By  on March 16, 1994

WESTPORT, Conn. -- Those who worry about the shrinking ranks of independent retailers carrying designer merchandise can find solace at Mitchells of Westport.

Mitchells, which has built its reputation primarily on men's apparel, is aggressively revving up its women's selections with some high-end names and fashion-forward merchandise, and has given the department a new home.

The company has more than doubled the size of its women's department with an 8,300-square-foot addition to the 35-year-old store, bringing the total to more than 25,000 square feet. The new wing opened in September.

Fall 1993 marked the first time Mitchells has carried high-end women's clothes from designers like Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Miss V by Valentino. This spring it is further expanding its designer selections with the likes of Giorgio Armani Le Collezioni, Yves Saint Laurent's Encore, Ungaro's Sola Donna and Nino Cerruti.

"We've always been thought of as a men's store that sold some women's clothing," said Jack Mitchell, who owns the store with his brother, Bill. "Now, we want to develop our name as a women's store, too. We've put less emphasis on the classic, traditional looks, like Pendleton, and added more fashion lines like Anne Klein, Ellen Tracy, Tahari, DKNY and Laundry. Basically, we went from Liz Claiborne to Dana Buchman."

Total volume for Mitchell's exceeds $10 million a year, and the retailer has been experiencing annual growth of more than 20 percent for several years. The increase was particularly strong last year with the addition, he said.

Before the addition, women's merchandise -- including apparel, a small selection of shoes and accessories -- was housed in about 4,000 square feet and accounted for about 20 to 25 percent of the business.

Now, the assortments in all the categories have been broadened and the women's business is "comfortably over 30 percent," Mitchell said.

The change from traditional to fashion merchandise actually began about six years ago, Mitchell said, but the enlarged selling space has allowed the retailer to make more of a style statement.

Important parts of the women's business include shoes, now accounting for 7 percent of total store sales, and accessories, contributing 8 or 9 percent, he said. The business in these two areas has doubled with the expansion.Now that the space is larger and the merchandise expanded, the company plans to beef up the number of special events and trunk shows for women. Mitchell said the store does well with trunk shows.

While much of the merchandise is in that bridge range and above, there are also $25 cotton turtlenecks and chenille sweaters from $50 to $75.

The women's wing has a separate entrance, although the entire store is connected inside. A brick terrace leads up from the parking lot, which handles 220 cars on the surface and in an underground lot. Mitchell said in the spring and summer the store will serve coffee and host parties and fashion shows on the terrace.

The women's section has cream and taupe walls, light wood fixtures, a carpeted floor with gray marble aisles, spot lighting, photos and original artwork on the walls.

A seating area is in the center of the designer department, where there are two large private fitting rooms. The general dressing rooms for the overall women's department are also spacious, with a central area displaying merchandise.

Walking with Mitchell through the store is like strolling with a favorite local politician at a community picnic. He greets customers by name, shakes hands, asks for their families, waves to children in strollers with Mitchells logo balloons tied on. The sales associates and other employees all get the same friendly treatment.

Like many specialty stores, the Mitchells take a lot of pride in their service. Clients are assisted by the same sales associate whenever possible. But the retailer has also put sophisticated technology behind its friendly staff, free alterations and complimentary gift wrap.

The store is dotted with computer terminals that access a database of more than 38,000 clients. Each client file gives a sales associate a detailed profile of the person, including formal salutation (Mr. Jones), informal greeting (Jim), billing and shipping addresses -- even vacation homes -- personal sales consultant, sizes, birthdays and anniversaries, spouse's name, style and color preferences, and recent purchases.

Mitchell said a salesperson can examine the purchasing history, which goes back to 1989, and help a client determine additions to the wardrobe that would complement other pieces."Or, if we see a customer likes a certain designer, silhouette or tie pattern, we can alert him or her when there's a special event or new shipment that comes in," he said.

Mitchells advertises only its twice-yearly sales. Other events are promoted via direct mail.

The company was founded in 1958 by Ed and Norma Mitchell, the parents of Jack and Bill. The brothers have headed the business since the Seventies, when Ed and Norma officially retired. They still drop in occasionally, however.

Five Mitchell family members are active in the business. Jack oversees merchandising, operations and long-range planning; Bill heads the sales staff.

Jack's wife, Linda, is the women's buyer and merchandise manager. One of their sons, Russ, handles finance, and another, Bob, is the merchandise manager for men's wear.

To keep a fresh perspective on the business, the Mitchells meet with an advisory board of four or five executives from outside the retailing community several times a year. Jack Mitchell said this helps bring objective suggestions about the operation.

The company has 92 full-time employees, including 23 full-time tailors, who work in a large sewing room on the lower level of the store, near the executive offices. Even here, where there is little chance that tailors come in contact with the public (except for the fitters), the men all wear dress shirts and ties, and the women wear skirts, dresses, dress slacks or suits.

Not only are the alterations free, but in an emergency, Mitchell's will do them on the spot, while a customer waits. In a nonurgent situation, the store calls when the garment is ready, usually within a few days.

The men's area, still the mainstay of the business, features an array of 10,000 traditional and contemporary suits, sportswear and outerwear, formalwear, custom tailoring, shoes and 3,000 ties, Mitchell said.

As for immediate plans in the women's area, Linda Mitchell said, "We still need to expand our dressy and evening selections. We also want to develop the customer who commits in October to buy her spring wardrobe."

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