SECAUCUS, N.J. — Petrie Retail has kept its prices — and, to current management’s regret, its style standards — at the low rungs of the industry for a decade. But the $1.4 billion chain has a new merchandising formula for spring that offers “a lot of look for the money.”
So says Verna K. Gibson, who last month became chairman of Petrie Retail Inc., when an investor group led by Gibson and existing Petrie management purchased the 1,200-unit chain for $190 million.
A former Limited Stores president credited with building that chain into a fast-paced specialty powerhouse in the Eighties, Gibson wants to do the same with the sleepy Petrie business. It has lost market share due to Gibson’s past efforts, and such rapidly growing discount giants as Target and Wal-Mart. For the third quarter ended Oct. 29, Petrie reported a slight drop in revenues to $328,334,000 and a net loss of $393,571,000 including a special charge of $358,996,000 from closing stores.
The store’s new challenge is to update the fashion without raising prices.
It won’t be easy. Consumers are acutely value-conscious and many have shied away from Petrie’s stable of mall and strip center-based juniors-oriented stores under such names as G&G, Rave, Petrie, Jean Nicol and Marianne. In addition, the competition at other mass merchants and discounters is heating up. Wal-Mart is seeking to bring in additional women’s brands, and The Limited is remerchandising and reevaluating its pricing, having suffered from poor quality fashion and high initial markups.
At Petrie headquarters here, amid the gray surroundings of warehouses and industrial parks, Gibson held a rare Petrie spring preview. Up to now, few would have been interested.
The late Milton Petrie founded the chain 67 years ago and built a specialty empire. However, more recently he shifted his eye to Wall Street investments and charitable causes, and off Seventh Avenue. For years, as profits fell, he was approached to sell the chain, but didn’t agree to vote his controlling interest in favor of the transaction until last year, just before he died in November.
Gibson, nudged by WWD to reveal what the future holds for Petrie, displayed some lively outfits that showed promise. Among them: trendy schoolgirl looks with short skirts, knee-high socks and narrow belts; classic jackets and tailored pants with soft white shirts; and large-sized, easy-fitting drawstring striped pants with matching jacket.
It was an array of relaxed, versatile looks, and particularly appealing considering the outfits were in the $60 to $90 range. The target audience would be in their early 20s to mid-40s.
“They’re easy, soft looks with a high taste level that almost every American woman can look good in,” Gibson said, boasting, “We’re getting a lot better at doing interpretations and putting our own looks together,” rather than relying purely on market offerings.
“We want customers to feel that when they walk into a Petrie store, they will see the most current fashion presented in a modern way. The whole shopping experience should be a lot more fun.”
“There will be a big difference in our stores,” assured Allan Laufgraben, chief executive officer. “They’ll be more coordinated with different sections showing different looks. We’ve had racks and racks of merchandise. It was like going through just a lot of stuff. It lacked theater. It was not easy (for shoppers) to put together wardrobes.
“Now we’d like the stores to be entertaining.”
The two executives outlined a list of strategies to enliven the stores this year. The key ones are:
Revamping store layouts into activewear, careerwear, dresses, accessories and denim shops to focus the assortments and make shopping easier.
Emphasizing outfits over items to give women more ideas and stimulate multiple sales.
“Constantly” changing assortments, with three or four “major fashion statements” per season, or about twice as many as past seasons.
Introducing new private labels, including a career line, possibly by fall.
Blending more contemporary looks in regular sizes into the large-sized division.
Maintaining low prices.
Developing new in-store signage and displays.
While Petrie has closed 221 units since 1993, the company plans to roll out “combo” stores, more productive units selling regular and large sizes. About 90 percent of Petrie’s 50 planned openings in 1995 will be in the 7,500-square-foot combo format. They have 80-foot storefronts, brighter appearances and more selling space than the regular-size shops, which are typically around 6,000 square feet.
“It’s our best venue,” Gibson said, referring to large sizes.
Dressed in an Ann Taylor outfit, Gibson, when asked if that chain is a source for ideas, replied, “Of course. We check out everybody.”
Now her own efforts will be checked out. She is said to have a knack for reading future fashion trends and translating them for mass consumption, and is on a mission to dish out what’s been missing from stores: good fashion at low prices.
Before joining Petrie as chairman, Gibson was a partner in Retail Options, the consulting firm she still holds a stake in but no longer works with. She’s actually had a hand in Petrie’s merchandising since the summer, joining as a consultant, and some of the goods she’s touched are currently in the stores, though the bulk will be on the selling floors by March.
Confident her program will have an impact, Gibson proclaimed that amid the sagging specialty store industry, “It’s time for someone to break out of the pack.”