By  on September 13, 2011

Daffy’s domain has long been the New York metro area. Now the $160 million, 18-unit off-pricer is getting more vigilant protecting its turf.

In early November, Daffy’s will open a one-level, 25,000-square-foot store at 218 West 44th Street, in the old New York Times building. Compared to the average Daffy’s door, there will be a better organized assortment with a greater number of outfits displayed, enhanced lighting, a cash wrap with a lit Plexiglas wall, and flooring that delineates different categories. But the team is also working to polish the presentation at other locations so there’s greater consistency door-to-door and deeper assortments on key labels so customers can fill much of their wardrobing needs.

Daffy’s stores do vary greatly in size and merchandising strength, from the 100,000-square-foot Herald Square and 52,000-square-foot 57th Street stores, two of the chain’s top units, to the 20,000-square-foot Madison Avenue unit, among the more challenged locations, which average 20,000 to 25,000 square feet.

According to Caryn Lerner, president and chief executive officer of the 50-year-old Daffy’s chain, the 44th Street store will be geared toward elevating “the thrill” of bargain hunting so it’s not the typical rummage-through-the-racks shopping experience.

“Marcia and I are committed to really energizing Daffy’s,” said Lerner, referring to Marcia Wilson, Daffy’s chairman. “We want to polish and bring a little more discipline to the business, so we do have a stronger foundation for significant growth.”

In her first interview on strategy since becoming ceo in March, Lerner, who formerly ran Holt Renfrew in Canada, said, “Part of what Daffy’s is known for is the thrill of the hunt. It can be very overwhelming to see a store that you have to hunt entirely through, though we also don’t want to appear too organized or department store-looking. We are trying to create a balance. We need to keep the thrill of the hunt alive.”

Lerner won’t discuss labels, since designers generally don’t want to broadcast their presence in off-price chains. Yet a recent walk-through at some Manhattan locations showed strong assortments of Calvin Klein, Cole Haan, Michael by Michael Kors, Tahari suits, Transit, Missoni and two other Italian collections, Patrizia Pepe and Ethic, among other labels.

“There is definitely an opportunity to develop more relationships,” Lerner said. “We are small. We don’t need a tremendous amount of inventory. We really buy closeouts, generally a season old, but there is some in-season buying.”

In addition, with Daffy’s 50th anniversary celebration set for Sept. 22, there’s a renewed effort to raise the retailer’s already high profile amid a competitive field filled with bigger players with greater buying clout, like TJ Maxx. For the anniversary party, to be held in Greeley Square Park next to Daffy’s store in Manhattan Mall, models will strut down a “cakewalk” — actually a circular runway 18 feet in diameter and 10 feet high covered with icing and fondant, created by Vincent Buzzetta, star of WE TV’s “Staten Island Cakes,” that will be sliced up for those at the event. Discounts, in addition to the Daffy’s normal 50 to 80 percent off, will be distributed, too, and comedian Heather McDonald will be the host.

Making merry is part of Daffy’s DNA. Like the time silver dollars were sold for 88 cents. Or when a diamond chip was placed in a bowl of glass chips and customers lined up to select one and take it to a jeweler to see if it was the “diamond in the cup.” Six years ago, “spokesmannequins” inspired by “Desperate Housewives” and “Sex and the City” were the advertising focus.

The retailer was founded in 1961 by the late Irving Shulman, Wilson’s father, and remains family owned. Shulman began with one store in Elizabeth, N.J., which was called Daffy Dan’s Bargain Town. “There are many attributes to Daffy’s personality,” said Lerner. “It’s witty. It can be irreverent. There’s a New York attitude, and we like to think of it as irresistible. Daffy’s is about having fun.”

The company sees room for growth in and beyond its metro reach, although aside from Times Square no other new stores are planned. “Expansion is not the priority right now,” Lerner said.

Lerner has been developing a new business plan, and has recruited at least three senior executives, including Albert Nendza as design director, a new marketing position involving orchestrating in-store communications, advertising, enhancing the Web site and, overall, evolving Daffy’s brand image.

Lerner also hired Steven Packles as chief financial officer and chief operations officer. Packles previously managed his own consulting practice, Peak Consulting, where he advised entrepreneurs and small business owners. Earlier, he worked for 25 years at Macy’s, including serving as cfo and senior vice president of operations for the home store. In July, Vanessa LeFebvre, a former men’s merchant at TJ Maxx, was named vice president and chief merchandising officer at Daffy’s.

There’s been talk the business could be sold, even by Wilson herself, who suggested the possibility when she named Lerner to succeed her as ceo, shifted to chairman, and told WWD: “Ultimately, we want to reap the fruits of our labor.”

However, months later, such action appears to be on the back burner. “This company is not up for sale,” Lerner assured.

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