WASHINGTON — Now that The Gap has embarked on an invasion of Europe, a British company called Next PLC has begun to return the favor.
Its American arm, Next USA, opened its second American store, a 5,073-square-foot unit at Tysons Corner Center in McLean, Va., on April 7. Its methodical expansion plans call for two Massachusetts units and expansion of its first store, in Boston, this year.
The Gap has 45 stores in the U.K. and plans 18 more. It also has a three-week-old unit in Paris.
Next PLC, a powerhouse retailer that is based in Enderby, England, sells its own brand of men’s, women’s and children’s apparel, footwear and accessories, and is a major presence in the British Isles. Its 300 stores in the U.K. and Ireland posted net income last year of $96.3 million on sales of $816 million. The company also has four franchised stores: two in Bangkok, and one each in Bahrain and Malta.
Next USA’s pioneer unit — a two-story, 5,800-square-foot unit, which opened on Boston’s Newbury Street in September — is experiencing strong sales and will expand to a third floor this August, according to Wasseem Kabbara, chief executive officer of Next USA.
The company plans to open a 7,300-square-foot space in the North Shore Mall in Peabody, Mass., in June. A fourth store, at 6,143 square feet, is slated for Natick, Mass., in October.
Kabbara expects annual sales per square foot of at least $400 to $450. He added that sales for the month of May would reach $100,000 for the two stores. He declined to offer a projection for the year, but based on the May volume, annual sales could surpass $1 million.
In Boston, sales are 42 percent women’s apparel, 34 percent men’s, 14 percent children’s and 10 percent shoes and accessories. The other units should follow the same trends, said Kabbara, in a telephone interview from his Boston office.
Women’s wear accounts for a slightly lower percentage of sales in the Boston store than in most U.K. units, with children’s wear picking up the difference.
Apparel ranges from classic wool or cotton blazers and pants, to casual cotton shirts and jeans, to more fashionable suits and dresses, along with jewelry, footwear, ties and other accessories.
Children’s apparel is selling so well that the planned 1,000-square-foot expansion level in Boston will be devoted solely to children, from infants to age 12.
The renovation will allow Next to devote the main floor to women’s wear, and add lingerie, nightwear and petites. Men’s wear will fill the second level.
In the first few weeks that the Tysons store has been open, hot items included women’s unstructured polyester coordinates, with a $78 jacket and $58 palazzo pants, selling about eight sets a week.
Other hot items in women’s apparel include natural-colored vests in linen and rayon, with embroidered edges, at $48, and single-breasted, three-button lightweight wool blazers, at $158.
Children’s wear also is selling well, with customers plunking down $102 for a coordinated ensemble of shorts, shirt, cotton jacket, cap and socks, Kabbara said. Eight sets sold the first week, and they have continued to perform well.
Located two doors from a Nordstrom anchor and across from an A/X Armani Exchange, the wood-paneled Tysons store has two entrances. One opens into a spacious women’s area and the other into men’s, with a smaller children’s space off women’s. Kabbara said Next displays 20 percent less merchandise per square foot than the average American specialty store, in order to create a comfortable, roomy atmosphere.
Dressing rooms are also spacious and well-lit, with adjustable mirrors, oak benches and oak poles to hang clothes on.
Housekeeping is very good, and salespeople are friendly and helpful.
The Newbury Street store has an in-house tailor who will alter men’s, women’s and children’s clothing without charge. Customers can get an item hemmed and pick it up the next day.
Alterations are done off-site at Tysons and will also be off-site at the other two stores, with goods ready in two days. This is also a free service.
Most of the merchandise hangs face-forward, divided by color group, with easy-to-read sizes and prices. This is done to make shopping quicker and easier for shoppers, especially those toting children, Kabbara said.
The U.S. is a natural market for the retailer because its designs are more like American fashions than some of those from Continental Europe, said Helene Inchmore, women’s wear design director.
“These are simpler, less ‘designed’ than some French and Italian styles,” she said.
The four stores are part of Next USA’s two-year research and development phase, Kabbara said, during which it will try to pinpoint its customers and refine its merchandise mix for the American market.
The company is looking for retail space in other East Coast cities, including New York, as well as in Chicago, he added.
The U.S. stores are modeled after those elsewhere in the world — right down to the prices displayed on merchandise in store windows.
“We feel it’s a fantastic value for the money, and therefore the price is something we can [display] quite easily,” Inchmore said.
Next USA’s prices are comparable to those in the U.K., she said. Women’s jeans retail for $34, a chambray shirt is $32, a short-sleeve rayon dress sells for $82, a wool jacket is $184, a polyester floral print, calf-length skirt is $58, and wool dress pants cost $84.
For kids, a striped cotton pinafore and T-shirt set is $20, a matching striped cardigan is $16, dresses are $34, girls’ jeans are $24, and T-shirts are $16.
The company is approaching the U.S. market slowly — a switch from its aggressive expansion in Britain in the Eighties.
Founded in 1982, Next PLC burgeoned to 750 stores by 1986, each featuring a separate line: apparel for women, men or children, accessories, shoes or housewares.
The recession resulted in losses for 1990 and 1991, and Next changed its strategy. In 1991, it began merchandising women’s, men’s and children’s categories together, and by the end of the year, it had closed more than half its stores. Housewares are still sold in separate units.
For the past two years, earnings have been strong, Kabbara said.
During its period in the red, Next PLC sold all of its manufacturing plants and most of its many diverse subsidiaries. Now all of its production is done through contractors, with 50 percent of its apparel made in the U.K., 25 percent in Continental Europe and 25 percent in the Far East, Kabbara said.
Next USA is privately owned by Next PLC and a group of investors — mainly American — through First International Corp., Boston, said Kabbara. He was formerly an investment banker with First International, and his father was a men’s wear designer and retailer in Lebanon.
Next USA could eventually expand its U.S. operations to include TV shopping, catalog marketing or home furnishings stores, but that will not happen for at least two years, Kabbara said. Catalog sales have been very successful in the U.K., he added.
“For now, we will concentrate on the retail side to make sure our entry into the U.S. is successful.”