By  on September 19, 1994

MILWAUKEE -- A leaner and more fit Carson Pirie Scott emerged from Chapter 11 last November. But by several measures, the firm is still in the doldrums.

Even its president and chief executive officer, Stanton Bluestone, admitted that to catch up to the competition, "We need to grow a little faster than the industry." He cited the chain's overall sales-per-square foot at $130 as well under the industry average of $167. However, in a recent interview at Carson's headquarters here he spelled out the corporate strategy designed to lift the figures. The program includes:

More focused merchandising, including an emphasis on moderate-to better career apparel.

Narrowing vendors and assortments.

Renovating stores .

Taking a less promotional approach to marketing.

The strategy appears to be working. Carson's comparable-store sales growth averaged 4.8 percent from October 1993 though July, with apparel recording double-digit increases. Sales at remodeled stores grew almost twice as fast, by 9.4 percent for the first half of this year. In 1992, comparable-store sales were off 0.5 percent, and for the first half of 1993, they were flat.

Bluestone was president of Carson's, formerly called P.A. Bergner, when the retailer went into Chapter 11 in 1991. He was charged with steering the company through the bankruptcy as the board searched for a ceo to succeed Alan Anderson, who resigned before the firm went under.

The board recruited Arthur Martinez, then a Saks Fifth Avenue vice chairman to become ceo, but he threw them over to become chairman of the Sears Merchandise Group. Carson's filed a lawsuit, which was settled, and then determined that the best man for the job was in their own backyard, promoting Bluestone from acting ceo to ceo in August 1993.

Carson's operates 37 Carson Pirie Scott stores in the Chicago area, Indiana and Minnesota, 13 P.A. Bergner stores in downstate Illinois and Wisconsin and 10 Boston Stores in Wisconsin. The chain reported 1993 sales of $1.15 billion. Overall, women's apparel accounts for 30 percent of the total business, Bluestone said.

Carson's pattern is typical of companies emerging from bankruptcy. "The first two years after you exit bankruptcy is a honeymoon period because you get rid of the bad stuff and emerge with the good stuff," said Sidney Doolittle, a retail consultant with Chicago-based McMillan and Doolittle. "Then, competitive realities begin to set in and by the third year you're struggling to maintain market share," he added.

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