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WWD Milestones issue 07/21/2008

As the Mitchells celebrate 50 years in business this fall, Connecticut’s first family of fashion retailing has another milestone to contemplate: Women’s volume surpassed men’s wear for the first time last year.

This story first appeared in the July 21, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


The implications are wide, particularly since the Mitchells have roots and a long reputation in men’s wear. The staff has grown, along with a sense of urgency to purvey the latest designers and most relevant trends to an upscale audience. Compared with men’s, the faster-paced world of women’s fashion carries greater risks, but also the potential for higher volume and profits.


In addition, there’s been a scramble for square footage on the selling floor to accommodate the evolving ready-to-wear, jewelry, shoes and accessories categories, with little elbow room in the Mitchells of Westport and Richards of Greenwich stores. Those two luxury emporiums have expanded to the limits set by zoning regulations, though additions are possible at Marshs in Huntington, Long Island, which also carries a designer assortment.


“We are tight for space,” admits Linda Mitchell, co-GMM for women’s, and the wife of CEO Jack Mitchell. “We keep turning it [the merchandise] faster and better. We’ve already encroached a little on the men’s territory.”


Last year, women’s accounted for 55 percent of the retailer’s total business. “That really is a milestone, when you consider we bought two men’s stores and added women’s onto them,” Linda Mitchell adds, referring to the acquisitions of Marshs in 2005 and Richards in 1995.


The women’s business is estimated at $55 million to $60 million in sales last year, according to market sources, with the designer portion accounting for about 65 percent; contemporary, 20 percent; and coats, sweaters and other items, 15 percent. Men’s and women’s together is just over $100 million, sources say.


Mitchell, along with her co-GMM, Ellen Finlayson, and her son Bob Mitchell, co-president, sat down over club sandwiches and coffee at the Mitchells store to discuss the progress of the women’s business. Marshs and Richards, they explained, were strictly men’s wear businesses until the Mitchell family determined they were ripe for women’s as well, particularly since plenty of women shopped the stores already, either for, or with, their husbands or boyfriends. When Mitchells bought Marshs, for example, the family surveyed 750 women who shopped the specialty store and learned that 85 percent would frequent a Marshs women’s department if the service and selection were comparable to the men’s operation.


As far as enlarging Marshs, it’s something to consider for the future, not immediately. Right now, we feel we have enough space to grow that business,” says Bob. “We have only been there for two years. It’s still relatively new for us.”


The women’s offering at Mitchells/ Richards/Marshs is primarily built on highend designer offerings that are tailored, career and evening-related, and targeted to 35- to 65-year-old, upscale professional women, or young, affluent mothers.


Lately, dresses, as well as outfits and items with a casual, relaxed yet still luxurious bent, have been driving the business. So have accessories, jewelry and shoes. With a preponderance of high-ticket products, sales average about $3,000 a square foot, with the average rtw ticket a few hundred dollars lower than $3,000, while jewelry runs higher on average.


The three top-selling labels are Giorgio Armani, Hermès and Michael Kors, followed by Loro Piana, Brunello Cucinelli, Dolce & Gabbana, Ralph Lauren, Escada, Akris, Etro and Valentino. Such items as the Armani Collezioni fuchsia mandarin-collar jacket, priced $1,195; Kors’ cap-sleeve tweed suit, $2,970; Loro Piana’s chocolate cashmere vests, $1,735; and “hurricane” raincoats for $3,450 typify what’s been selling best.


In handbags, accessories and shoes, Hermès, Prada, Gucci, Tod’s, Manolo Blahnik, Loro Piana, Stuart Weitzman and Cole Haan are key brands, with Hermès’ Lindy Bag, priced at $5,550, and Blahnik’s bronze metallic “Farinelli” open-toe pump with stones, $765, among the best sellers.


In jewelry, important labels include Michael Beaudry, Kwiat, Temple St. Clair, Cartier, Pommelato, Gurhan, Diamond in the Rough and Renne Lewis.


Three years ago a contemporary business, including Tory Burch, Theory, M Missoni and Phillip Lim, was layered in for a younger attitude and a more price-point-conscious customer, with Burch’s tie-dyed tunic, priced at $395, a strong seller.


The store is also bringing back Moschino after a five-year hiatus, and adding Charles Chang Lima and Ginny H for fall as well, creating a niche between contemporary and designer. “We buy these brands because they’re a little quirky and not as traditional as some of our main lines,” Linda explains.


“Casual luxury is our next foray,” says Finlayson, a former executive at Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Ann Taylor and the Redcats USA catalog, who joined Mitchells three years ago to further the women’s business. She says the plan is to develop an area at Richards to house a grouping of designer labels adjacent to the Michael Kors shop, such as Loro Piana, Luciano Barbera, Akris, Agnona and Brunello Cucinelli, to project a relaxed yet still dressed-up appeal. A space, not quite as formalized as in Richards, will also be carved out at Mitchells.


However, the biggest growth opportunity is in jewelry, accessories and shoes, where Judith Ripka was brought in to replace David Yurman, and in the last six months Giuseppe Zanotti and Jimmy Choo shoes were added, as were Miu Miu shoes and handbags.


“Accessories is the fastest-growing part of our business,” says Finlayson. Mitchells’ growth in women’s and men’s fashions has been methodical and organic. That’s different from most other retailers, which build volume primarily by increasing their store count. Still, the Mitchells are open to making another acquisition.


“First and foremost, our growth is going to continue to come from within our three stores,” says Bob. However, “an acquisition, whether it’s a men’s or a women’s store in the tristate area, would make sense. It’s something we are always looking at. But there is nothing hot on the burner. We like to take measured steps.”


The Richards and Marshs acquisitions, he notes, were far apart, and both not very far from the Westport home base. There is an 80 percent overlap in merchandise from store to store, but they each draw from different geographies and have very few customers in common. The stores are less promotional than the competition; they never run a “friends and family” event, and they don’t break price before other designer stores. The Mitchells say their merchandise is on sale about a third of the year through two events, and more than 70 percent of the women’s goods are sold at full price. The trunk show schedule is relentless, with at least 40 each season. There are free alterations on all women’s merchandise provided it’s not marked down more than 40 percent.


The buy, say the Mitchells, reflects a “steady dialogue” between the buyers and the sales associates on what customers want. Customer profiles, with computerized data on purchases and preferences and personal info, such as birthdays, hobbies and sizes, help buyers shop the markets with specific customers in mind. Typically, sales associates work with at least 100 customers and maintain customer books, either the old-fashioned handwritten kind or computerized versions. Then sales associates let the customers know when the goods are due to arrive, contacting them through e-mail, direct mail or by phone.


The connection with customers is unusual in retailing, where too often store staffs are disconnected from the client base. The Mitchells like to say they’re in the relationship business more so than the apparel business.


“Our greatest strength is the people we have on our selling floor,” says Bob. “They’re highly productive, and we give them the behind-the-scenes systems” to support them with data on shoppers. Buyers attend the trunk shows, and they spend about 48 of the 52 Saturdays in a year on the selling floors, so they learn what customers want and can
effect educated buys.


“The major lines that drive our women’s business are available in other stores. The challenge is to edit them for our customers,” adds Linda.


For 38 of its 50 years Mitchells has sold women’s. It started when Jack Mitchell joined the store and decided to bring in women’s lines. Among the early labels sold were Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, Bleyle, Gordon of Philadelphia, Adrienne Vittadini, Dana Buchman and Barry Bricken.


Nineteen years ago the company gave a sign it was getting serious about selling women’s by changing the name on the storefront, from Ed Mitchell to simply Mitchells, to be less gender-biased. In 2003 the store’s old suburban wood facade was replaced by brick and stone, and one central entrance direct to women’s accessories, handbags, shoes and jewelry was constructed, leaving no doubt where Mitchells saw the most growth potential. Before, there were separate women’s and men’s wear entrances, reducing the chances of cross-traffic. Women’s increased about 15 percent in space, to 14,000 square feet, and the space was furnished with granite tables with brushed-nickel frames, new floors, skylights and overall an environment befitting women’s designer collections, comparable to the fanciest designer stores in Manhattan.Meanwhile, men’s wear was downsized to 11,000 square feet, leaving the store at a constant 25,000 square feet.


“We tiptoed into women’s, and then three years ago Ellen and Linda exploded it,” says Bob. “There’s an excitement to the business, more options, more energy. Women are more interested in fashion. There is always an opportunity to grow women’s by changing your strategies or the execution. There is more risk involved, though we think there is
still a lot of growth.”


That belief is partly based on the knowledge that the percentage of women’s to men’s at Mitchells and the sister stores is still well below that of Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, where it’s more like three-quarters or 80 percent women’s to men’s.


Perhaps an even bigger reason to cater harder to women: “They outspend their husbands by two to three times,” says Bob. Mitchells’ customers, he says with certainty, are most affected by the vagaries of Wall Street, and less so by declining housing values, the subprime mortgage crisis, or rising gas and food prices. At least 25 percent of the women’s customers are executives on Wall Street and work in the financial industry, he says.


He also says the company is well positioned with inventory this season, and didn’t overbuy as did many other retailers.


Overall, the company has never been stronger financially, and has always been able to self-fi nance growth, according to Bob. While he did say the women’s business last spring was fl at, there’s optimism. “We have been amazed at how resilient the customer has been,” he says.


“The early read on fall has been excellent,” adds Linda. “Every trunk show has been ahead.”

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