By  on February 2, 2006

NEW YORK — Destination Maternity, which opened Wednesday at 575 Madison Avenue on the corner of 57th Street here, is like a theme park for pregnant women.

Described as the world's largest maternity store by parent company Mothers Work, the 10,000-square-foot, three-level flagship brings together three retail concepts under the same roof: A Pea in the Pod, Mimi Maternity and Motherhood Maternity.

Destination Maternity wants to be the last word in fashion and wellness for expectant mothers. The pregnancy superstore features a spa called Edamame on the lower level, a kiddie corral play area, a learning studio offering yoga classes and belly dancing instruction, a juice bar and a place where men can watch a large-screen plasma TV while their significant others are shopping.

Throughout the opening day, the store offered demonstrations, book signings, classes and raffles, sometimes six an hour. There was breast-feeding 101, an Avent baby bottle demonstration and Jackie Barret, a psychic, was doing belly readings.

About 4,000 customers had visited the store by 5 p.m. A spokeswoman said sales exceeded the company's goal by 200 percent.

"The concept evolved out of the customer's needs," said Rebecca Matthias, president of Mothers Work. "Nobody else is strictly in the business of maternity. We have one customer and we find ways to keep serving her better."

Matthias is fond of saying that she sells to "virtually every pregnant woman in America," or 2.7 million customers a year. "It takes three brands and this space and assortment," she added. "This is the supreme model."

The new flagship, which is the 10th Destination Maternity store in the U.S., is the only location to offer all three apparel brands along with a full complement of services. Three other stores have spas and most have Pea in the Pod departments, which feature designers such as Diane von Furstenberg, Tocca, Lilly Pulitzer, Juicy Couture and Joe's Jeans.

Matthias said the company closed 10 stores in the New York area in anticipation of the flagship's opening. She expects to recapture the business at 575 Madison Avenue and estimated the store could do $1,000 a square foot in sales.The firm's 8.4 percent sales gain last year to $561.6 million was primarily driven by its Oh Baby by Motherhood licensed arrangement with Kohl's, and the expansion of its Two Hearts Maternity collection for Sears. Meanwhile, comparable-store sales fell 2.5 percent.

Matthias sees the Destination Mater­nity superstores as an answer to Mothers Works' ailing retail business. "These multibrand stores are larger and have higher average sales volume than our average store, and provide the opportunity to lower our store operating expense percentage and improve store operating profit margins over time," Matthias told stockholders last year.

The portal to the flagship leads to a mini gallery for rotating exhibits. For the opening, the company secured bronze maquettes and prints sketched by British sculptor Henry Moore. All explore the theme of mother and child.

Amid the hushed tones on the lower level, the sound of a water wall can be heard at the Edamame spa, which specializes in treatments for pregnant women. A signpost leading to the second level gives the names of major Manhattan hospitals and other landmarks.

At the top of the landing is Mimi Mater­nity, the contemporary collection, which is undergoing a repositioning. The company is updating the store design and giving the fashion a tweak. At the flagship, peasant blouses, tiered skirts and cargo pants abounded. In addition to the Mimi private label, brands such as Streets of L.A., Hippie and Blue 2 can be found at the store.

Most everything at Destination Mater­nity is geared to the expectant mother. There are, however, a few things for baby, including a gleaming Silver Cross, the Rolls-Royce of baby carriages, which sits in the gift area with a $3,000 price tag. Other items include CEO — chief executive offspring — bibs, Pee-Pee Tee Pees (to protect you from danger when changing boys) and onesies with sayings such as, "I am a boob man."

The Motherhood line in the back of the store is the cash cow of the company. Matthias pointed out that Motherhood has about 1,000 locations, while Mimi has 150 and Pea in the Pod, 40. Motherhood clothes are cut fuller for a woman who doesn't want to show off her belly. Prices for Motherhood are the lowest of the three brands, starting at $19. Mimi's prices range from $29 to $185, while Pea in the Pod starts at $125.Destination Maternity wants to be more than a store, it wants to be a social hub. "People sign up for a class and become part of a group, a support group or group of new friends," said Matthias. The learning studio runs classes from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on most days. In addition to movement, there's breathing and visualization, and child safety instruction.

The wellness area stocks everything from Ensure Healthy Mom Bars to Yogi teas to a variety of lotions and gels to prevent stretch marks. There's a line of Mimi Maternity creams, Mama Mio Tummy Rub and Mustela's skin care products. There is a juice bar as well as a nearby big-screen plasma TV.

Just outside the dressing rooms a play area with Legos and a TV airing cartoons is strategically placed so women can try on clothes and keep an eye on their kids. There's also a nursing department with bras, sleepwear, pillows and stockings.

Matthias, who started the company with a mail order catalogue in 1982, said she's always looking at product extensions. The company is offering Futuretrust MasterCard, which is linked to a college savings program. Rebates are automatically contributed to a tax-advantaged 529 college savings plan.

"Moms need to save for their new baby's education," Matthias explained. "We're going to be offering other financial products like mortgages."

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