03.21.11

Can the Penny Chic Fashion Blog Make Walmart Chic?

One leopard-print dress at a time, the new fashion blog Penny Chic, made up of clothes exclusively bought at Walmart, is making the big-box giant look cool—and it might be just what the retailer needs.

Fashion bloggers are everywhere. They’re in the front row at New York Fashion Week, they’re cavorting in vintage Dior gowns, they’re launching magazines, and they’re making major bucks as a result. But there’s one place no one would think to find a fashion blogger: the aisles of Walmart.

Until now. Shauna Miller, a 24 year old from Los Angeles, has started Penny Chic, a fashion blog of carefully styled looks, all available at Walmart. The site, unaffiliated with the store, aims to introduce Walmart as a fashion destination to people who have never shopped there before—and to show Walmart aficionados new ways of styling the merchandise. The blog comes at a key time for the retailer, which as the economy recovers is searching for ways to become hip and fashionable while still retaining loyal shoppers.

Miller’s own story is itself a product of the recession: After graduating from college and struggling to find a job in New York, she moved back in with her parents in Los Angeles. When she began the blog, the concept seemed simple enough: to raid her local Walmart for cool clothes and take pictures of them on her friends. “Penny Chic is about the democratization of fashion,” she says. “Nobody’s too good for Walmart. I feel really strongly that it’s not about catering to one audience over another—it’s about speaking to everybody on the same level.”

Part of the fun of it is seeing just how low discounts can go. One $20 pencil skirt and $9 leopard-print top is “ party planner chic”; a thick $12 necklace over a collared shirt is “ gallery owner chic”; and a $15 wrap dress in a hammock is simply “ vacay chic.” “To be honest, if you have a budget of $20,000, a lot of people could look really great,” Miller says. “I could have a blog where I use stuff from vintage stores. But nobody is going to match that exact outfit. I am creating outfits that the majority of Americans can purchase.”

Some fashion blogs can be just as rarefied as the pages of Vogue, filled with pictures of skinny girls clad in designer pieces or one-of-a-kind necklaces. But on Penny Chic, Miller’s models are her “muses.” They’re wholesome-looking girls in their early twenties who, one might imagine, have real concerns: They’re launching careers, starting businesses, partying on weekends, dating. There’s Hilary, who’s the “life of the party”; Laura, who’s a “girl to crush on”; Jessica, the “Shakespeare lover”; and Jenna, a music columnist for Seventeen.

“I could have a blog where I use stuff from vintage stores," Miller says. "But nobody is going to match that exact outfit. I am creating outfits that the majority of Americans can purchase.”

“I can’t relate to women on high-fashion blogs or magazines,” says Luisa Gomez, 38, a single mother of three from Plano, Texas, who works two jobs, as a customer representative at a large company and as a housekeeper. “They have designers I’ve never heard of, or brands I unfortunately don’t have access to. Where I am, the women don’t look like how they do in Vogue. For me, it was easier to relate to Penny Chic. I can relate to the girls and the fashion.”

Gomez, who says she has shopped at Walmart for years, now prints out pictures from the blog and takes them with her to Walmart to shop. “The site has acted for me like a personal shopper,” she says. “A striped T-shirt for me was just a striped T-shirt until I saw one day on Penny Chic that it was matched with a different-colored skirt. A $9 striped shirt can be fashionable if it’s paired with the right accessory, if it’s paired with the right earrings or watch. It’s made shopping fun.”

While budget-conscious blogs aren’t anything new, Penny Chic comes at a unique moment. Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, but it has seen a decline in apparel sales in the last few quarters relative to its competitors like Target and Kohl’s. An average of 120 million Americans visit Walmart’s 3,800 U.S. branches each week—but it has long struggled to brand itself in the fashion area. Target, on the other hand, has launched several successful collaborations with high-end celebrity designers—from Proenza Schouler to Zac Posen to Rodarte. Last week, it celebrated the five-year anniversary of its “International Designer Collective” by reissuing its most popular dresses. Last year, by comparison, Walmart Vice Chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright said sales in the company’s apparel division were “below expectations” and “a work in progress.”

“Walmart continues to have trouble getting young women to think of it as a destination for fashionable clothing,” says Michael Stone, CEO of the Beanstalk Group, a branding and licensing agency in New York. “The irony is that they already get upscale women shoppers coming to Walmart to buy groceries. And the apparel department is right across the aisle from the grocery department—intentionally. But they just can’t get that woman to cross over the aisle. She’s getting right back into the car and driving to Target for her clothes.”

As the nation emerges from the recession, Walmart’s challenge will be to retain customers who are suddenly able to spend their money elsewhere. “During the recession, Walmart had a little bit of an advantage,” Stone says. “The question now is, if you’re able to bring people into the store because of low prices, will they stay? Or will they drift back to Kmart and Kohl’s and Sears?” One answer to those problems, experts say, would be to refocus on fashion.

Penny Chic might be just what Walmart needs. The retailer needs to figure out a way to keep Luisa Gomez coming back—but also to hook Miller’s friends Hilary, Laura, Jessica, and Jenna. “If Walmart is trying to take share from its competitors, then something needs to change on a fundamental level,” says Monica Tang, a retail strategist with the consulting firm Kurt Salmon. “It needs to consider converting itself from a price player to a fashion player.” As Stone puts it: “Anything that Walmart can do to be seen in a fashion light is a good thing."

Penny Chic has had no official interaction with Walmart bigwigs yet. But Miller is plowing ahead: Next, she says, she’s launching “Chic TV,” which will offer styling tips, and she’s enlisted several well-known stylists to create outfits from the store. She also has her sights set on expanding her own styling to include every department in the store. She’s already experimented by making an accordion file folder into a clutch, and has successfully conquered the men’s and children’s departments. “I think there’s a lot of potential in office supplies,” she says. “People are wearing garbage bags on runways—why not wear a roll of tape as a bangle?”

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Isabel Wilkinson is a fashion and arts correspondent for The Daily Beast.