailer is gaining traction with men, including the company’s earlier acknowledgment that it was “ahead of schedule” in its quest for $1 billion in sales in this division.(1)And Lululemon can still make relatively easy inroads with this group simply by improving men’s awareness of the brand:

It can use marketing and new store openings to bring occasional male exercisers into the chain. Meanwhile, improving and expanding its men’s product offering gives it room to wring more dollars out of existing shoppers.

The opportunity for Lululemon in markets outside the U.S. and Canada is clear. As of the end of the latest fiscal year, only 21 percent of Lululemon stores were outside the U.S. or Canada. But the company has noted that comparable sales growth in its European stores is accelerating. And its North America playbook appears to be working elsewhere: CEO Calvin McDonald said Wednesday that a recent marketing campaign around its women’s pants in China helped bring in new shoppers — similar to a pattern in established markets, where pants are its most effective tool for acquiring customers. All of that suggests Lululemon can vacuum up more dollars if it steadily opens overseas stores.

It’s helpful, too, that Lululemon has other ideas in the mix for lifting sales. In particular, it is looking to do more in the personal care category, with plans to offer products such as deodorant and dry shampoo. I have some concern that these items might end up diluting gross margin, but that could largely be offset by capturing more spending from already-loyal customers. Plus, McDonald knows this area well from his days at the helm of Sephora’s U.S. business.

Meanwhile, Lululemon should benefit from its acknowledgment that it must continue to innovate its fabrics and designs. (Running gear was called out Wednesday as one area for improvement.) Indeed, if a retailer is going to charge $98 for running tights or $118 for a jacket, it had better make sure the garments have distinct attributes that make them worth that price.

Speaking of pricing, McDonald noted that when it comes to plans for a Lululemon loyalty program, “We’re not going to show up to the party with a discount card.” Translation: The offering will woo customers with perks like exclusive events and free shipping, not coupons. This is the right call for the aspirational vibe Lululemon has cultivated. How many specialty retailers at similar price points — Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, J. Crew, to name a few — have been bruised by aggressive discounting tactics, where shoppers stop showing up if there’s no promotion? Lululemon is prudently avoiding that trap.

None of this is to say that Lululemon is going to be able to skate with ease to these five-year targets. There are a cluster of digital-centric athletic wear shops gunning for its customers, including Outdoor Voices, Bandier and Carbon 38. Nike Inc. is counting on women shoppers for its next phase of growth. And Gap Inc.’s Athleta chain is a rapidly expanding competitor.

Significant innovations appear to on the horizon for the wellness and active apparel business, with experiments in everything from customized 3D-printed gear to recovery sleepwear to digitally connected fitness wearables. If Lululemon does not navigate those changes in the market effectively, its targets could suddenly slip out of reach.

But for now, Lululemon looks primed to stay in warrior pose for years to come.

(1) The company had said several years ago that its men's business would be a $1 billion brand by 2020.

To contact the author of this story: Sarah Halzack at shalzack@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

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