Byline: Katherine Weisman

PARIS--Meet France's Dr. Retail. While other stores may turn to consulting groups, the huge Pinault-Printemps-La Redoute group is counting on retail veteran Philippe Vindry to turn its Printemps department store chain around.
It is Vindry who developed the successful reorganization plan for the Le Bon Marche store here in the late 1980s, left to serve as president of Christian Dior, and then was recruited to Printemps at the beginning of 1994. His challenge: to apply the same theories he employed at the sole Le Bon Marche location to the much bigger 17-store Printemps chain, and the 40 franchised Printemps stores in France and abroad.
"I couldn't not be excited by this," says Vindry in his office at the Printemps flagship on Boulevard Haussmann here. "But, for me to accomplish this, it will take courage and a bit of craziness." Not too mention a reorganization war chest of $30.6 million (150 million francs) annually for five years, mainly financed internally.
With cash and a mandate, Vindry has launched these strategic initiatives:
Narrowing Printemps' product offering to five groups: women's fashion, men's fashion, home products and furniture, perfume and beauty, and leisure goods like toys, stationery and books.
Creating product "universes" and in-store boutiques that group similar products together, helping to identify them and increase their perceived value for money.
Building the store's private label programs to make them "exclusive" brands.
Developing a more centralized buying system. Up until now, the 17 stores have ordered goods on their own based on parameters developed by headquarters.
Backing away from direct competition with discounters, and reducing the number of sales and promotions so as not to confuse the customer.
Learning what is being sold to whom. Twenty-five percent of sales are done through Printemps' credit card and the company has never done a market analysis of its customer listing.
Developing an information and logistics system to turn around goods faster.
Developing downtown locations, working with municipalities anxious to keep businesses inside city limits. While some of these points might seem obvious to U.S. retailers, department stores here are much further behind their American counterparts in terms of merchandising and organization. Many have a "bazaar" atmosphere because the sales floors are stocked to the walls with goods at every price point. Aisles are not clear, and goods are not well distinguished from one another.
Vindry argues that for a department store to be successful in France today--given the rise in competition from discounters and chains, and consumer apathy--it can no longer try to be be all things to all people. "There is no sector now where a department store can surf without competition. We can no longer be neutral distributors," Vindry explains. Stores need once again to lead customers to a fine-tuned and fresh selection of goods and services, a role that Vindry believes has almost been abandoned.
"It was department stores that launched designers, that developed special thematic exhibitions, that democratized certain goods like furs once only available in specialized stores, that were leaders in exterior and interior architecture," Vindry says, noting the Printemps flagship's historic landmark status.
"But in France, they fell asleep under the transformation in distribution here coming from hypermarkets, specialized chains and now, discounters.
"The department stores here are not implicated in modernity," he notes, adding that many are still family-controlled entities with big and heavy bureaucratic structures. "They rest on their old theories instead of trying to see what could be done to change," Vindry continues. "This form of immobility is a consequence of having a patrimonial vision of the business, rather than a capitalistic one." Vindry acknowledges that Printemps used to act this way and the group's lackluster sales are a result. In 1993, the latest year for which the store's figures are available, Printemps wholly owned stores had consolidated sales of $1 billion (4.9 billion francs), down about 2 percent compared to 1992. Including international and domestic franchises, 1993 sales were $2.1 billion (10.3 billion francs). But now Vindry says his management team "has the notion and capacity of how to invest capital to get results." Vindry's central strategy is to narrow Printemps' product offerings, and to market and merchandise the products in boutique-like settings. "The huge spaces taken up by French department stores have become horribly de-humanized," Vindry notes. "It's hot. It's hard to find things, and the service is lousy. If a store wants to emerge from this difficult period, it has to make product universes. It's up to the store to give a sense to products, help identify them and give them a raison-d'Etre." Some steps the store took prior to Vindry's arrival are precisely the kind of measures that he wants to take in all departments. The high-service, street-level beauty, fragrance and skin care floor at the flagship was completely renovated in late 1991. Two years later, beauty sales registered a 30 percent increase and accounted for 10 percent of the flagship store's volume.Another improved area is the new bed, table and bath linen department renovated at the end of last year. The clean white space is merchandised clearly by brand and products are arranged around the selling floor in an orderly grid-like way. The middle of the floor highlights new products, like Christian Lacroix's new bed-linen line and Printemps' own house line. No sales increase information is yet available.On top of redefining what should actually be sold, Vindry is intent on establishing a sophisticated information and logistics system. Bar-code readers, for example, are just beginning to become commonplace here."Stores here are very archaic," Vindry observes. "You need to have rapid delivery, and to be able to analyze and treat the shipments. It's completely easy to do, and absolutely indispensable." This is the strength of specialized chains that are taking business away from department stores, Vindry notes. "Gap, Zara, they all have these systems in place," he says. "They know exactly what they have sold and when...on a daily basis. A department store needs to be able to react quickly. If something isn't selling after six weeks of being on the floor, it should go on sale right away, not in six months at the end of the season."
Vindry also wants to use some synergies within the group for some products. One of France's biggest distributors of records, books, videos and audio-visual products, FNAC, is now part of the Pinault-Printemps-La Redoute group. Vindry wants to set up FNAC locations within Printemps stores in place of Printemps-managed departments for these goods.
This will happen for the first time at the newly renovated Printemps store in the Velizy shopping center outside of Paris, set to reopen in the fall. Last but not least, Vindry wants Printemps to develop a solid service mentality, using Nordstrom's as a model. This was clearly accomplished at Le Bon Marche, where even the people answering the switchboard say the store's name, and politely ask how they can help you. That was an achievement that will be tough to duplicate, since most staff in most stores here can't be bothered to even mention the store's name on the phone, let alone provide any kind of service on the selling floor.
"As we know, the French are not quite into this concept," notes Vindry with a smile.
-- Fairchild News Service

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