By  on August 10, 2005

NEW YORK — In the rapidly changing but challenged bridge business, Bloomingdale's is determined to set the pace.

Bridge, since its inception in the mid-Eighties, has ballooned with more players, and its offerings, particularly in the last year, have broadened to casual, younger styles and a contemporary feel sometimes imbued with designer-level quality.

Still, retailers and vendors say sales remain spotty at many stores, especially in those labels that haven't seized the moment. To boost the category and distinguish its own presentation, Bloomingdale's has unfurled a chain-wide renovation program and marketing strategy.

Bloomingdale's has unfurled a chain-wide renovation program and marketing strategy.

One of its first moves is a symbolic one to underscore its goal of reshaping the category: Bloomingdale's has dropped the "bridge" moniker and redesignated the floor as "The New View."

Equally important, Bloomingdale's 59th Street flagship has integrated a handful of major designer collections — including Ralph Lauren Black Label, Moschino Cheap and Chic and Burberry — in with traditional bridge offerings in a further indication of how the category is changing. They moved down from the fourth floor to the new third floor.

"It's a business we are really attacking," Frank Doroff, senior executive vice president and general merchandise manager of ready-to-wear at Bloomingdale's, said of the category, where sources estimate the retailer has sales of about $150 million. "We felt the industry, in terms of bridge, was getting old, tired and boring, and we wanted to make it more luxurious and modern. The connotation of bridge is somewhat passé. We're calling it The New View, and not just at the flagship. It's throughout the chain."

Among the 33 locations that make up the $2 billion Bloomingdale's chain, units on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Century City in Los Angeles and in Boca Raton, Fla., already have installed departments for The New View, while the King of Prussia, Pa.; White Plains, N.Y., and Short Hills, N.J., branches will be renovated this fall. More bridge departments will be overhauled in the spring and, eventually, all of Bloomingdale's branches will be transformed to The New View, Doroff said.The most dramatic changes, of course, are at the 59th Street flagship, where the 65,000-square-foot (gross) third level is 60 percent renovated. The rest is scheduled for completion by the end of October. There is an air of elegance and comfort, marked by generously spaced, crisply decorated shops with shiny marble floors, black trim and black mirrors reminiscent of the cosmetics aisle, and inlaid carpeting.

There are also sofas and chandeliers; 15 percent more dressing rooms, in centralized banks, with attendants and water coolers, and a phalanx of mannequins on illuminated white platforms, making an impressive statement all along a main aisle. There are also longer sight lines, wider aisles and less merchandise on the floor, for more efficient and relaxed shopping. Service has been enhanced; there are greeters by the escalators, larger fitting rooms and sales staff that actually seem visible.

Further elevating the appeal, and most unexpected, are a few designer brands, notably Ralph Lauren Black Label, Burberry, Moschino Cheap and Chic, Lilly Pulitzer and Strenesse. They're all businesses not typically associated with bridge, but considering the renovations and the strategy to upgrade bridge to The New View, they don't mind being part of the picture.

Ralph Lauren Black Label is the most prominently positioned collection, right off the escalator, and with 2,500 square feet, it is one of the biggest shops on the floor. Ralph Lauren also has a Collection shop on the fourth floor, devoted to runway looks, so it made sense to subdivide, according to a Ralph Lauren spokeswoman. Bloomingdale's officials added they were anxious to "magnify" its bridge business with certain designer additions.

According to a Ralph Lauren statement, "Bloomingdale's wanted to give Ralph Lauren the premiere location to launch the floor, and they wanted Black Label to have the most space on the floor to present the full breadth of our Black Label assortment ... This is consistent with our strategy of presenting Collection and Black Label as distinct concepts in their own shops." Bloomingdale's sells Black Label in four branches, as well as the flagship.

Just behind Ralph Lauren Black Label is Elie Tahari. It's also among the largest shops on the floor, roughly 150 feet wide and about 15 feet deep, and practically stretches from the 59th Street side of the store to 60th Street. It has lots of natural light from the rear windows, five large fitting rooms, a kitchen for refreshments and a lounge area with Internet access and TV.To the left of Ralph Lauren is Ellen Tracy, which has a very residential look with central sofas; on the right side is Burberry.

Other resources on the floor are Anne Klein New York, Christopher Fischer, cK Calvin Klein, David Meister, Eileen Fisher, Jon, Magaschoni, St. John Sport, Weekend Max Mara and White + Warren.

Shops for Dana Buchman, DKNY, Lilly Pulitzer and private label cashmere and dresses are still under construction.

"We put our framework on the floor and let the manufacturers express themselves to the fullest extent," Doroff said. "The New View is more spacious, more sophisticated and there is less on the floor."

In pure selling space, excluding common areas, fitting rooms and storage space, the Bloomingdale's third floor generates about $2,000 in sales per square foot, and is the second-highest volume apparel area in the store next to Yes contemporary, which is about 50 percent more productive, according to industry sources. Total volume for Bloomingdale's bridge business is around $150 million, according to industry sources.

Contemporary is the busiest and biggest-volume department at Bloomingdale's.

Asked to comment on how the business was performing, Doroff said: "Most of the bridge business is selling well, but there are parts that are soft. There are a lot of established, large resources. The challenge is, they have to move forward without losing too many existing customers."

According to Jeffrey Binder, Bloomingdale's vice president and divisional merchandise manager, the third floor is brighter than before, and not crammed with merchandise. Also, moderate resources were dropped, but he declined to specify any.

"Our customer likes to be on trend as opposed to our second-floor [contemporary] customers who are very trendy, but fit is very important and the age skews a little older," Binder explained. "But certainly, there is a crossover customer, with the bulk ranging in age from 30 to 50.

"The floor is more organized, well lit, and you will see a noticeable difference in the level of service. Sales associates went through numerous hours of training," involving learning about products and how to provide better service, Binder added. The staff was increased by about 25 percent."When the construction is all complete, you will be able to stand anywhere on the floor and get a 360-degree view," so brands are easy to find, he said.

It's possible the renaming may not mean as much to the general public as it does to Bloomingdale's management and vendor partners, as an internal handle. Nevertheless, "we have a whole marketing strategy to convey the changes to consumers," Binder said. The blitz begins Aug. 28, with a combination of newspaper and magazine ads, and direct mail. There will be a "signature" private event earlier, with gift-with-purchase offers.

"If you can remember, the floor before had a very low ceiling and there was no sense of a single generic department. It was meandering," said Shan DiNapoli, Bloomingdale's vice president of store design and planning. "What we tried to do was to make it look like Bloomingdale's," with black arches and black mirrors that run through the floor for a cohesive feel. "We call it an eyebrow," DiNapoli said, which helps establish a "Bloomingdale's generic floor."

"Within that, [the New View designers] worked with us to put their shop in our generic. There is a strong presence of our design, and yet it allows Ralph Lauren, Tahari and Burberry to still have their identity. We really spent a lot of time creating this."

DiNapoli said the biggest change is that the ceiling went from about 9 feet high to 11 feet. "That's why it feels so grand." The ambience is enhanced with a marble floor and black mirrors, whereas the "eyebrow" of branches will be in black lacquer. Mancini Duffy helped create the floor.

"We spent a lot of time working on floor plan and spaces," which are generally laid out in 700-square-foot areas, with the bigger-volume vendors taking three or four of them.

The vendors, she said, "stepped up and were very excited about our floor. They all came with new designs, and helped us with new thinking and new designs. They worked within my architecture."

"I don't know [that] women like the word bridge anymore," DiNapoli suggested. "The name no longer represents the lifestyle it was originally. Bridge was born to serve career customers with secondary designers. That was years ago. Bridge has become more, much more than just career."The concept is receiving strong support from bridge designers. Tahari in a statement called it "the most innovative in retailing today," while Dana Buchman said The New View "symbolizes that bridge has changed. It's fun to have a new name."

"Bloomingdale's has its finger on the pulse of the business," said Buchman, who launched her line in 1987. "They are reinvigorating the floor and recognize how important the sector is."

She expects her shop to open in the flagship sometime in October. For bridge resources to succeed now, it has to be "modern, hip, faster-paced and has got to have a young spirit and have an on-trend flavor, with the kind of luxury you can't get in contemporary.

"Bridge was a price point thing when it first came out," said Buchman. "Now it's the bridge between designer and contemporary. It's got the luxury of designer, it fits real women. Contemporary is a much younger cut. It's designed to fit teenage bodies."

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