By  on August 14, 2006

PARAMUS, N.J. — When Century 21 opened its fifth store here late last week, the question on most people's minds was whether the 135,000-square-foot unit would live up to the reputation of the retailer's Manhattan flagship for carrying a wide breadth of designer merchandise.
The answer seems to be yes and no. While there are lots of designer labels in almost every corner of the store, the selection within those collections is often limited.

Still, the roster of names is impressive. American designers on the first floor include Marc Jacobs, Catherine Malandrino, Tocca, Rebecca Taylor and Jill Stuart. Among the merchandise highlights were a Marc Jacobs rabbit fur coat with an original value of $1,500, priced at $429.97, and a Jill Stuart evening gown, formerly $525, at $119.

The denim selection also is extensive. In addition to Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren Polo Jeans, Calvin Klein and DKNY, there was Seven For All Mankind, Guess, Vigoss, Buffalo, Mavi and Diesel. Streetwear labels Baby Phat, Rocawear, Ecko Red, Lady Enyce and Akademics provided jeans, T-shirts, tracksuits and parkas. A sign above a Guess jeans display was representative of prices in the department: $13.97 to $49.97, on items originally priced up to $98.

The two-level store, which was formerly a Macy's unit, was completely gutted and renovated, said Jeff Jasner, executive vice president of store operations at Century 21.

"We redid everything," he added. "We designed it to fit the criteria of our organization rather than that of Federated [Department Stores]. The feedback from customers is that it's much improved. The aisles are wider and the store is brighter. It's prettier. There are different color palettes for each department."

The new Century 21 doesn't look like typical off-price stores, which often have concrete or tile floors and offer little in the way of aesthetics. "The treatments along the perimeter of the store are better," Jasner said, referring to the displays and fixtures. Blond wood with white trim covers walls and some ceilings. Even the glass cases on the first floor look like standard-issue department store models. The one incongruity is the shopping carts that roll across the cream-colored marble floors with brown accents.Jasner said Century 21 chose the location in the Bergen Mall on Route 4 for its strong demographics. Paramus is one of the biggest shopping meccas in the country and had over $5 billion in retail sales last year, more than any other zip code in the U.S., according to GlobeSt. Retail. However, Paramus, like all of Bergen County, has blue laws, which prohibit the sale of nonfood items on Sundays. The Bergen Mall, which was anchored by Stern's and Orbach's at one time, has evolved into an off-price shopping center with Saks Fifth Avenue's Off Fifth outlet and Marshall's.

Standing near the mall entrance to Century 21, Jasner stopped a customer. "Pardon me," he said. "Did the dressing room have a changing table?" When she answered yes, he turned to a visitor and said, "You see, it's those little details that are important to us. Also, being in stock and having the right sizes."

Jasner said the company takes a democratic approach to allocating designer merchandise to its five stores — the other three are in Brooklyn; Westbury, N.Y., and Morristown, N.J. "We have the benefit of being a small organization in terms of the number of stores we have," he said. "All stores get the same merchandise mix. If an item is here, it's in our other four stores."

As to how the company secures names such as Prada, Valentino and John Galliano, Janser said only, "Our buyers shop the world. It's never easy."

Other European designers housed on the Paramus store's second floor include Moschino Cheap and Chic, Missoni, Philosophy di Alberta Ferretti, Class Roberto Cavalli, Anne Valerie Hash, Vivienne Westwood, Blu Girl and Hussein Chalayan. A Galliano two-piece suit with feather trim, originally $3,125, was $1,099. A Sonia Rykiel fur coat, originally $5,330, had a $1,599 price tag.

One of the store's drawbacks is the lack of women's dressing rooms on the first floor. Customers have to carry their selections to the second level. The situation may provide opportunities for incremental purchases as shoppers pass shoes, dresses and knits on their way to the fitting rooms. Junior, plus sizes, swimwear, infants', kids' and home are also sold on the second floor.There are fewer designer labels in the footwear and handbag departments. Delman, Bandolino, Coach, Calvin Klein and Cole Haan are among the footwear offerings. Calvin Klein, Kate Spade, Kenneth Cole, Adrienne Vittadini, Steve Madden, Rafe, Longchamps and Badgley Mischka are some of the brands in the handbag area, where the more expensive items are displayed behind glass cases.

Vitrines showing examples of gifts-with-purchase offered during the grand opening were strategically located throughout the store. Depending on the amount spent, a shopper could choose from a picture frame, Charles Raymond watch or decanter and glass set.

"I got some good buys," said Bergen County resident Josephine Sgobba. "I bought a Valentino blouse and skirt. The merchandise is very current. It's like the Manhattan store, but this is better because you can park."

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