Move Over, Joe

May 31, 2010  |  Kristin Laird  |  Comments

The wardrobe consultant pointed to several items of clothing and told me to take my pick. There I was in the middle of a workday playing an adult version of dress up… Yes, it’s a thing that some women daydream about.

With racks and racks of clothing and a table filled with accessories, the two-day style event at an upscale Toronto hotel seemed more fitting for a fashion house than Mark’s Work Wearhouse, a retail chain that built its business outfitting construction workers with steel-toed boots and dungarees. But it was representative of a rebrand that is summed up in one word: Mark’s.

After 32 years, the Calgary-based retailer, bought by Canadian Tire in 2001, has shortened its name to better reflect the clothing and footwear sold at its 350-plus stores across Canada. Consumers had a hard time linking the old banner to a store that offers fashion apparel and footwear as well as work wear, says Tonya Vinje, visual merchandiser manager, referring to research conducted in 2006. “We’ve listened to that consumer feedback and it’s taken us this long to accept it and actually start testing it and possibly rolling it out,” she says.

Mark’s is in fact testing the new look (including logo, store fronts and tag line: “Clothes that Work”) in 29 stores in Ottawa, Edmonton and Winnipeg this summer. Some of these locations will incorporate the retailer’s new merchandising strategy that allows shoppers to test the functionality of various garments. For instance, they can try out footwear on roof shingles, tiles and concrete surfaces.

Also included: a walk-in freezer with a fan that emulates windchill temperatures so consumers can test the warmth of Mark’s winter wear.

Mark’s first launched casual wear 20 years ago with jeans, cotton pants and dress shirts, but few Canadians are aware of this, says Vinje. “A lot of people still think of Mark’s Work Wearhouse as the overalls and hard hat company and we’re really trying to change [that] perception,” she says.

The company moved into what it calls “fashion correct” clothing about 10 years ago, says Vinje, but in the last year has geared its wear to a younger consumer with new men’s and women’s lines called DH3 and Ispiri, respectively. Items in both lines are trendier and more form fitting.

The retailer has always supported its commercial clothing efforts with advertising, but awareness levels were still low because of the Work Wearhouse name, says Vinje. The new logo has been woven throughout some of Mark’s marketing materials including its weekly flyer, nine million of which go out each week.

But Vinje says Mark’s isn’t looking to exclude its current consumer base, which includes “Jaclyn” and “Jeff”–the chain’s sample consumers. Jaclyn is a 49-year-old mom who works full time. Her kids are in school and she needs clothes that are versatile enough for work and evening activities. Jeff, 47, never wears a suit to work and spends his spare time with his kids or walking the dog.

Mark’s invests a lot of time and money trying to understand what these consumers want, which was evident when the retailer opened its closet to showcase its 2010 spring/ summer collection during the Toronto fashion event last month. Mark’s has married style with 57 “innovations” like tank tops with built-in bras, dresses with tummy-control panels and fast-drying swim trunks.

It’s definitely a departure for a retailer that dominates the industrial clothing market, notes Ken Wong, associate professor of business and marketing strategy at Queens University. In fact, one out of every four Canadians who purchase industrial work apparel or safety footwear shops at Mark’s, according to its website. So Mark’s needs to be careful it doesn’t shift its focus too far from work-related apparel because “when you lose your focus it’s not too far behind you lose your customers,” says Wong. It’s not a surprising move however, given how the lines of retail have blurred in recent years with entrants like Joe Fresh, which is sold in Loblaws’ banner stores. What Wong does find surprising is the name. “I don’t know that the Mark’s badge carries the right signals,” he says. “If you’re walking down the street and your friend sees you with a Mark’s bag, I’m not sure what that suggests.”

Regardless of the name above the door, shoppers can now pick up skinny bootleg jeans and a flutter sleeve embroidered silk blouse that combined, cost under $100.

Now that is, in one word, fabulous.

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