Byline: Sharon Edelson

NEW YORK--Since opening on Fifth Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets in 1993, Takashimaya New York has flouted convention by selling assortments based almost entirely on lesser-known artists and designers, and presenting them in spacious, lavishly wrought environments.
Retail experts, competitors and consumers have long admired the store's esthetic, which includes a vibrant garden shop on the first floor and a luxurious bedroom setting with well-dressed beds, painted screens and antique mirrors. Takashimaya has soaring ceilings that give the store a sense of drama and expansiveness. Uncluttered displays create a feeling of serenity, in contrast to the bustle of Fifth Avenue. Elaborate marble "rugs" and modern living room furniture lend a residential look.
Its strength seems to be in categories of merchandise that would be considered minor for other retailers. Takashimaya makes the most of them with unusual selections and beautiful one-of-a-kind pieces. For example, scarves are a big business, displayed in open drawers of a steel table that looks like a vanity.
Most of the fixtures in the store were custom made for Takashimaya, from the wall vitrine that holds a single necklace on a metal tree, to the large circular jewelry display case store executives call "the mother ship" for its streamlined submarine shape.
But those same experts and retailers who enjoy visiting the store and its unique merchandising environment have been skeptical about whether the concept could succeed. There are also persistent rumors that the store may be leased to another retailer. However, Takashimaya officials insist the space will remain a Takashimaya store, and according to Chi Chi DeCresie, senior vice president and general manager, the plan is to stay "for a very long time."
"The rumors are very disturbing," she added. "They would be disturbing to anyone.
"The retail space is always shown to explain the value of the entire building," DeCresie said, offering an explanation for the rumors. "Obviously, if you're going to impress somebody who may be looking at other parts of the building with the location, you show them the retail space." The Limited reportedly expressed interest in the site, but Takashimaya says it's not selling. DeCresie said the building, which is owned by Takashimaya, is almost 100 percent leased.
"You don't have to be a genius to know that we're not making money," she said. "We planned to break even in our fourth year. We're absolutely right on target."
"[Takashimaya] is not sufficiently aggressively merchandised to maximize what the retail potential of a valuable Fifth Avenue property should be," said Arnold H. Aronson, a principal of Levy, Kerson, Aronson & Associates, retail consultant. "From an imagery point of view, it does certainly relay a very refined, high-quality impression. There is nothing objectionable, it's just not conventionally directed the way it would be by an American retailer who would have different return-on-investment objectives."
DeCresie explained that because Takashimaya owns the building, the pressure on the retail organization for a high sales performance is lessened to some extent.
"Japanese business plans are always long term," DeCresie added. "Of course, we're in business to make money.
And DeCresie said Takashimaya is definitely moving in the right direction. The store was projected to do $20 million in sales in 1996 and is currently running "slightly ahead of plan," she said.
"We have the opportunity to be more profitable than some stores because we are edited tightly and can turn it quickly," DeCresie said. "We sell $5 candy bars and $30,000 pieces of furniture."
She acknowledged it takes longer to nurture an unconventional business like Takashimaya, but said customers have responded to the concept faster than the company had expected.
"What we hoped for was developing the real Fifth Avenue shopper," DeCresie said. "We thought it would take a good five years to nurture that business. It has been, surprisingly, quicker because people were looking for something new and fresh.
"Takashimaya in Japan is a multibillion-dollar organization," DeCresie said. "We're a little flea. On the other hand, we're incredibly significant as something new. They've been in business for 200 years. They're experimenting."
DeCresie said Takashimaya has been talking about opening freestanding Takashimaya New York boutiques in Japan.
"The idea was to go to New York, develop a Japanese following and create a demand for the Takashimaya New York name at home, then move it back to Japan," DeCresie said. "They are creating their own unique brand name."
As for rolling out the Takashimaya New York concept in the U.S., DeCresie said, "They do have property in Beverly Hills. On occasion, we talk about opening other stores. They wouldn't consider expansion as part of the experiment. If this works, they are prepared to go to other cities."
Executives have an easier time explaining what Takashimaya is not than what it is.
It is not a traditional Japanese store, although it is owned by the huge Japanese retailer of the same name.
"In the beginning, people came in looking for kimonos and other typically Japanese things," DeCresie said. "With a name like Takashimaya, it's hard to be thought of as anything other than a Japanese store. It's hard for us to define ourselves."
Takashimaya sells furniture, tabletop, fancy garden supplies and flowers and has developed a following in the design community.
The store sells unusual hats and accessories such as delicate hair ornaments and vintage watches. There is a wide range of handbags, although there's not a Chanel or Prada in the bunch. Takashimaya also carries lingerie, raincoats, dresses and sweaters, mostly commissioned by designers who make other products for the store.
"We elected not to do ready-to-wear because many of the designers that would be a complement to the store were already tied up with exclusive arrangements with other stores," DeCresie said. "In the area of accessories, we were able to find some very unique designers.
"Since this is one store, there are advantages and disadvantages," DeCresie said. "There are elements of experimentation. We front money to a lot of artists to develop products, then we own them exclusively."
For example, Andrea Koeppel, a designer of scarves who works with antique lace, has made loungewear and coats for the store.
Takashimaya's unique merchandising in New York is the vision of Corky Tyler, senior vice president and general merchandise manager. She merchandises the first five floors based on what she discovers on buying trips around the world.
Tyler sees the store as a work in progress.
The entire second floor is currently under construction. When it reopens, it will be devoted to travel, a broadly defined concept that includes everything from luggage to collapsible bicycles to knitwear to bibelots that could have been collected during a trip.
Tyler also plans to open a swing shop on the first floor in a 300-square-foot open space between the garden shop and cosmetics department.
"Ideally, this would be a shop where we would feature a different new designer's work every month," she said.
Putting the garden shop on Fifth Avenue was "the smartest thing we did," she said. "It offers something unique and different to the customer. We couldn't put jewelry or anything that's already an established business on Fifth Avenue" on the main floors of other major retailers. While Takashimaya does have a small cosmetics area in the back of the first floor, it is different from others in Manhattan. The space is not jam-packed with products; it looks like a beautiful dressing room. An entire wall is lined with tall, white storage cabinets. One cabinet on every other column opens to display a single product line. The effect is very personal--a customer can pull a chair up to the cabinet and test the products.
On another wall is a glass case with hundreds of empty glass perfume flacons, and a third wall holds quirky perfumes. The only high-profile name in the department is Shiseido. Other brands include Valmont, Kora O'Neal and NamatA.
While Takashimaya aims to be a "multicultural" store, there are, of course, Japanese influences. The Tea Box restaurant on the lower level is decorated in calming earth tones and serves a combination of Eastern and Western cuisine.
DeCresie considers the Tea Box "a little gold mine." Other areas also have plenty of value. It's a matter of customers discovering them.

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