By  on December 27, 2000

NEW YORK -- Even after a decade of mammoth losses, misguided merchandising and over 550 site closings, Casual Corner is the chain that refuses to die.

Over the last two years, the retailer -- once nicknamed by some as Casualty Corner -- has been engaged in its biggest and costliest salvaging effort. And it's citing healthier comp-store gains -- up in the double-digits through the fall, according to company executives.

Apparently, there's life in a niche most other stores can't seem to grasp. Secretaries, administrative assistants and young professionals on limited budgets -- working women -- are returning to shop at the once-powerful Casual Corner. They're buying the chain's core "Collectibles" group of coordinated jackets, skirts, dresses and blouses, revamped in navy and black easy to wear-to-work styles for misses' and special sizes. Jackets are priced from $99 to $128; skirts and pants, $49 to $59; sheath dresses, $79; blouses $34 to $59. Another key component for those with not-so-perfect figures: items in misses' sizes can be coordinated with apparel in petite or large sizes.

"Casual Corner is a healthy player. I believe it can be a major, major player in this country," said Claudio Del Vecchio, president and chief executive of Casual Corner Group. "We are not as aggressive as we'll get."

In an exclusive interview with WWD, Del Vecchio disclosed results from the turnaround effort. "We had a three-year plan and we made it in two years," he said, rattling off statistics that most private chains tend not to disclose, Del Vecchio said Casual Corner's volume will hit $808 million this year, up from $564 million in 1998. In that period, gross margins increased from 40 to 50 percent. Income last year was $24 million. And average sales per square foot has risen to $274 from $145. That figure is expected to hit $300 soon, though the comp-store gains can be attributed partly to weaker stores shutting down and improved business at existing stores. In addition, more than one million items from the Collectible collection have been sold in the past two years, according to the company.

"Over 20 percent of our sales are on our own credit card," added Mark Shulman, chief operating officer. "That's a good sign that we have a lot of good customers."

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