BOB’S AIMS TO GET EDGIER
Byline: Valerie Seckler
NEW YORK — Bob’s Stores is making a play for a younger customer by offering trendier casual wear in a new prototype inspired by the Army-Navy stores of the Fifties and Sixties.
“We are focusing more on the eight-to-22-year-old, while trying to maintain powerful brand presentations,” said Marc Balmuth, chairman, president and chief executive officer, during a recent tour of the 48,000-square-foot Bob’s prototype in Norwalk, Conn. “The younger business has been driving women’s.”
Entering the redone store is like stepping back in time: Bright lights hang from vintage, industrial, metal fixtures; linoleum floors are clean and polished to a gloss; a jumbo, retro-inspired Bob’s logo is suspended over the accessories department near the store’s entrance, where traditional checkout aisles have been maintained; a soothing brown-to-beige palette predominates.
“We spent selectively on aspects of the visual presentation — the walls, the fixtures, the main entry, which we moved to a center door from a side door,” Balmuth added. “We didn’t replace the checkouts or the lighting; we liked the atmosphere they created.”
The prototype reflects Balmuth’s efforts to differentiate Bob’s from other retailers and break away from Bob’s days as a regional discounter.
Sales at the prototype, launched June 1, are growing, said Balmuth, “at a rate better than the mid-teens we’re seeing at undone stores in the area.”
Seven Bob’s sites in the Boston market are scheduled to be converted into the new format in 1999, but no others this year. Management wants to evaluate the prototype’s effectiveness in Norwalk, and in Billerica, Mass., where a second unit was remade this spring.
“We are trying to create a destination where fashion-forward kids will feel comfortable shopping for trendier apparel,” Balmuth said of Bob’s, which had long emphasized activewear and licensed team apparel, and slumped in the mid-Nineties before Balmuth, who was the former chief executive officer of Caldor Corp., arrived in March 1997.
Of Bob’s $400 million volume, women’s apparel accounts for about $60 million, and footwear for approximately $80 million, Balmuth estimated.
Women’s sales, according to the chief executive, are outpacing gains that are “soundly in the double digits” for the rest of the 29-unit chain.
“I don’t expect us to be on the cutting edge,” Balmuth conceded. “The market changes so fast, there would be limits on how much volume we could move, in narrow, deep categories.
“But we are going for the image of a lifestyle retailer; not just a store with a lot of sport brands,” he emphasized.
Primary elements of the Bob’s prototype include:
Adding display walls to divide a wide-open selling floor into more defined areas that have greater visual and merchandising impact.
Replacing what Balmuth called “a sea of racks” with fixtures such as nested tables direct the focus to key items.
Using design elements with an edgier feel, from the Bob’s logo with a Fifties flavor to matte chrome fixtures that replaced shiny chrome, to video monitors tuned to MTV that hang from pipes from the ceiling.
Appealing to juniors and young men by airing more radio spots, and by responding to their comments at Bob’s Web site, bobsstores.com, which was launched in March to communicate with shoppers.
Boosting the impact of apparel brands such as Timberland by extending them into accessories, like watches and sunglasses.
“At this point, there is more of a brand structure in the merchandising of young men’s than in juniors,” Balmuth acknowledged, noting that Bob’s plans to implement more changes in juniors this winter.
“In juniors, we’ve tried, first, to zero in on trends,” Balmuth explained, listing the hot spring items: twill bottoms; fashion denim, such as flairs, bells and boot cuts; tank tops, and striped v-neck tops.
In addition, Bob’s has eliminated categories that are dominated by its department store competitors, including dresses, infants’ and toddlers’ apparel.
The extra space was used, in part, to expand young men’s real estate fourfold on the 38,000-square-foot selling floor, and increase children’s apparel by 25 percent.
This winter, Bob’s is planning to extend the junior area by around 20 percent, to roughly 2,500 square feet from 2,100 square feet. Junior apparel generates sales of about $30 million annually, Balmuth said.
“We’ve gone deeper in fewer categories and key brands,” the ceo said of the prototype’s assortments, citing LEI, Mudd Jeans, Mossimo, No Fear, Ocean Pacific, and Dockers as examples.
“It is our strong brand presentations that differentiate us from Old Navy.”
Although Bob’s is a regional franchise, compared with Old Navy’s national status, Balmuth acknowledged some similarities, from a vintage atmosphere, to a checkout format and mass to moderate pricing.
At its peak, Bob’s operated 36 stores. Balmuth closed seven of them last year as part of his effort to turn around the former subsidiary of CVS Corp. that was sold to Bob’s management and Citicorp Venture Capital in November. The original Bob’s store was opened in 1954, in Middletown, Conn.
“Along the coast in the Northeast, it’s tough to find space to build from scratch, but we’d prefer to do so,” offered Balmuth, when asked of the chain’s growth strategy. “We have no current plans for acquisition deals, but we plan to remodel any individual stores we buy, like the prototype.”
Meanwhile, Bob’s is looking to open a few stores in the fourth quarter, but leases have not been signed.
Existing units, Balmuth said, are producing sales of $350 per selling square foot. “It would be nice if we could boost that figure to $400,” he added.