By  on October 13, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Three years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Dillard’s Inc. is heralding a top-to-bottom renovation of its 270,000-square-foot store at Lakeside Shopping Center.

Executives said that what might have been the chain’s least-appealing unit will be a showcase.

The relaunch last weekend comes just two weeks before Macy’s reenters the New Orleans market with a new stand-alone unit at Lakeside, which has more than 120 stores and restaurants and is located in suburban Metairie, La.

Mark Gustman, regional manager of Dillard’s, said he looked forward to competing with Macy’s, which will be the center’s second anchor tenant. “It will draw additional traffic and be a plus for us,” he said.

“We have spared no expense in this renovation,” Gustman said, declining to provide specific figures. “It is now the company’s crown jewel.”

The one-year project was completed while the store remained open, but at least one-third of the space had been closed for three years because of hurricane damage.

The store has put an emphasis on ready-to-wear, which has almost doubled to 70,000 square feet from 40,000 square feet. The assortment has shifted to a 60-40 ratio of better and contemporary merchandise to traditional. Three years ago the ratio was 40-60, Gustman said.

Rtw departments are islands offset with marble, bamboo, tile and carpet flooring. Spacious aisles have replaced narrow paths previously obstructed by racks jammed with indecipherable merchandise. Cove and spot lighting have increased the wattage to highlight merchandise, and modern colorful platforms and tables, along with T-stands and ballet bars, have replaced stainless steel and glass rounders.

Gustman said the optimistic sales expectations are rooted in the chain’s specialist program for associates. In that initiative, associates are trained to take responsibility for specific brands. They receive incentives and clothing allowances for their performances. A storewide computer system will enable sales associates to build relationships with clients by noting birthdays, sizes and brand preferences.

“Our main ingredient is a well-trained team of selling specialists,” Gustman said. “They will set us apart from our competitors.”

Vendors new to the New Orleans-area store include Citrine, Adrienne Vittadini, Joe’s Jeans, Walter and Ally Row. They join returning labels such as BCBG Max Azria and Generations, along with Dillard’s labels Antonio Melani and Gianni Bini. Lilly Pulitzer is part of the lineup as an exclusive to Dillard’s in the area.

The shoe department has increased from 9,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet, with stockroom space available for 90,000 pairs of shoes.

Three Dillard’s are located in metropolitan New Orleans and there are 12 throughout Louisiana.

“We are bullish about the entire state,” Gustman said. “The long-term energy resources sector will keep this area healthy in a difficult economy.”

The New Orleans area is slated for at least two more stores in the next few years — Covington and Slidell — suburbs within 40 minutes of the city.

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