Teens never want to hang out at the same place as their parents, but lately they’ve been running into each other at the mall.
That’s because department stores, which always thought of themselves as multigenerational but generally fell short in attracting youth, are creating "cooler" junior departments.
It’s such a fast-moving sector in which stores avoid the private label approach and focus on such trendy brands as Rampage, XOXO, Dollhouse, LEI, Paris Blues and Guess, and try to vary the assortment and ambiance by selling CDs and accessories, along with the jeans and sportswear, and setting up interactive kiosks, computers and even in-store DJs spinning tunes.
Isolating juniors more effectively is a big part of Federated Department Stores’ "store of the future" strategy, applying new technologies, shops and amenities to 45 doors during the fourth quarter. The junior areas are geared so that couples can shop together, with young men’s merchandise, as well as juniors, in an energetic area featuring video games; snacks; a photo booth, so shoppers can show friends their latest finds, and a cyber café. Federated is rolling the strategy out across divisions, with the exception of Bloomingdale’s.
Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to juniors’ departments, Parisian, a Birmingham, Ala.–based Saks Inc. division, is tailoring junior departments in its 43 stores to suit specific markets and customer demographics.
"This customer can’t be pegged," said Rob Gruen, chief executive officer of Parisian. "We consider looks, fit and price points on a store-by-store basis."
In around 75 percent of its stores, junior departments have separate identities, with colorful visuals and music. Other junior departments are identified with signage as "young contemporary," flowing as an extension of contemporary areas, with no distinction in visuals and displays.
"The idea is to attracta contemporary crossover customer, maybe a 30-year-old who may want a look at a lower price point," said Gruen.
Throughout all stores, juniors has a wide assortment of vendors tailored to specific locations. In appropriate markets, juniors may include XOXO, Dollhouse, J.Lo and Hot Kiss, while others may focus on more moderate prices, including jeans at $29.99 from LEI and other brands. Gruen said while older customers take a more individualist approach to dressing, juniors shop for current looks that their peers are wearing to fit in with the crowd.Currently, junior business is "OK," said Gruen. Aside from the economy, the segment has been lacking a key item to galvanize customers, as sweater coats did last year. This season, sweaters have been slower moving, although jackets, corduroy pants, novelty T-shirts and items with fur or faux-fur trim have sold well.
"Department stores have been very aggressive for the past two years," building differentiated junior departments with videos, music and eclectic assortments, said Kathy Bradley-Riley, divisional merchandise manager of sportswear at The Doneger Group buying office.
"Teens don’t want to shop in their mother’s store," she noted.
While junior business has been good over the past two years, lately it’s been pinched by the uncertain economy and an oversaturation of space devoted to it, particularly due to specialty store operators rapidly opening new stores. For the last back-to-school season, "there was a lot of sameness," Bradley-Riley said.
Despite the fickleness of the business, the opportunity in teens is widely seen in the department store arena. Last February, Belk’s launched Zuniverse, a junior shop concept with a definite teen-friendly ambience. Developed in-house, the concept revamped design in graphics, displays and signage, with logos and images of a stylized Z Girl. The concept is in place in all 210 Belk’s locations, with shop presentations tailored to individual stores. A former collection-oriented junior mix has been replaced with a focus on trends, color and key items, with fewer basics and more updated looks.
"We don’t think juniors shop looking for specific vendors," said Steve Pernotto, senior vice president of Belk Stores Services. "They respond to fashion and color."
A "Z-Card" frequent-buyer card offers special deals and discounts, and, according to Belk’s, has been a factor in lifting the business, as well as helping junior departments reduce promotional activity. Sales since February are "well above plan," said Pernotto.
Merchandising strategy has shifted from status brands, collections or basics, to more trend-driven merchandise. Bohemian, "hippie-chic" items, including stretch, crosshatch and onion-skin novelty tops, have shown double-digit increases in the past several months, according to Belk’s.Gloria Siegler, manager of investor relations and corporate communications at The Elder-Beerman Stores, a moderate chain based in Dayton, Ohio, said: "Fashion newness is what drives our junior business. We’re seeing reinterpretations of existing fashions, but not that new must-have item.
"Selling well for Elder-Beerman are crosshatch denim, sweater coats in a shorter length than last year and a cable-knit hooded sweater. The best color in the sweater coat is black. In the hooded sweater, any shade of pink is strong."
On the West Coast, which has sprouted national junior specialty chains like they were mushrooms, department stores have realized they’ve had to modernize their junior departments just to keep up.
Macy’s West in San Francisco was one of the first to roll out THISIT, a series of junior in-store departments designed to offer teens and young women a venue to shop and hang out. There are 27 THISIT shops currently operating, and Macy’s West is planning to add THISIT concepts to all 105 Western division doors within the next few years.
There have been changes in the format since the shops bowed more than two years ago.
"We’re moving lounge areas to the dressing rooms so moms and boyfriends can wait for the girls," said Shawn Lambertsen-Forbes, fashion director for juniors and children’s at Macy’s West, noting that customers have asked for better-looking fitting rooms with more lighting and a greater number of three-way mirrors. "And we’re going funkier, pulling in more cutting-edge clothing so that the girl feels like she’s in a special shop."
Macy’s West is also ramping up its urban, surf and skate section buoyed by the success of Roxy, Hurley and Dickie’s Girl. "The response has been phenomenal," said Lambertsen-Forbes. "It’s really a great new category."
An advantage Macy’s West has over specialty stores is its ability to offer a broad array of brand names, such as XOXO, Rampage and J.Lo, in a wide range of price points, from $9.99 to $110, said Lambertsen-Forbes. Cleaned-up denim (less embroidery and embellishment), dresses, tunics, utilitarian cargos, sweaters and hoodies are currently the best-selling items.Los Angeles–based Robinsons-May has implemented a similar strategy. It was the first division in The May Department Stores Co. to ratchet up its junior departments as part of the company’s desire to attract a younger customer by smaller, lifestyle stores.
"We found ourselves without younger customers," Gene Kahn, May Co.’s chairman and ceo, told WWD in October, when the first lifestyle store bowed at the Irvine Spectrum Center in Irvine, Calif., an outdoor shopping complex that attracts 8 million of May’s target 19-44 age group annually. "They chose to go elsewhere."
To bring them back, the company is providing more fashion to teens and tweens, along with trendier displays providing guidance on how to put the styles together. Robinsons-May is also offering more labels that appeal to a younger set, including Polo Jeans, Amy Byer, Tommy Hilfiger, Roxy and Tony Hawk.
As for creature comforts, the store has met customers’ requests for dressing rooms as close as possible to selling areas. If Robinsons-May and 12 other test stores the St. Louis–based department store operator has identified are successful, May Co. executives will consider it a prototype for all May Co. stores. So far, so good, according to executives.
Not all department stores have jumped into juniors. Bloomingdale’s does sell Guess in all of its locations, and DKNY junior merchandise in select branch locations. The store also sells Necessary Objects, which has a teen audience.
However, "we are not really in the junior business," said Frank Doroff, Bloomingdale’s executive vice president of women’s. "We are in the contemporary sportswear business, which is very important and does reach a teen and older audience, but we just haven’t the space to do everything, and it’s not the direction we want to take the business, which is to raise the average ticket price and take fashion more upscale."
But that doesn’t mean Bloomingdale’s takes its eye off the youth market.
For spring, "every kid in juniors is going to want a miniskirt, which will replace the low-rise and low-cut jeans from last spring," said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction. "Instead of all the tight-fitted knit tops that were popular last spring, big oversized knitwear off one or both shoulders will be the alternative. The oversized top with a miniskirt is going to be the look of spring."
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