Byline: David Moin

NEW YORK — As retailers and economists try to read into the future of apparel, they are also pondering the future of malls.
According to Barbara Ashley, senior vice president of retail services for The Taubman Co., emerging specialty store concepts are sparking excitement in malls and “for every lost apparel sale, there are four new sales in home.” Carl Steidtmann, director and chief economist for Management Horizons, the retail consulting division of Price Waterhouse, disagrees. He says regional malls are “going into decline.”
Their opposing views were given at a recent Fashion Group International luncheon here themed “Countdown to 2000.”
Steidtmann said that as malls decline, downtown retailing picks up the slack because high-income households are returning to the inner city. He also predicted specialty chains would be smaller, hardly a sign of health.
Ashley acknowledged that stores selling apparel are having difficulties.
“Customers are no longer identifying themselves by the clothing on their backs,” she said. “Shopping centers will no longer be the apparel meccas that they are.”
But she added, “Fashion is not just about apparel.”
Consolidations will open opportunities for new specialty stores, she said, citing the chains she believes are offering creative new formats:
* Rain Forest Cafe, which simulates the sound of thunderclaps and the flash of lightning every 15 minutes.
* Just for Feet, where shoppers can play basketball.
* MAC cosmetics and its $1,000 in sales per square foot.
* Bare Bones, where all the products relate to skeletons.
* Authentic Fitness, which sells activewear.
* Talbots Kids and Talbots Intimates, for sticking to a focused approach in traditional apparel.
* Magic Masters, where magicians perform.
* Irresistables, where shoppers may create their own tables.
* Fila, which offers “a beautiful statement about apparel.”
She also cited Comp USA, Home Expo and GNC as strong specialty players.
Steidtmann predicted retailing would become an information-driven business, using consumer data as a weapon.
He cited Saks Fifth Avenue for defining its core customers and marketing to them. Saks, which is expected to go public this spring, reported healthy sales last Christmas, partly due to private nights for its best customers, when it offered rebates based on purchases.
Among his other predictions, Steidtmann said retailers would be “stepping back from globalization,” and many chains, such as Wal-Mart, would find only modest success in foreign markets.
Electronic retailing, he said, would not account for anywhere near the 20 to 35 percent of retail sales predicted by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It would be more like 5 to 6 percent over the long term, about the same as direct marketing. That’s where he seemed to find some common ground with Ashley, who said, “I believe shopping fills an emotional, social and experiential factor in people’s lives.”

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