NEW YORK — Is an upscale discounter an oxymoron? Not to Century 21, which is adding a chic dimension for its hordes of bargain-crazed shoppers.

The family-owned and operated four-unit chain, specializing in selling designer labels at 30 to 70 percent off, will complete a two-year, $5 million renovation of its store in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn next month. The project has brought prestige cosmetics, marble floors, skylights, a grand court, and additional space to the setting, at 472 86th Street. By taking over a string of contiguous buildings over the years, the store has grown to 105,000 square feet, from the original 2,000-square-foot site when Century 21 debuted there 41 years ago.

It’s rare for an off-pricer to elevate its ambiance, since the focus is on keeping costs and prices way down. Moreover, classier interiors can create an aura of higher prices and confuse customers.

Asked if customers might be intimidated by the renovation, Raymond Gindi, chief operating officer and a member of the owning family, replied: "That’s a valid question, though we think that in Brooklyn, where we’ve been for many years, Century 21 is a neighborhood store. The people trust us, and trust that by reinvesting our profits back into the store, we’re not changing into something that should intimidate them."

In Morristown, N.J., Century 21 opened in a former Macy’s in April 2002. The store has four levels, 130,000 square feet, and a look more akin to a better department store than an apparel off-pricer. The appearance "could send a mixed signal," Gindi acknowledged. "But it is just a matter of time before customers see our prices and learn what we are all about. We need to prove ourselves."

To some extent that’s true in cosmetics, where Century 21 has been breaking new ground.

As a general rule, prestige cosmetics firms shun off-price retailers. They stick with department stores, insist that their brands not be discounted, and have strict standards on how products are presented. For Century 21, it’s never been easy getting cosmetic suppliers. For most of its history, Century 21 had a typical HBA [health and beauty aid] presentation, similar to a Duane Reade, with a focus on such items as toothpaste and aspirin. "It was more hit or miss," Gindi noted. "It took a number of years to finally convince the industry that we are a qualified store to represent them. We had to prove to them that we were not a fly-by-night business."Century 21 only began selling prestige cosmetics in 1995, initially at its 160,000-square-foot Manhattan flagship. Cosmetic firms could no longer resist the heavy traffic that Century 21 stores routinely get, and felt its stores were located far enough away from traditional department stores that sales wouldn’t be cannibalized.

However, it’s only been since September that Century 21 has been selling prestige cosmetics and fragrances in its Brooklyn store, thanks to the new interior designs in cosmetics and through the store, created by Horst Design International of Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. Horst Design also renovated the lower level of the Century 21 Manhattan flagship at 22 Cortlandt Street, which was reopened in February 2002 after being heavily damaged by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and designed the Century 21 shoe store that opened last November adjacent to the flagship. The company also operates a 180,000-square-foot store in Westbury, New York.

In Brooklyn, cosmetics is a full-fledged, 3,300-square-foot department visible from outside the store, whereas before September, cosmetics were relegated to an outpost that operated just for the holiday season. Thelineup of skin care and fragrance lines sold at all four Century 21 stores includes Estée Lauder, Lancôme, Clinique, Clarins,Elizabeth Arden, Chanel, and Christian Dior. In fragrance alone, such brands as Michael Kors, Kenneth Cole, Donna Karan, Boucheron and Bulgari are sold.

The lines are sold at full retail price, while other categories are sold off-price. While cosmetic vendors generally designed their own showcases, in Brooklyn, they conformed to Horst Design’s overall floor concept and to Century 21’s philosophy on service, which is real. Compared to other off-pricers, there is more roving sales help throughout the store. There’s also the company’s "three-person" rule. When three people are waiting on line to get checked out, another register is opened up. Once all the registers are opened, they bring on packers to speed the checkouts.

"In the cosmetics area, I tried to talk them into a new approach, which is open selling," said Fidel Miro, director of planning and design, Horst Design. "In the end, they basically chose not to. There is a small open-sell area, but the rest is showcases. They want to go face-to-face with the customer."In addition, Miro opened up two large passageways with wide aisles directing customers to cosmetics before they hit other categories, and he created a fragrance "superstructure" with individually lit transparencies indicating all the fragrances.

As far as the color palette in cosmetics, "The general environment is one color - a very subtle pastel cream with a frosted green band all around to complete the uniformity of the department," Miro said. "These days everybody favors white except Chanel, which is black and gold. That’s their signature. Estée Lauder is white with some elements of gold."

Cosmetics is just one category that’s been bolstered at the Brooklyn store. Earlier, a new children’s department was carved out of space taken over from a former pharmacy, and the home store was relocated to an annex of about 25,000 square feet across the street. The first floor of the main store has grown to 58,000 square feet, while the second floor has been enlarged to 33,000 square feet.

"We keep just expanding whenever real estate comes available. It’s been kind of a hodgepodge," Gindi said.

For that reason, a primary objective of the renovation was to make the Bay Ridge store feel cohesive, while enhancing the merchandise presentation and capturing additional space for selling. "This was kind of a grueling renovation," Gindi remarked. "We did it in sections, but we are getting significant gains because of the [increase in] square footage." He declined to specify the gains or the cost of the renovation.

Other aggressive real estate moves will be taken. Gindi disclosed that he’s looking for space north of Manhattan, in Westchester or North Jersey, for a store at least 100,000 square feet in size. He said the company is not focused on any particular property and expects more properties on the market in the next six months. Realistically, it would take about two years to get a fifth Century 21 store up and running, he said.

"We want to grow the company in a very controlled way," Gindi said.

Editor’s note: This is the launch of a new WWD monthly feature, Storefront, which willfocus on interesting and innovative merchandising, display and store design concepts in all areas of retailing, from apparel to restaurants, books to hardware.

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