By  on October 24, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Macy’s is back in a big way.

More than three years after Hurricane Katrina killed 1,330 people and caused $96 billion in damages, Macy’s this weekend is returning to the New Orleans metropolitan area, launching a new 228,000-square-foot store and reopening a renovated 188,000-square-foot unit in a pair of suburban shopping centers.

At Lakeside Shopping Center in Metairie, La., Macy’s shares anchor status with Dillard’s, which reopened a renovated space two weeks ago, and J.C. Penney. The Lakeside store replaces the 235,000-square-foot Macy’s that was in the New Orleans Centre mall downtown, which has been shut since the storm.

Just 7 miles away, at the Esplanade mall in Kenner, La., Macy’s is competing against two Dillard’s: a 190,000-square-foot unit devoted to women’s, cosmetics and other categories, and a 45,000-square-foot men’s store.

The seismic changes triggered by Katrina compelled Macy’s to reassess its strategy in the New Orleans market.

“New Orleans underwent a significant shift in population,” said Liz Ambriz, regional vice president of stores. “We had to step back and look at the market once it settled to see where we could be positioned to best serve customers.”

Along with Dillard’s, Macy’s closest competitors in the area are Sears, Penney’s and Target.

Saks Fifth Avenue is the only major retailer to return to downtown New Orleans and is the sole anchor at The Shops at Canal Place. Saks’ sales year-to-date are up by about 3 percent, a satisfactory increase, given the state of the economy and the loss of six business days due to evacuation in August for Hurricane Gustav, said Carolyn Elder, vice president and general manager. With Dillard’s and Macy’s going head-to-head at both Lakeside and Esplanade, “there’s going to be a lot more activity at two already-active locations,” she said.

“We’re accustomed to competing with Dillard’s,” said Brian Williams, general manager of Macy’s Lakeside store.

Both Macy’s projects have been under construction for about a year. The three-level Lakeside store — and the shopping center’s new three-level adjoining garage — were carved out of the center’s chronically congested parking lot. The Esplanade’s two-level Macy’s was gutted so that only the exterior brick walls remained.

The dual openings this weekend will feature appearances by Tommy Hilfiger and Martha Stewart at an event tonight to benefit New Orleans’ high school for the performing arts.

The Macy’s stores are expected to employ more than 600 executives and sales associates through the holiday season, and settle at staffing of about 500 employees in January.

The stores are each 30 to 40 percent women’s ready-to-wear, but they have different merchandise mix strategies, Ambriz said. At Lakeside, a regional mall, the merchandise assortment will be a better-to-moderate ratio of 80 percent to 20 percent. The Esplanade store, more focused on customers in the surrounding suburban neighborhood, will have a better-to-moderate mix of 60 percent to 40 percent.

Among Macy’s rtw exclusives at Lakeside are Tommy Hilfiger and T. Tahari, while private label brands include Style&co, and INC International Concepts. Both stores feature aisles 12 to 15 feet wide paved in white marble tiles, and rtw areas are grounded in wood floors and carpet. Circular pendant light fixtures do double duty as sign posts headlining departments. Throughout the apparel departments, cozy lounges with wall-mounted TVs and upholstered sofas serve as foyer areas to fitting rooms.

Anticipating the parties surrounding the annual Carnival season in January and February, 40 percent of dresses in the two stores are evening gowns — the largest assortment systemwide, Williams said. The effort to tweak merchandise to meet local customers’ tastes extends to the sale of licensed apparel for the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints and the Louisiana State University Tigers, and the embellishment of the stores’ walls and carpets with the city’s iconic fleur-de-lis logo.

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