Design Forum: Preaching Ways to Stretch, Shrink or Break Out

"As a society, we have become brand polygamists instead of brand monogamists," said Lee Carpenter, chairman and chief executive officer of Design Forum, a...

“As a society, we have become brand polygamists instead of brand monogamists,” said Lee Carpenter, chairman and chief executive officer of Design Forum, a Dayton, Ohio-based retail consulting firm. “So you have to create an inspiring environment to keep people where they are.”

This story first appeared in the September 27, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Carpenter works as a figurative dating coach for firms ranging from J.C. Penney & Co. Inc. to Barclays Bank on “creating brand experiences in the retail forum” to stoke interest and prevent today’s philandering consumer from straying.

Design Forum insists its clients do one of three things: stretch, shrink or break out.

To stretch, the consultancy challenges companies to break out of their expected mold. As an example, Carpenter points out client J.C. Penney, which he said has pushed itself “from mass and transactional to individual and emotional.” With Penney’s Sephora and American Living deals, the moderate retailer is establishing a new level of connection with its customer, he said.

Likewise, he pointed to Steve & Barry’s, which has stretched itself with its exclusive collections Bitten by Sarah Jessica Parker, EleVen by Venus Williams and a line by Amanda Bynes. The deals have enabled Steve & Barry’s to take itself from a college merchandise store to a fashion retailer.

As stores stretch with product, their retail experience must adapt, as well, Carpenter said. “As a result, all their stores will have to change. You can’t have those kinds of brands in plain old stores.”

Some companies need to pull back, though, as the market changes around them. As an example of shrinking, Carpenter pointed to Limited Brands Inc.’s decision to sell off its namesake Limited chain to focus on Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, more profitable arms with greater growth potential.

He also highlighted Best Buy, which has shrunk its stores from 58,000-square-foot boxes to more manageable 40,000-square-foot spaces, and said Design Forum is working with Home Depot to make a similar shift. These smaller stores can be less overwhelming and can nestle into neighborhood spaces that bigger boxes could perhaps not fit in. On the other hand, Carpenter noted that Toys ‘R’ Us has been shrinking in a less planned and less profitable way, and he predicted the toy retailer could be out of business in two years.

In the breakout category, Carpenter pointed to Procter & Gamble’s extension of the Mr. Clean brand from household cleaning products to a national car wash chain. The new chains, popping up around the country, use a brand icon associated with cleaning and apply it to a new environment. Then there is the Smart Car, an auto from Mercedes-Benz and Swatch Group that has had mixed success in Europe but is being launched in the U.S. in January by race car driver Roger Penske as a fashion-driven item with an exterior that can be customized at will.