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Chains Aim At Core

NEW YORK — Specialty chains that focus on moderate merchandise have had varying degrees of success in recent years.<br><br>There are standouts such as Chico’s, which has used its strong fashion focus and a nearly obsessive focus on its...

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NEW YORK — Specialty chains that focus on moderate merchandise have had varying degrees of success in recent years.

There are standouts such as Chico’s, which has used its strong fashion focus and a nearly obsessive focus on its customer’s needs to bring about strong sales results in a tough retail climate.

Then there’s Gap, a pioneer in affordable basics that backed away from its core customer and started chasing a more fickle generation of young, trendy shoppers. Gap has paid the price in lost sales and earnings, but has begun to learn from that lesson.

Those specialty chains that are suffering have started to refine their focus and redirect their efforts back at their core customer, who wants well-made fashionable basics at a price.

Chico’s, the Fort Myers, Fla.-based private label retailer, has remained true to its customer, and in turn, has continually reported strong earnings. For the first quarter of this year, its net income increased 59.8 percent to $19.8 million.

For fall, the retailer is continuing its strong customer focus by emphasizing the concept of wardrobing, layering, and mixing and matching. Its apparel assortment includes basic and novelty denim, varieties of shirtings, fake and real suedes and velvets. Chico’s stores are typically divided into a casual dressing side and a more dressy mode.

“We really take a whole wardrobing approach. We encourage our customer to wear her denim jacket with her travelers pants and to think in terms of what to wear with what,” said Pat Murphy, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for Chico’s.

Denim is displayed prominently throughout the store along with the white shirt and layering pieces.

The Chico’s customer is anywhere from 35 to 65 and has a household income of $100,000-plus.

“She travels a lot, is very active, but doesn’t want to look old,” said Murphy. “She’s very pulled together, but in a hurry. She doesn’t want to think about it a lot, so we give her a wardrobe that works for her lifestyle.”

To that end, while the Chico’s customer is conscious of trends, Murphy said she is reluctant to shop where her 16-year-old daughter shops and prides herself on looking trendy, but not foolish.

As far as advertising, along with TV commercials, the retailer contacts its customers through direct mail to let them know about new merchandise.

Chico’s is also launching a new division for 25-to-35-year-olds. The lower priced stores, called Pazo, will open early next year.

At Swedish fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz, the motto is “fashion and quality at the best price.” That seems to be working for them. For the first half of 2002, the company’s net income skyrocketed 55.6 percent to $347.8 million.

This fall, the retailer’s fashion approach runs towards the bohemian.

“Because the collection is so diverse, it really encourages people to dress their personality, and I think women like that,” said an H&M spokeswoman. “It’s nice to be able to come in and find a pair of classic black pants, or a pair of jeans or a white button-down shirt and go over to a different section and find a trendier piece — all under one roof.”

While key pieces are featured in the front of the store, the main goal is to make the store visually appealing and inviting to the customer.

“The whole key is that…it is easy to find and the shopping experience is as pleasurable as possible,” she said.

Apparel is arranged and displayed by color. Tones for fall include shades of burgundy and dusty pinks, as well as earth tones like brown and burnt orange.

This fall’s advertising campaign features sultry shots of a wind-swept Stephanie Seymour. The ads not only picture H&M’s key fall pieces, but also clearly list the prices. H&M’s ads will be appearing in fall issues of In Style, Vogue, Jane, Cosmopolitan and Vibe magazines. The retailer has 34 stores in the U.S. (801 internationally) and will be rolling out 12 more units this fall.

Express, a $2 billion division of Limited Brands, has undergone some key changes recently and now looks poised for significant growth.

“We believe Express has a $4 billion to $5 billion potential,” said Michael Weiss, president and chief executive officer of Express, in an interview with WWD last month.

The chain folded its Structure men’s wear into Express to create Express Men’s. Express now has “dual gender” stores, as well as Express Women’s and Express Men’s stores.

It also launched its first national TV campaign, while its print ads feature such fashion models as Karolina Kurkova, Mini Anden and Alek Wek. As far as their approach to fashion, Express is keeping its focus well-tuned.

“We would like to think the brand name extends to all kinds of fashion things,” Weiss said. “But the concentration is on apparel, jeans and sportswear, with a bit more wear-to-work apparel than in the past. We are getting more tailored to wear to work, but we are not going to be a suit resource. We believe in doing a few things very well.” The looks for fall include jeans in a variety of rinses, romantic blouses and tight-fitting knits.

Struggling Gap Inc. stores are putting their efforts into reconnecting with the Baby Boomer shopper, the age group that loved them but left them high and dry when the San Francisco-based retailer got too trendy.

“We understand we’ve alienated teenagers, [but] we want to go after people who knew us and loved us,” Kyle Andrew, vice president of Gap marketing, told WWD earlier this month.

Andrew said Gap is trying not to be too trendy and will expand its reach beyond the once-core group, 18- to 24-year-olds. Gap’s all-American fall ads range from photos of Bridget Hall in jeans and a hoodie to Willie Nelson in a bandanna, T-shirt and jeans jacket.

As for fashion, the company is focusing on basics. Above all, Gap wants to reclaim its place as the denim and khaki supplier in American fashion with a focus on quality, fabric and detail. All this, to turn around the company’s 27 straight months of declining same-store sales, that has resulted in the upcoming departure of ceo Millard “Mickey” Drexler.

At Old Navy, the chain has reduced its assortment by 30 percent, due to customer concerns about the fit of its apparel, said its president Jenny Ming, at the Credit Suisse First Boston Global Retail & Apparel Conference in New York in June.

The company is focusing on providing customers with a greater variety of sizes as opposed to offering extensive styles. Old Navy will also create shops within its stores with specific signage. The shops will feature items such as khakis, jeans or shirts. It is also moving toward organized and neat stores.

Casual Corner is planning single digit comp-store gains through the fourth quarter, said Mark Shulman, chief operating officer at Retail Brand Alliance, which owns the 1,100-unit chain.

“For fall, we’re going to be cautiously optimistic,” Shulman said. “The good thing is that our inventories are totally in line and where we want them to be.”

Casual Corner is making an intensified appeal to value-conscious shoppers who want versatile clothes that last several seasons. This fall, the chain will continue to play up a group of classic fashion items it calls Collectibles, which includes black or navy skirts for $55, jackets for $99 and pants for $45.

The chain’s target customers are moderate-minded career women ages 25 to 55.

“Collectibles are never marked down. Shoppers can come in from season to season and be able to buy new pieces that work back with prior-season merchandise in order to build a classic wardrobe,” said Shulman, noting that Casual Corner will advertise the Collectibles collection this month with a big direct-mail campaign to its best credit card customers.

Dress Barn, the 750-unit chain based in Suffern, N.Y., is projecting low-single-digit comp-store gains over the next 12 months and plans to open between 60 and 70 new stores, said David Jaffe, president and ceo.

“We’re taking a very cautious outlook for the next 12 months,” Jaffe said. “We’re concerned about declines in consumer confidence and consumer spending.”

“Our success is based upon continually coming up with new looks at value prices that appeal to our target customer, the working woman ages 35 to 55 with moderate incomes. These women are fashion conscious and very interested in trends, but they are not fashion leaders. They depend on us to help them put together looks and tell them what trends are important.”

Dress Barn merchandises trends with in-store lifestyle displays and markets its offerings with direct-mail and print ad campaigns.

The company is focusing on providing customers with a greater variety of sizes as opposed to offering extensive styles. Old Navy will also create shops within its stores with specific signage. The shops will feature items such as khakis, jeans or shirts. It is also moving toward organized and neat stores.

Casual Corner is planning single digit comp-store gains through the fourth quarter, said Mark Shulman, chief operating officer at Retail Brand Alliance, which owns the 1,100-unit chain.

“For fall, we’re going to be cautiously optimistic,” Shulman said. “The good thing is that our inventories are totally in line and where we want them to be.”

Casual Corner is making an intensified appeal to value-conscious shoppers who want versatile clothes that last several seasons. This fall, the chain will continue to play up a group of classic fashion items it calls Collectibles, which includes black or navy skirts for $55, jackets for $99 and pants for $45.

The chain’s target customers are moderate-minded career women ages 25 to 55.

“Collectibles are never marked down. Shoppers can come in from season to season and be able to buy new pieces that work back with prior-season merchandise in order to build a classic wardrobe,” said Shulman, noting that Casual Corner will advertise the Collectibles collection this month with a big direct-mail campaign to its best credit card customers.

Dress Barn, the 750-unit chain based in Suffern, N.Y., is projecting low-single-digit comp-store gains over the next 12 months and plans to open between 60 and 70 new stores, said David Jaffe, president and ceo.

“We’re taking a very cautious outlook for the next 12 months,” Jaffe said. “We’re concerned about declines in consumer confidence and consumer spending.”

“Our success is based upon continually coming up with new looks at value prices that appeal to our target customer, the working woman ages 35 to 55 with moderate incomes. These women are fashion conscious and very interested in trends, but they are not fashion leaders. They depend on us to help them put together looks and tell them what trends are important.”

Dress Barn merchandises trends with in-store lifestyle displays and markets its offerings with direct-mail and print ad campaigns.

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