By Nadia Arumugan, Forbes Contributor
The average American shells out in excess of $1700 a year on their wardrobe. That's billions of dollars spent on apparel alone in the U.S. With this much up for grabs, it's no wonder stores are jousting fervently for our business. And there's a clear winner amongst the competitors: Kohl's has seized the top spot as the nation's favorite fashion retail chain, according to a survey conducted by Market Force Information, a leading customer intelligence solutions firm. Coming in at the No. 2 spot is Nordstrom, followed by Macy's at No. 3.
Such favor isn't new to Kohl's. Famed for its competitive prices, personable sales associates, easy-to-navigate "racetrack" style layout, and wide selection of accessible merchandise, the popular Wisconsin-based chain with 1,100 stores and 136,000 employees ranked a clear first for the third year in a row. "Not only did we find that Kohl's led in operational excellence," said Cheryl Flink, Market Force's Senior Vice President of Customer Knowledge, "but it's also very good at driving new traffic and at maintaining loyal customers. It's rare that brands are good at all three. "
In Pictures: America's Hottest Clothing Chains
Kohl'sA total of 6,900 respondents ranging in age from 18 to over 65 from Market Force's pool of 300,000 independent mystery shoppers voted for their favorite fashion retail chain from a list of 91 stores in the October survey. Since the survey addresses consumers' in-store experiences, the votes were weighted against the number of brick-and-mortar outlets each chain has. To understand what shoppers valued most about their retail experiences, they were also asked to rate the stores according to a series of attributes.
These took into account: price, ease and convenience; the pleasure/enjoyment factor of shopping; the selection of merchandise, and the availability of specific designers.
Unsurprisingly, price was most important to the shoppers surveyed. Here, Kohl's was by far perceived as the most cost-effective chain. "Kohl's is a discount operation," says consultant Steve Pruitt, founder of Blacks Retail. "Many of the brands it carries aren't the most up-to-minute, on-trend ones, but those that are a bit dated, so they're going to be cheaper than say, Macy's, which is much more designer conscious."
Even so, Macy's didn't fare too badly in the price category, probably by virtue of the fact that the store excels in promotions and sales. "Very rarely do you pay full price of most things in Macy's," concedes Pruitt. Nonetheless, achieving the highest score in the "availability of specific designer" attribute, Macy's extensive catalogue of big name brands is no doubt its most powerful weapon against its competitors.
The distinctly fancier Nordstrom with its racks of Prada, Gucci and Valentino didn't please the bargain-hunters amongst Market Force's respondents. But, it was most amenable to those who valued convenience and a pleasurable shopping experience. "Nordstrom's has a very accessible feel," says Carol Spieckerman, President of NewMarketBuilders. "It's in a sweet spot compared to other upscale retailers who carry the same exclusive brands but which are intimidating for shoppers to go into."
Nordstrom To add to the convenience factor, there's the new web-based inventory management system so shoppers can check online to see if the merchandise they want is available in the Nordstrom store closest to them. "This means they don't waste a trip or spend money on fuel needlessly looking for something that isn't there. More retailers would be wise to offer this simple option," says Spieckerman.
But, it's Kohl's again that trumps all its competitors when it comes to making shopping easy. Its no questions asked, no hassle return policy requires neither a receipt nor has any time restriction. Stores nationwide feature kiosks from which shoppers can order merchandise online if they can't find the garment in their size or in the right color. Centralized checkouts at the stores' exits mean shoppers don't have to search for scattered registers.
As is often the case with excellence, however, there's still room for improvement. Kohl's fared decidedly poorly in the loyalty program benefits category. "It's likely a lack of awareness, and that Kohl's simply isn't promoting its program as well as it could," offers Cheryl Flink as an explanation. But it should. According to Market Force research, once shoppers are made aware of a loyalty program, not only do 86% join, but 65% of those report that they shop at that store much more frequently. That's a lot of sales that even a top-scoring retailer can't afford to lose.
See the full list of America's Hottest Clothing Chains here
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By Nadia Arumugan, Forbes Contributor