By  on April 22, 2005

DENVER — Gap stores haven’t been aging well. They’re tired, sterile-looking and generating sluggish sales, but the company sees a rebirth today with the opening of seven prototypes in the Denver area.

The changes are significant. First, there’s a sharper delineation of the genders, including separate entrances into the women’s and men’s departments, both framed in Gap’s signature blue.

For further shopping ease, merchandise is subdivided into a gallery of shops, each roughly 250 to 300 square feet and extending about two thirds of the way through the store. They’re organized by occasion dressing, so for example, there are shops for clothes to wear to work, seasonal accessories, men’s summer weekend “fundamentals,” and premium denims and striped shirts for evenings out. 

Denim is in the rear, occupying about 30 percent of the space, and includes shelving units densely packed with product next to the fitting rooms for quick access by the salesclerks. There is also a long denim table and a seating area, creating a residential atmosphere.

“The art gallery metaphor really carried us. Product is truly the art,” said Christopher Hufnagel, vice president, Gap brand store experience, during an exclusive tour of a prototype in the Park Meadows Mall, in Littleton, Colo., just outside Denver. The remodeled 6,500-square-foot unit devotes 60 percent of the space to women’s, 40 percent to men’s.

Compared with the cold, laminated and wide-open look of current stores, where men’s and women’s tend to bleed together, there’s a warmer, woodsy atmosphere with timeless hickory fixtures, terrazzo marble tile and dark oak floors, and 26 custom-sculpted mannequins in four poses. Like a gallery, it has directed, 8-degree track lighting for controlled illumination on key items and outfits.

A sense of discovery is conveyed, largely through the shops, or alcoves, created by walls, and the variation in the fixturing and displays. Also, sight lines are long enough to enable customers to find the shop they want pretty quickly, and there are far fewer graphics from Gap ad campaigns.

Fitting rooms have carpeting, dimmers, lights to signal associates for help, a lounge area, and chalkboards so associates can write down a customer’s name for a personal touch. Also, the cash wraps have been redesigned with individual work stations for each associate, so they don’t bump into each other scrambling for shopping bags, boxes or telephones. Store managers also are being given more authority on such things as displays and labor scheduling.“The main thing is, we are giving a soul to the store,” said Mark Dvorak, vice president of Gap global store development. “It feels less mass.”

“It’s not the poster store Gap had been in the past,” Hufnagel said. “Instead of pushing customers through the store with a campaign, we can be a store that pulls customers in with the store experience. We want to have people hang out.”

Each shop, added Lee Bird, executive vice president of stores, “can cue the inspiration of the season and create a complete environment for it.” There’s also a capacity to have more merchandise on the floor, since the shelving is higher and the tables are longer.

But the prime objective, he said, is “to reclaim that leadership position in the store experience and make it feel new and exciting so customers feel comfortable staying for awhile.”

Gap officials are confident about converting the fleet of Gap stores to the prototype, even before customers get the opportunity to experience them. Later this year, stores in the Hartford and San Diego markets will be converted, and stores in another five to 10 markets will be overhauled in 2006, albeit there will be tweaking of the design over time as feedback comes in. Certain locations slated for remodeling due to landlord agreements will also be converted, including the unit on 59th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan later this year.

The prototype has been in development for 13 months, including a 24-day world tour by the Gap team visiting other stores, restaurants, theme parks and museums for ideas and inspiration, and bringing back 4,000 photos of Selfridges, Disney parks, Prada, and other stops on the route.

“We really began to dissect the components of what made for a great customer experience,” said Hufnagel. A big realization was that men and women should be serviced differently, even in a big chain, and that men are on “more of a procurement mission,” whereas women want shopping to be a social experience where the merchandise changes often and there’s a greater sense of discovery, Hufnagel explained. “You can’t be quite so conceptual with men, whereas with women you can be more emotional.”The seven prototypes, which were closed for remodeling since January, are in Aspen Grove, Littleton, Chapel Hill, Colorado Springs, Cherry Creek, Denver, and Broomfield. The company is also renovating certain GapKids and babyGap units with fixturing and displays to better engage the kids, with 26-inch tables and lower hanging merchandise. Said Hufnagel: “We were merchandising for adults,” instead of the little people wearing the clothes. Gap Body has also begun a remodeling program with mosaic floors, curtains, softer lighting and armoires for product.

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