By  on July 10, 2006

NEW YORK — IPods are one thing. Now Federated Department Stores is considering "buy-pods."

That's the name for a new technology used in a futuristic shopping format, called the Epicenter Collection, that Federated could roll out.

Epicenter is envisioned as a 180,000- to 200,000-square-foot setting in the mall where online and catalogue companies — possibly L.L. Bean, Hold Everything and Red Envelope — would have showrooms where shoppers could order products by handheld "buy-pods."

Epicenter and its buy-pods are the creation of developer Sheldon M. Gordon, best known for developing off-beat and flamboyant retail/entertainment complexes, notably the extremely productive Forum Shops at Caesars in Las Vegas, and the Pier at Caesars, which opened two weeks ago in Atlantic City.

No Epicenters are up and operating, but Gordon has been negotiating for locations. A deal with Federated could be announced soon.

"We are in discussions," said a spokesman for Federated on Friday. "We don't have an agreement yet." Gordon declined comment.

In a previous interview, Gordon described Epicenter as a solution to filling space in malls left behind by shuttered department stores. Some areas could be converted to Epicenters, if a deal with Gordon is concluded.

There's a good chance of that, considering Federated has been closing and divesting itself of locations in malls around the country as a result of its $17 billion acquisition of May Department Stores last year. So far, 55 units have been sold, but Federated is seeking to unload another 25.

Also, Federated's chairman and chief executive, Terry Lundgren, is keen on new technologies and electronics. At Federated's annual meeting in May, Lundgren said Federated is getting back into consumer electronics by selling Apple iPods and iPod accessories in a robotics-driven vending machine that is about 7 feet high, 7 feet wide and 4 feet deep. It's a self-service, touch-screen-activated machine from Zoom Systems, a reseller of Apple products based in San Francisco. Other electronic items such as BlackBerrys, and products from Sony and Motorola, will be tested this fall with the vending machines.

There has been speculation that Macy's Herald Square may open an annex for J&R Music World, one of the best computer, music and electronics stores in the country, located on Park Row one block south of City Hall. One source said Macy's would open a J&R Music World Express.What's more, Lundgren has pushed Federated's "reinvent" program, which involves retrofitting stores with enhanced fitting rooms, price lookups, signs, wider aisles and increased amenities.

He has even experimented with a few robots on the selling floors, which didn't do much to enhance sales and were quickly evicted.

As Gordon sees it, Epicenter is "absolutely not competitive" with other retailers in the mall, he said. "We are creating a whole different type of retailing. It will bring people to the mall who otherwise shop electronically and typically don't visit malls. In a sense, you are walking through the Web, or you are in a living catalogue. You will see people there answering questions intelligently, instead of stocking shelves, sweeping floors or swiping cards through registers."

With Epicenter, "we are not in the retail business. We don't own one [stock-keeping unit] of merchandise. We take a large piece of real estate, and sublease to special types of tenants. We are purely in the real estate business."

Epicenter Collection will have a racetrack design in the typical two-level anchor store site. The shops or showcases will have merchandise on display in anywhere from 600 square feet to 6,000 square feet; the average is expected to be 1,500 square feet.

The handheld buy-pod uses touch-screen and bar-code scanning technology to enable shoppers to purchase merchandise without waiting on a checkout line and get the merchandise shipped to their homes by the catalogue or Internet retailer.

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