Byline: Don Kaplan

NEW YORK — Striving to stand out among the regional discount chains, Bradlees Inc. says it will take more fashion risks, freshen assortments monthly, buy from fewer vendors and focus on quality, not low price.
The Braintree, Mass., discounter also is not seeking a merger with any other regional chain and will not emerge from bankruptcy protection until it attains “a healthy and viable balance sheet,” said Mark Cohen, chairman and chief executive officer, in an interview.
Bradlees filed Chapter 11 last June. As reported, the discounter will close 12 of its 134 stores by May as part of its reorganization.
“Bradlees is a company that is in trouble and has to prove something,” Cohen said. “So we’re telling our [buyers], ‘When in doubt, move up a tier in quality and buy a better product.”‘
Cohen, who joined Bradlees in December 1994 from the Lazarus division of Federated Department Stores, has brought a number of department store ideas to the discount chain. He wants stores to vary promotions from week to week, feature “at least two cycles of fashion” each season and move away from the commodities business dominated by Wal-Mart.
Unlike traditional mass merchants, which front-load inventory at the beginning of the season and sell it for the next several months, Bradlees should look different every month, Cohen said.
“We want to be able to shift from long denim to shorts and kick off swim with a lot of energy. There has got to be a lot of excitement to the way the goods come in.”
Asked about the importance of fashion to Bradlees, Cohen said the chain has to be “right on the forefront of salable fashion.” Assortments will be casual, active, unconstructed, easy to present and edited so that they’re not confusing. Cohen said this dovetails with Bradlees’ plan to buy from fewer resources and put fewer sku’s on the floor.
“We’ve got to be interested in taking a risk on fashion as opposed to taking a risk on price,” he added. “I would rather mark down fashion that is at a reasonably high quality than mark down goods that we bought on the cheap that didn’t sell.”
As for the reports of a merger between Bradlees and Caldor, Cohen said, “At the moment, there is nothing, no truth, no activity whatsoever involving us, Caldor or anybody else.” Such a merger would not make sense, he added.
“I can’t find, in retail or anywhere else for that matter, any evidence of two failing companies combining and becoming successful. So my gut reaction to these kinds of overtures is: ‘How can two companies that are leaky lifeboats, that are both bailing water to save their lives, combine to become a cruise ship?”‘

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