Byline: Mark Tosh

NEW YORK — Venture Stores Inc., which had a poor 1994 and recently cut its dividend in half, on Friday said Robert N. Wildrick, a top Belk Stores executive, will become its president and chief executive officer on April 17.
Wildrick, 51, who is currently corporate executive vice president and chief merchandising officer for Belk, will succeed Julian M. Seeherman as ceo. Seeherman continues as chairman under a contract that expires in 1997.
Philip G. Otto, Venture’s president, previously said he will resign from the discounter on May 19. He will assume the vice chairman post from April 19 until his departure, Venture said.
Wildrick is a 20-year veteran of Belk Stores, a 280-unit department store chain in the Southeast with annual sales of about $2 billion. The 114-unit Venture chain also does about $2 billion in volume.
Wildrick was traveling Friday and unavailable for comment. In a statement, he said Venture has “an impressive track record of competing successfully against a broad spectrum of retailers” and that he looks forward to the new challenge.
Venture, based in O’Fallon, Mo., has been particularly hard hit by the relentless growth of Wal-Mart Stores and its supercenter format, offering general merchandise and groceries.
In its fourth-quarter report this month, Venture said “increased competitive store openings and changes in consumer purchasing practices, particularly of apparel,” dragged down earnings 20.5 percent to $23.7 million, from $29.8 million. Sales rose 3.1 percent to $699.2 million from $649.4 million, but same-store sales slid 0.6 percent.
“Our apparel business has been under pressure,” said Seeherman, who noted that Venture’s assortments are more heavily weighted toward apparel than other discounters.
To adjust, Seeherman said Venture began adding merchandise to its opening price points with both private label and branded apparel, while broadening its assortments in certain hardlines and reconfiguring some store layouts to improve apparel presentations. Venture recorded a $3 million charge in the quarter to implement the program and will record another $3.6 million charge in this year’s first quarter to continue it.
Seeherman said the discounter’s higher priced apparel would not be affected by the remerchandising, but “we might eliminate one [price point] in the middle or something like that depending on space requirements.”
Venture’s shares closed at 12, down 1/8, in Friday’s New York Stock Exchange trading.