PICKS OF THE PROS

NEW YORK — Across the retail landscape, there’s only a handful of apparel stores that impress the retail experts.
Few show real creativity or drama or inspire impulse shopping, according to an informal WWD survey of Wall Street analysts, consultants, vendors and retailers themselves.
Asked which stores score high in terms of merchandise presentation, seizing a niche and providing service, such names as Williams-Sonoma, Home Depot, Barnes & Noble, The Museum Shop, and Bed, Bath and Beyond were often cited. As one source said about Bed, Bath and Beyond, “It takes basics to another level. The taste level is good and there’s variety layered onto the basics. You can’t walk out without buying an umbrella, a pencil or something.”
On Barnes & Noble: “For retailing, it’s really fun. You can read, browse, hang out at the cafe. It’s a good, cheap date, or a place to find one.”
Others also cited Talbots and Wet Seal for being highly focused on the misses’ and junior markets, respectively. A few cited Warner’s for generating traffic and creating high-energy settings, and Niketown for doing the same, though one executive felt the new 57th Street was more about visuals and interactive technology and architecture and not enough about merchandise, with the exception of athletic footwear.
Overall, the experts seem far more fascinated by chains specializing in home goods, gifts and personal care products.
However, experts never lack in opinions. So here’s their list of retailers, both large and small, specialty and department stores, that they say are on the go and that deserve credit for displaying innovation and determination in satisfying the customer.

Banana Republic: Among the most talked-about chains in retailing, Banana Republic was often cited for presenting great tailored sportswear for men and women seeking upscale European styling. The prices are moderate compared with designer stores, but still attractive to designer customers. A few sources said some Banana products are comparable with those at Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman, but some also said the prices seem to be getting higher and sometimes the chain suffers from fashion misfires, but the value is always there and more often than not, the goods sell.
Indeed, the positives far outweigh the negatives, and there’s a consistent point of view. There’s also fine service and a liberal return policy. Even the dressing rooms reflect BR’s clean style.
Another key point: Banana Republic is no cookie-cutter operation. Store architecture and square foot vary depending on location. It also recently began breaking out separate men’s and women’s stores in a few locations.
As one expert said, “You’ve got to love The Gap and Banana for changing the way America shops.”
Old Navy: This burgeoning division of Gap Inc., particularly its Sixth Avenue and 18th Street flagship in Manhattan, has caught the eye of both low-priced and high-priced retailers and designers. Everybody is checking it out, and it appears to attracting a cross section of shoppers, from yuppies to blue-collar types.
“It’s very exciting,” said one retail executive.
Products are priced well, presented in clever environments and are housed in smart spots where the customers are bound to check them out. Impulse shopping is key here, and Old Navy does a good job to promote it. There’s something new here.
Kohl’s: Some consider this Midwest chain to have one of the strongest and brightest executive teams in the country, but also one of the least noticed. The company’s finances and expansion to the East have been well managed, with efficient automated merchandise systems, low costs and a clarity of presentation and execution. Furthermore, the stores are easy to shop and have better-than-average visuals on the selling floor for a moderate chain. Experts says Kohl’s delivers a quality shopping experience, bolstered by a predominance of national labels, with about 80 percent of the merchandise being branded.
With Kohl’s expansion, there’s a big battle brewing with May Department Stores in the Mid-Atlantic area, which May dominates through its Hecht’s, Lord & Taylor and Strawbridge & Clothier divisions. May Co. also has more of a focus on better and bridge goods and will fight hard to maintain its leading position. Some say Kohl’s has done well by beating up on weaker competition. Its fight against May Co. will be the real test.
Bath & Body Works: The Intimate Brands division drew high marks for visual presentation and product quality. Other strengths cited — ease of shopping, ever-present and helpful sales associates, and follow-up promotional mailings and phone calls to the best customers. Products generally seem to be effective and deliver the kind of performance that keeps customers coming back to enjoy the shopping experience.
Bath & Body Works is expected to perform strongly this holiday, in part because of its wide gift assortment. Gifts don’t usually command comparison shopping as the purchaser tends to have a specific item in mind — a big plus with five fewer shopping days this year versus 1995.
The chain continues to grow at an incredible pace, under the power of Intimate Brands, which is controlled by Limited Inc.
Victoria’s Secret Stores: This specialty player does a superb job merchandising and developing both lingerie and everyday cotton separates, unparalleled in regional malls. Now they are also reaping big dividends from an expansion of the Victoria’s Secret Bath & Fragrance business. That arm of the Victoria’s Secret Stores division of Intimate Brands now operates more than 200 in-store shops in Victoria’s Secret Stores and another 400-plus side-by-side units with VSS doors. Those bath and fragrance departments and stores are generating double-digit monthly gains in comparable-store sales — still a rarity for most apparel and home retailers.
Some have questioned the quality of the product, but what really works in Victoria’s Secret’s favor is the fact that there’s little specialty competition in their niche. It’s really just coming from Frederick’s of Hollywood, which is not as strong and takes a more risque approach, and local Ma and Pa lingerie shops. Department stores also provide competition, but few are as high profile as Victoria’s Secret.
J.C. Penney: Penney’s has made significant improvements in its merchandise for the fall and holiday seasons, particularly in the women’s area. It increased the fashion content across the board and introduced the St. John’s private label for women, which includes sportswear, activewear, accessories and shoes.
Observers said Penney’s also significantly improved the fashion in its Jacqueline Ferrar line.
“Penney had been on a track where it had too much basics and not enough fashion,” said one retail expert. “They went back to the drawing board and enhanced fashion with good quality and price points.”
The strategy appears to be paying off. Comparative-store sales for the third quarter were up 6.2 percent.
Bloomingdale’s: A business accustomed to being in the limelight during the Seventies and part of the Eighties, but certainly not in the Nineties, the pros believe Bloomingdale’s is ready to reassert itself again. It’s moved into California with four stores, where opening days far exceeded plans. A fifth West Coast unit will open next March.
Bloomingdale’s was also cited for reversing its fortunes, making about twice as much money as five years ago by cutting costs, strengthening its customer relationships, building private labels and reshaping the selling floors so they are less cluttered and easier to shop. Overall, the chain has made quantum leaps forward, particularly in the suburbs.
Reviews about the 59th Street flagship are mixed, with some saying it’s still too difficult to shop, though attempts have been made to open up certain departments. There’s also criticism that the chain has dropped down a notch in prices and removed some designers, though in bridge, it’s as competitive as Neiman’s or Saks Fifth Avenue and can still jump on a Hollywood or Broadway trend faster than any other retailer.
The Disney Store: Cartoon vignettes that tie in with merchandising and an easy to shop layout make Disney a veritable magnet for children and those who shop for them. There are panoramic displays featuring classic Disney characters as well as those in its latest feature, currently the live-action film version of “101 Dalmations.” Apparel assortments are narrow and deep; items are well stocked in a range of sizes, available in just a few colors to minimize the number of sales opportunities missed due to out-of-stocks. The format is said to be one of the most productive among specialty chains in the U.S. — even in smaller markets.
Mitchells of Westport/ Richard’s: The two stores, both located in Connecticut, merged last year. Mitchells is well stocked with quality merchandise, having excellent service, and is seen as a “city store” in the suburbs because of its sophisticated assortments. There’s also a sophisticated database of customers, which includes basic information such as sizes and personal preferences, as well as buying history, birthdays/anniversaries. The computer data gives a “top-notch sales force” extra oomph, as one analyst pointed out. Mitchells is currently seeking to build its women’s area and this year began emphasizing women’s designer merchandise in its catalogs.
Another retailer said he considered Richard’s a throwback to a time when a men’s haberdashery really meant something, with its excellent taste level and knowledgeable sales help. One challenge is Saks Fifth Avenue in downtown Greenwich, Conn., though Saks doesn’t carry men’s wear at that location.
Rampage: The Los Angeles-based junior chain is hot. Its retro looks are very much on trend and executed in a more extreme way than consumers are likely to see elsewhere.
Rampage is not safe fashion. It is for a customer that wants to make a statement that she is very fashion current. While other junior chains have ventured into this territory, and seem to be riding the strong trend in the junior market, Rampage has done a good job of differentiating by taking great fashion risks.
Stores have lots of teenage sales clerks, and it’s reflected in the music piped into the stores.
The company has also launched a children’s store called Friends, for the seven-to-12-year-old crowd, that offers nontraditional contemporary styles.
Moschino: The store on Madison Avenue opened this year drew applause for simply being fun and whimsical with its designer clothing and interior decor. It’s got Pinocchio nose hanging rods in the children’s department, psychedelic colors, and peace symbols, hearts and sight gags as design elements. The store captures the personality and mood of the late Franco Moschino.

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