July 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

Meijer out to be more fashion forward

Retailer giving apparel section a makeover

Mariana Keros checks the aisles at a Meijer in Southfield. She has been hired to help rework the chain's apparel and accessories departments. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Most fashion-conscious shoppers don’t head to Meijer stores specifically for a pair of palazzo pants, a Boho chic blouse or the necklace that makes the outfit.

But the company, founded as a grocery store chain, is hoping to recast its image as a shopping destination where orange is not just produce but also a fashion statement.

The Grand Rapids-based retailer known for its superstores wants to put some super into its apparel, shoes and accessories — like the $24 disco-era jumpsuit, $12 enamel cuff bracelet or the new line of shoes by Steve Madden.

Meijer has invested in a major makeover and restyling of its apparel and hired two outside consultants. It is redesigning stores and implementing a multi-media campaign that includes the publication of seasonal Look Books and the purchase of ads in national fashion magazines as it works to spread word of Meijer Style — not unlike competitor Target, which has been a destination for women who want to be fashionable on a budget.

“I don’t want to talk about any of the competition in particular,” said Lynn Hempe, Meijer’s vice president of soft lines. “What I would say is there is no reason we cannot compete with the best of them.

“What we work very hard on is how do we identify trends. What we are really looking for is to have top fashion at a good price, but I’m really uptight about quality. Quality gives you the ability to buy a trend and not feel guilty about it,” she said.

Meijer is pushing the affordable style message — and its crocheted dresses, faux ostrich skin handbags and other fashion trends — through a variety of channels and doing things it’s never done before.

Its multiple-issue advertisements in Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle, Cosmopolitan and Elle are a first. Meijer also launched a Meijer Style website, and fashion bloggers from in and outside of Michigan regularly weigh in about Meijer’s remade clothing image.

To build social media, a Meijer Style Pinterest board is up as are Instagram and Twitter accounts, and more wall space is being devoted to Meijer Style on the retailer’s Facebook page. A recent post offered: “Whether your style is more Stars and Stripes or Subtle, Yet Stylish, we’ll get you ready to celebrate in style!”

The full-court press also employs newspaper, radio and TV as well as fashion shows, including one at the annual Cherry Festival in Traverse City recently, where swag bags were handed out.

“We held our own on the runway” against models from TJ Maxx and local boutiques at the event, Hempe said.

The company is also giving away shopping sprees and customer makeovers.

Changes are happening inside stores with greater use of mannequins and new signage that point out outfits, style trends and tips. Contemporary, easy-access shelving are moving in and voice-over announcements pass on style tips.

Stores are gradually being redesigned to better display clothing and give clothing sections more delineated spaces.

New stores, including three under construction in Oxford, East Lansing and Midland and a second Detroit Meijer to open next summer at Grand River and McNichols, will sport the new Meijer store design that’s more department-store like. Taller walls between departments will eliminate the dizzying-sea-of-merchandise feel of a mega-store, and other updated interior design details, large wall graphics for one, will communicate Meijer Style merchandise.

The store changeovers and new construction take time, but eventually, like the clothes, Meijer will look all-around different, said Hempe. Meijer is building 10-15 stores a year, she said.

“It takes close to a year to make a significant difference in what you will see on the floor. I would say it is a work in progress, but we’re still getting double-digit (sales) increases in juniors, fashion accessories, women’s, and shoes are in the low double digits,” she said. “When I look at that I could not be happier.”

Hempe guides a product development team of more than 100 that combines its fashion, retail and marketing experience to call next season’s trends, connect with buyers, source fabrics and come up with displays and marketing models. The two outside consultants brought in to work with the team are national trend spotter and retail expert, Mariana Keros, and media strategist, Chris Morrisroe.

One of the first promotional steps, and possibly one of the most effective in the publicity push, was the publication of “Look Books” that lay out head-to-toe outfit trends and cosmetics.

After the release of the first Look Book in the fall of 2013, apparel sales increased by double digits by Christmastime, said Hempe, a retail and fashion veteran from Dayton-Hudson and Marshall-Fields who joined Meijer five years ago.

A spring 2014 Look Book followed and a fall 2014 is in production. Spring 2015 Look Books will be distributed to a much wider audience through dozens of newspapers in markets across the Midwest region.

Edward Nakfoor, a consultant in retail and public relations, was asked by Meijer to evaluate the clothing department last spring. He did it as a favor, was not paid, and took a close look at the Royal Oak Meijer where he regularly shops.

What’s most sorely needed, he said, is a redesign of the stores “so the customer isn’t seeing a sea of merchandise that’s overwhelming.”

He said Meijer’s attempts to communicate what customers can now find in apparel needs some refining.

“I know you can’t do everything at once. I give them a lot of credit. The apparel division is very challenging. Trends are fickle. They’re smart to make improvements, but I think they have a bit of a ways to go.”

“When I tell people I shop at Meijer, they say, ‘How do you shop there? It’s so big.’ I love it. The produce is great. It’s one of the best in grocery selection. So far, even in the five months since I gave them my opinion, I don’t see them doing anything to make me look over at clothing.”

Shopper Rebecca Alexander of St. Clair Shores likes the idea of Look Books to guide her through picking complete outfits.

She hasn’t received one, but “I always need help putting the right things together,” said Alexander, 51. “I want to wear clothes that are in style, but I don’t want to look silly or look like I’m trying too hard.”

Tina Reese, 37, of Clinton Township, shopping at the Meijer store in Roseville said that if the retailer could “sell trendy clothes for every one, not just women, at a lower price than Target, I would buy more clothes here.”

Perhaps the most important component of the campaign is educating shoppers in how to affordably dress, or style, with as little effort as possible, Hempe said.

Meijer stores are gradually being redesigned to better display clothing ... (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)