WASHINGTON -- In an effort to further solidify its position as a one-stop specialty beauty retailer with a department store feel, Savage, Md.-based Cosmetic Center Inc. is counting on its fancy, black formica fragrance and cosmetics bars to make it happen.

"We're making changes according to what our customers want," said Allen Nehman, senior vice president of marketing at Cosmetic Center, which currently operates 51 stores in four states.

Nehman was standing at the newly renovated store in Fairfax, Va., which features the revamped bar. The new design stocks 8,000 products, from Fendi to JouJou, and occupies the length of the 5,000-square-foot store, about 60 feet. It also features gold trim and is located smack in the middle of the selling space.

The cosmetics bar prototype also features a more visible bath and body products area. It is now in eight stores and is receiving kudos from analysts.

"While Cosmetic Center has been improving the look of its stores, the bar is the crowning touch," said Michael Mead, a regional analyst at the Baltimore-based brokerage firm Legg Mason Wood Walker. "The image of the store has now moved to an elegant level. Before, customers could blow in and out of the store without noticing the prestige area. The new bar serves as a magnet to draw the customer in."

Mead also added that the bar, which carries a line ranging from loofah scrubs to nail care kits, all discounted at 10 to 50 percent below manufacturers' suggested retail prices, has several long-term implications.

In particular, he said, it will send a message to fence-sitting prestige manufacturers, who have acted a little skittish about selling directly to the off-price retailer. The new prototype will also make for a more user-friendly environment for those consumers who normally shop for cosmetics at department stores.

"Increasingly, the company is getting its prestige products directly from the manufacturers, and I think the new store prototype will push that process along," Mead said, noting that at least 80 percent of Cosmetic Center's prestige cosmetics and fragrances are now purchased directly, compared with only 40 percent in 1985.

About half of its products are in prestige lines, a figure company officials say they would like to increase.

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