BLOOMINGDALE’S FINDS ITS INNER RETAILER

Byline: David Moin / Jean E. Palmieri

NEW YORK — Bloomingdale’s is in deep analysis.
“We’re currently going through the most intensive branding exercise I have every participated in,” said Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale’s.
“We’ve pulled in people from all levels of the store to define what Bloomingdale’s should be in the 21st century. We’re in the final two weeks of completing a brand strategy study,” Gould said. “It’s a very intensive program that has taken place over many months.”
Speaking Tuesday on a panel entitled “Branding — A Must for Today and Tomorrow” at the National Retail Federation annual convention here, Gould explained that the review will help identify how Bloomingdale’s can further capitalize on the power of its brand name. The study will impact all areas particularly those that touch consumers, including private label, special events, in-store service, community service, store design, advertising and pricing.
An identity crisis? Not quite. It’s more a matter of differentiating from the competition and strengthening its identity to explore how to be “less promotional, ratchet up service levels and create more Bloomingdale’s magic,” Gould said. Other possibilities are enhanced ties with international hotels, Broadway productions, Radio City and charities. “Here we have partnerships. To me, that is all about building the brand,” Gould said. “The power is in the impact we have on people’s feelings.”
It’s part of an overall drive to boost productivity at stores, which on average post more than $60 million in annual sales, excluding the 59th Street flagship, which posts about $500 million. The upscale division of Federated Department Stores currently operates in 23 locations, with just below $2 billion in sales.
Gould admitted that the stores have too much merchandise and even complimented Nordstrom’s, a competitor, for building stores that are comfortable to shop — though he noted that Nordstrom “has other issues.”
“Density” has become a buzzword at Bloomingdale’s, meaning there’s recognition that the floors are overcrowded and as a result shopping is difficult. “Thousands and thousands of people are walking through our stores without buying anything,” Gould said. “The question is how do we make our stores easier to shop, more comfortable.”
In private label, Gould called for higher standards, noting he bought a medium-size sweater at the flagship recently that fit like a small. Last season, for holiday, “we went too fast,” in developing certain products, he said. “We didn’t check our specs. Quality and consistency will be our saviour. Not whether we’re 10 percent off or 22 percent.”
He defined a brand as “a promise, a covenant between the market and the consumer. A brand is community property. Every contact the customer has with us either strengthens or weakens the brand. It’s the whole sum of experiences and feelings. It’s really about feelings.”
Gould said private label will be beefed up, particularly in women’s wear, where it currently represents less than 5 percent of the business. “There are opportunities to build our private brands in women’s,” he said. Product development has focused on men’s wear, where private label represents some 26 to 27 percent of the mix, Gould said.
“The women’s customer has been very adamant. There are brands she wants, and we just can’t do them any better,” Gould said, citing Ellen Tracy as an example. Men’s, however, is a different situation. “In shirts, cut-and-sewns, sweaters, there’s a lot we can do.”
Overall, private brands have increased from 11.5 percent to 15 percent over the last three years — a figure that “we will move up appropriately,” he said. Calling Bloomingdale’s “a store where national brands are very important,” Gould nonetheless said that when brands are overly distributed, “they mean less to us. With our own brands, we have a competitive advantage. We can reinforce loyalty, have greater clout and add stability.” Gould stressed, however, that national brands will remain important. The store’s largest supplier is Ralph Lauren, accounting for 9 percent of the total business.
Another panelist was Marc Chouinard, president and chief operating officer of The Bay, the 330-year-old Canadian department store. Calling the chain a great name that has been “bruised and beaten,” he said customers still view the company as a “fashion and style leader, even though we were not delivering it.”
The store had as many as 82 private labels, but Chouinard said the assortment has been pared down to two — To Go and Mantles — lifestyle brands that run across all categories.
Walter Loeb, president of Loeb Associates, moderated the panel and said: “Bloomingdale’s and many other stores are brands today because they assure quality, service and price legitimacy.”
Another panelist, Ken Walker, partner in Retail Options, said the only private label achieving “brand status” is Marks & Spencer’s St. Michael label, which cuts across several categories. According to Walker, Marks & Spencer puts the resources behind it to create and promote product, as a brand would.
“Other stores are not organized for brand building,” Walker contended. “I don’t think private labels have the attributes [of brands]. They don’t have the heart and soul.”

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