NEW YORK — It’s rare that a retailer can list George Washington as one of its former clients. But for Caswell-Massey that’s one of the perks — and quirks — of turning 250 years old.

On Feb. 16, the niche retailer of fragrance, personal care and men’s grooming products will begin to celebrate its 250th year in business. Anne Robinson, chief executive officer and majority owner of the 15-unit national chain, is looking to milk the milestone for everything its worth.

“We’re going to use this 250-year anniversary to generate the recognition that Caswell-Massey has earned,” Robinson said.

According to Caswell-Massey records, the chain has stood the test of time. Founded in 1752 by Scottish immigrant Dr. William Hunter, in Newport, R.I., Caswell-Massey is America’s oldest beauty retailer and the fourth-oldest company in the country, behind a conveyor belt firm and two insurance operators. The chain acquired its current moniker in 1876 when then-owner, John Caswell, formed a business partnership with entrepreneur William Massey. Caswell-Massey has since survived revolutions, economic depressions, world wars and what some may consider an even more difficult feat for a personal care retailer: the advent of specialty bath stores.

Robinson attributes much of Caswell-Massey’s success — industry sources estimate the chain generates $30 million in annual sales — to its product portfolio, including its cadre of classic fragrances, rich not only in floral notes, but history. Take Number Six Cologne, for example, which Caswell-Massey lore says served as a thank-you gift from Washington to France’s Marquis de Lafayette for assisting with the win of the revolution in 1780. The formula of bergamot, orange blossom, rosemary and 27 other aromatics remains the company’s number-one selling men’s fragrance.

But industry peers credit Robinson for bringing the chain’s retail and wholesale business up to date.

“She brought a vivacious point of view to that [chain], which was extremely conservative,” said Annette Greene, president of the Fragrance Foundation, a New York-based, nonprofit educational arm of the fragrance industry. “She brought it into the 21st century with in-store displays,” Green continued.

Believing that classic products would only collect dust if left under lock-and-key display cases, Robinson spearheaded the chain’s turnaround effort just one year after joining it, in 1995, as head of marketing and sales. In three years, Robinson closed 15 underperforming stores, fired 25 percent of the chain’s 113-person staff, discontinued unprofitable lines and refocused the chain’s sluggish wholesale and catalog businesses. “We needed to put our resources where they got a return,” Robinson noted.

In September 1999, she bought the company from her boss, businesswoman Sally Aw Sian, for an undisclosed sum, and now owns the company along with nine other investors, all of whom are Robinson’s friends and business contacts.

Over the past several years, Robinson has instituted some notable changes that likely have kept Caswell-Massey competitive with other personal care chains such as Bath & Body Works and Crabtree & Evelyn.

Aubin Wilson, group manager for Extracts, an aromatherapy and personal care trade show, recognizes how Robinson is capitalizing on the chain’s classic brands. “Caswell-Massey is steeped in history and she is capitalizing on that aspect.” Wilson points to Casma, a spicy fragrance that blends rose, jasmine, magnolia, vanilla, musk, ginger and bergamot, which originally launched in 1926. Last April, Casma was brought back as Casma Stepping Out, repackaged in an ornate rhinestone, gold and enamel shoe. Casma subsequently was recognized as the best new product at Extracts, where it competed against more than 100 exhibitor entries.

Location has been important, too. Keeping Caswell-Massey stores exclusive to upscale communities, such as San Francisco’s tony Union Square and New Jersey’s posh Short Hills mall, helps insure that the chain is reaching its target customer: men and women between the ages of 24 to 49 with high disposable incomes.

The addition of interactive display cases, new sampling systems and trial-size packs has helped boost sales throughout the chain. At Caswell-Massey’s midtown Manhattan location — the chain’s largest sales generator — these merchandising changes helped the store achieve 30 percent sales gains just one month after it was remodeled.

While the 76-year-old midtown store serves as an ambitious template for the other 14 in the chain, it is still a fair representation of Caswell-Massey’s overall style: old-world luxury. English walnut cabinetry and antique chandeliers fill the store; a 12-foot-long perfume bar houses 15 fragrance testers for hands-on shopping, and open-sell vitrines replace locked glass display cases to encourage customers to touch and smell products. A designated shopping area for men’s grooming and shaving products — a category that comprises one-third of the chain’s retail business — is carved out with its own multilevel, open-sell fixtures.

Caswell-Massey also has a substantial catalog business; there are four annual editions with six annual mailings at a circulation rate of approximately 2.5 million.

Robinson admits that the company’s catalog business “is not growing,” but that it serves as the main driver of customer traffic.

“All of our research shows that the catalog is our strongest lead-in to the brand. Many of our customers come to us after they get a catalog,” she said.

Robinson currently has the retail chain on a steady — yet conservative — growth track. While she would not comment on the chain’s annual sales, industry sources estimate that the average Caswell-Massey store generates between $400,000 and $600,000 in sales per year. The chain’s Manhattan store, sources noted, probably performs far better: The 1,500-square-foot store could generate approximately $1,000 per square foot each year. For 2001, Caswell-Massey’s sales were flat, a performance Robinson accepts, “given the events of Sept. 11 and the very soft retail economy.” Despite setbacks, the chain opened two stores during the year, in Tampa, Fla., and Plano, Tex.

Robinson does not “anticipate exponential growth” in 2002, but realizes there’s room to make the Caswell-Massey brand distinctively different from competitors. By focusing on the Web and catalog businesses, which comprise one-third of overall company sales, Robinson intends to build brand awareness. To help in this charge, Robinson’s sister, Sally, joined the company Sept. 10 as direct sales marketing manager.

Despite conservative performance expectations for 2002, Robinson plans to add at least two new stores to the mix during the year, in line with the chain’s overall expansion plan of adding two units per year for the next five years.

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