NEW YORK — Neiman Marcus Group is on the cusp of a bold expansion move.

In an effort to capture more business from existing young shoppers as well as those who might have eluded its full-line stores, the retailer is launching a new concept — called Cusp — that is a smaller store format with a youthful vibe, but the same polished service for which the company is known.

Four pilot Cusp stores are slated to open over the next nine months, starting with a 9,500-square-foot unit at Tyson’s Corner in McLean, Va., bowing later this month, followed by an 8,000-square-foot unit in Century City in Los Angeles, opening early next month. An 11,000-square-foot store in Georgetown is scheduled for a February debut. The location of the fourth store has not been determined, said Ginger Reeder, vice president of corporate communications.

“Cusp is targeted to a younger, very savvy shopper,” Reeder said, adding, “younger in chronological age and mind-set. The thing the customer will have in common across markets is that she has her own ideas of how to put things together. She really likes fashion, but likes to be known for her own distinctive look.”

Everything about Cusp will be different than a typical Neiman Marcus store, starting with the highly edited merchandise mix, which will be overwhelmingly contemporary. Resources new to Neiman’s that will be featured include Phillip Lim 3.0, Jet and J Brand jeans and Morphine Generation. There also will be Repetto and Salvador Sapena footwear and handbags by Chloé, Marc Jacobs and Kooba, among others. Whereas there’s a wide variety of Chloé styles in a full-line store, Cusp will choose the “It” bag, Reeder said.

In addition to fashion, footwear and handbags, Cusp will feature jewelry and beauty products as well as a selection of CDs and books.

Cusp’s decor will eschew the luxury trappings traditionally associated with the Dallas-based retailer, such as marble floors, plush carpets and sleek fixtures. Rather, the spaces will look intentionally raw with exposed duct work on ceilings and polished concrete floors. The stores will be decorated with a mixture of flea-market finds and natural elements; this is a big switch for Neiman Marcus, which commissions fine art for its full-price stores.

This story first appeared in the July 6, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Fixtures will be unique to each store. One wall in the Tyson’s Corner unit will have pagaya wood mounted to a wall behind a display of handbags and shoes. Behind the cash wrap there will be a wall of petrified wood. Other details include custom-cast metal branches for door pulls and ottomans covered in vintage automotive upholstery from the Seventies. Each fitting room will have its own theme.

“We really see these stores as laboratories,” Reeder said.

But if the stores are seen as laboratories, they’re also being viewed as a potentially big business.

“We have a lot of faith in this concept,” Reeder said. “We’re going into three different settings: a specialty mall, an outdoor fashion mall and an outdoor streetscape. There’s potential for more markets than the full-line stores.”

Neiman’s has 37 full-price stores and has pretty much tapped traditional affluent communities in the U.S. But the luxury retailer isn’t looking for wealth in such predictable places as major metropolitan hubs and historically monied enclaves. Burton Tansky, president and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Group, said in April, “We’re evaluating smaller markets and seeking out sites where the well-off are clustered. We’re opening stores where we never would have 10 years ago.”

At Cusp, merchandising will have a focus on key items or apparel will be grouped by trends. Although most stores, including Neiman’s, group shoes by vendor, Cusp will organize shoes by style or color.

Neiman’s hopes shoppers recognize Cusp’s pedigree, but it won’t go out of its way to shout about the relationship. “There won’t be any signage calling attention to Neiman Marcus at Cusp,” Reeder said. “You can use your Neiman’s card there, so somebody could put it together just like they could put together that we own Bergdorf Goodman and Horchow.”

But if everything works according to plan, consumers will make a connection between Neiman’s and Cusp based on the level of service. “The service model will be as if you’re working with a personal stylist,” Reeder said. “This is going to be an organic process. It’s not formulaic. Complete wardrobing will be available. It’s like going to your most fashionable friend’s house and having the pick of her closet as she chooses what looks best on you.”

The concept for Cusp has been in the works for two years, Reeder said, adding: “That’s when we started seeing real growth in the contemporary area. Young contemporary continues to grow in the [full-line] stores. We see this as an opportunity to address this customer in a slightly different way. “

But Neiman’s is entering a market segment other retailers also are tapping. Barneys New York has embarked on an aggressive expansion program of both its full-line stores and its Co-op format under new owner Jones Apparel. Analysts have continued to ask Tansky whether Neiman’s is seeing any impact of Barneys’ expansion into such cities as Boston, but Tansky has said there has been none as of yet. Meanwhile, such specialty stores as Scoop are expanding into additional markets.

Neiman’s itself is under greater pressure to grow after the $5.1 billion purchase of the retailer by a private equity group that includes Texas Pacific and Warburg Pincus.

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