WESTPORT, Conn. — Talbots opened its 900th store April 4, a misses store in Concord, N.H. It’s a happy milestone, one that underscores Talbots’ steady, profitable growth and low-risk formula for selling classic styles. But the achievement also suggests that Talbots is approaching the saturation point with its 471-unit misses chain, and now must finesse its fledgling concepts to sustain growth and fulfill Wall Street expectations. It’s latest program is Talbots Mens, which opened its first store here April 4 as well."Eventually, misses will slow down," acknowledged Arnold Zetcher, Talbots chairman and chief executive of the Hingham, Mass.-based specialty chain. "Men’s shops and women’s large-size shops will take up the slack, but we don’t say there is a ceiling on misses." As Talbots’ catalog business grows with population changes,"we discover localities where we could open Talbots misses stores. We can’t anticipate this, but it’s something that we can track," he said. Catalog sales last year accounted for $247 million of the company’s $1.6 billion in total volume.Once catalog sales in an area reach $100,000 to $150,000, "that’s the trigger for us," to open a misses store, Zetcher said. Those new stores are expected to post $1 million to $1.3 million in first-year sales. And for the near-term at least, the company sees room for more misses stores, with 30 opening this year.There’s also opportunity for large-size stores, with only about 60 operating, and 21 more opening this year. Then there are 244 Talbots Petites stores, with 26 openings seen this year, and 41 Talbots Accessories & Shoes stores, though just three are slated this year. As far as outlets, 24 are operating and another is opening this year. Approximately 50 million catalogs were circulated in fiscal 2002.Among other concepts, Talbots Kids seems yet to be fully realized. Talbots introduced kids in 1990, but currently has only 62 kids stores operating. Growth was halted until Talbots felt the merchandise was right. While expansion is still cautious, five new units are planned for this year.As for the newest category — men’s wear retailing — Talbots plans to open six stores this year, including the 3,600-square-foot, freestanding unit at 90 Main Street here, where Limited formerly operated, as well as units in King of Prussia, Pa., and Worthington, Ohio this month, and in September on Madison Avenue and 54th Street and in the Prudential Center in Boston. Next year, six to nine Talbots Mens stores are seen opening. "By that time, we would have truly evaluated the concept," Zetcher said. If it gets high marks, then Talbots Mens will ramp up to 20 or more openings annually, beginning in 2005.A big issue is how to situate the men’s stores. They should be within eyeshot of a Talbots Misses, but the question is whether they should be adjacent to them, or nearby, noted Michele Mandell, executive vice president, stores and kids. In Westport, Talbots Misses, Petites and Kids units are just down the road, but on Madison Avenue and 54th Street, Talbots Mens and Talbots Kids are being added adjacent to the misses store, creating the company’s largest store, with 32,680 square feet. About 60 percent of the Talbots fleet is in major downtown districts or Main Streets of America, while 40 percent is in malls.The bulk of the men’s wear is in sport coats, which for spring are priced at $350 to $395, dress shirts, $65 to $75; casual shirts, $42 for a cotton pique polo to $80 for silk camp shirts. There are also sweaters, priced $70 to $85, dress trousers, $85 to $145; casual pants, $65 to $85, and ties, $65. "The men’s store is easy to shop," observed Harry A. Ikenson, managing director, First Albany Corp., who was among the two dozen or so retail analysts present for the Westport store debut, when 10 percent of sales were donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Connecticut and the Westport Country Playhouse. "It’s extremely well laid out, with the mahogany fixturing low in front, when you walk in, and progressively higher, so you can see all the merchandise. The clothing, overall, seems like a combination of Zenya and Faconnable, with more of a classic look and a nice dash of color. Talbots Mens could take customers from department stores, Brooks Bros., Faconnable, but the true Zenya customer won’t go there. They’re looking for something that’s edgy."

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