Lord & Taylor's store in Manhasset, N.Y.

By closing its historic Fifth Avenue flagship in Manhattan, Lord & Taylor isn’t sending out the most positive signal to vendors or consumers.

Nevertheless, executives at Lord & Taylor and its owner, the Hudson’s Bay Co., want to change the narrative regarding the future of the venerable department store chain by staging the first Lord & Taylor “brand summit” for vendors. It will be at HBC’s headquarters at Brookfield Place in Lower Manhattan on Jan. 25.

“The idea is to let them know that they are important to us,” Vanessa LeFebvre, the president of Lord & Taylor, told WWD. Among the topics to be discussed: the retailer’s assortment, marketing, e-commerce, stores and the future for the brand.

Vanessa LeFebvre

Vanessa LeFebvre  Courtesy Photo

Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue windows, renowned for their hydraulics and sentimental Christmas scenes over the decades, are sadly now covered up with signs apologetically saying the location is closing for good while also indicating the chain isn’t going out of business and encouraging shoppers to visit remaining locations. The flagship will remain open through the holiday season. No specific closing date has been announced.

There’s a better feeling at Lord & Taylor’s Manhasset branch on Long Island, where LeFebvre was interviewed. The store completed an extensive renovation this year, adding 39,000 square feet, bringing the store up to 122,000 square feet. The main entry to the store was reenvisioned with a 45-foot-high glass cube atrium; there are enhanced fitting rooms; space for personal shopping meetings, and a contemporary ambience overall, with washed wood, metals and glass defining departments more clearly.

The Manhasset store is among the company’s top volume doors, along with Scarsdale and Garden City, N.Y., Westfield, N.J., South Shore Plaza in suburban Boston; Chevy Chase, Md., and Stamford, Conn.

During the interview, LeFebvre outlined how the team is changing the business. She stressed that Lord & Taylor is not a wind-down situation despite the flagship closing next month and a few other store closings next year.

She said the team is getting “customer-centric and adopting a digital-first mindset.” Additionally, she cited changes being implemented on the selling floors and online geared to make shopping easier and generate greater sales.

Among other efforts cited by LeFebvre:
• Narrowing the store assortment while building the online assortment.
• Curating stores for an elevated local appeal.
• Testing some cross-merchandising.
• Bolstering the beauty floor with additional space, spas and a mix of open and assisted-selling formats.

 

As a regional chain that will have 45 stores after the closings, Lord & Taylor has less buying clout than Macy’s or Nordstrom. But LeFebvre said being a smaller department store business can be “a strategic advantage.” With fewer stores, more time and effort can be spent to “curate the right brand assortment, by store,” she said.

LeFebvre spoke of “empowering store managers to make the right decisions instead of decisions coming from the top. Store managers will have much more influence.” That’s a departure from the matrix-driven approach Lord & Taylor was encumbered by for decades when it was part of the former May Co. stable of department store chains.

Last spring, Lord & Taylor began testing makeup pros that instruct customers on how to wear cosmetics. Beauty guides for skin care were launched as well and both programs are rolling out. “Skin care is a stronghold of our business. We want to build on it,” LeFebvre said.

On the apparel side, Lord & Taylor is launching kid’s play clothes soon and has been testing in three doors some cross-merchandising of dresses with other categories, like displaying vintage-style dresses from Adrianna Papell with Miriam Haskell jewelry, or showing dresses with Spanx and Calvin Klein handbags.

“We have been over-assorted in shoes and ready-to-wear,” LeFebvre acknowledged, in part because buyers can be overzealous in ordering. “You don’t fall in love with inventory. You fall in love with the right inventory,” she said.

For the digital push, the Lord & Taylor “flagship” store on Walmart.com went live at the end of last spring with a “very low-key” launch,” LeFebvre said. “We are just now starting to ramp up that relationship.” It has yet to significantly impact the business.

Lord & Taylor is piloting “smart stylists,” LeFebvre said. “They’re digital-based stylists that you can communicate with by email, text or phone. They can personalize the web site for you or put together a curated selection.”

Asked if Lord & Taylor was behind the industry in online sales penetration, LeFebvre replied, “It’s a strong penetration, a growing penetration, at a rate I am proud of. I’m not about to speak to a number.”

Lord & Taylor is also testing personal stylists in stores working with customers on the floor and utilizing digital technology to drive traffic. The pilot program launched in the fall and operates at the Manhasset and Rochester, N.Y., and Bala Cynwyd, Pa., stores.

In the spring, Lord & Taylor will launch a new type of campaign. “It’s really about changing the tone of the store, educating the customer and being a solution-oriented store,” LeFebvre said, without giving further explanation.

She joined Lord & Taylor last May from Stitch Fix, where she was focused on data science and personalization and was vice president over women’s. The experience there seems relevant to her agenda at Lord & Taylor.

She has a background in the off-price sector, having worked at Macy’s, where she was instrumental in launching the Backstage off-price concept, and at T.J. Maxx. She started her career at Lord & Taylor in 1999 in the executive training program and eventually rose to divisional merchandise manager.

Since joining Lord & Taylor, LeFebvre has had four “sit-downs” with customers comprising “a listening tour” at the stores in Westfield, Manhasset, Rochester and Chevy Chase. A fifth sit-down is scheduled for the South Shore Plaza store in suburban Boston next week. There have been 15 to 20 people participating at each sit-down. Wine and cheese were served, and even the mayor of Westfield came to one sit-down.

“Management in retail has been disconnected. We want to hear it straight from the consumer. There have been a lot of rich takeaways,” said LeFebvre. Among them, that customers were fearful that the Lord & Taylor in their community would close. Lord & Taylor earlier this year did say that up to 10 stores would close but LeFebvre said the company has decided, at least for now, to limit the closings to five, including the flagship. The Old Orchard, Ill. and Annapolis, Md., stores closed last spring, and the Oak Brook, Ill., and Eatontown, N.J., stores are in the process of closing.

“The significance of closing stores is not lost on me,” LeFebvre said. “I don’t want to make light of it.

“The thought that keeps me focused is that Lord & Taylor is 193 years old and the flagship is only halfway through that. The flagship doesn’t define us.” The closing, she said, “allows us to focus on our core customer — a suburban mother who works and really puts a premium on quality and enjoys a shopping experience that is personalized.”

Customers said “you can’t take my store away from me” and encouraged LeFebvre to reduce the “friction” that makes shopping a hassle.

Lord & Taylor has been participating in an HBC-wide program called NPS where customers at checkout counters are randomly selected to fill out a survey with six questions inquiring about interactions with store associates, if they found what they wanted and online experiences, among other topics.

“We don’t want to be a department store. We want to be ‘your’ store,” LeFebvre said. “It’s about being there for the customer, being omnipresent, being more personal, and to determine what causes, charities and types of events are important to customers.

“We’ve been doing many things wrong, including taking away several better brands,” some of which could be reinstated, she said.

“We are on a journey to reinvent ourselves,” LeFebvre said. “I like to think of ourselves as not only America’s oldest department store but really how can we be the oldest start-up. It’s almost like, if Lord & Taylor were to create a store, how would it do it?

“Our brand is 193 years old and I like to call her a strong, fierce, tenacious brand, much like many of the women in my life.

“I can’t predict the future but we are very much committed towards a sustainable business and a more meaningful connection to customers,” LeFebvre said. “Thirty-five to 55-year-old women are really our core customer and we are really happy with that. We have a lot of really good things in place and a really loyal customer base.”

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