Byline: Scott Malone

For junior shoppers, department stores — filled with terribly unhip older people and the jeans that appeal to them — are just not where it’s at.
Specialty stores are the hot shopping destination, having capitalized on their image and merchandising skills to win a substantial piece of the junior business, despite department stores’ various tactics to usurp the role.
Denim vendors offer a variety of reasons for this. Not surprisingly, most voice the ongoing complaint that department store buyers are unwilling and unable to take risks on new products.
But in interviews with WWD, some added a new twist, saying the status brands that dominate the department stores’ denim business are failing to win with juniors as easily as they did with older markets, because their prices are too high.
It is almost universally suggested that department stores create hip selling floors — and staff them with hip salespeople — to steal a page from their competitors’ play books.
Gary Bader, president of Bongo Jeans in New York, suggested department stores’ recent struggles with the junior business were largely due to too much emphasis on higher-price status jeans, which typically retail for around $50, about $20 higher than moderate-price jeans like Bongo.
“In 1999, department stores really put a lot of their eggs into the better denim resources,” Bader said. “They put in fixtures and really pulled a lot of dollars out of moderate resources — LEI, Mudd, Paris Blues, Bongo — and into TO2, Tommy, CK and those people. And either the lines didn’t perform well or the margins were horrible.”
At the same time, specialty stores remained heavily invested in moderate jeans, which continued to perform well, he noted.
“The crossover customer, the missy-contemporary customer, tends not to have a problem spending more, whereas the junior customer really does have a problem going over a certain price for her jeans,” he said. “The junior customer is someone who’s going to school, working a part-time job — and that [extra] $10, $15, $20 makes a difference.i
It’s a fact that moderate brands, including Bongo, have overlooked, too, Bader admitted, especially with their recent efforts to sell the embroidered jeans that were a big hit with older shoppers.
“The same thing happened with embellishments,” he said. “ABS brought them out at $180 and they blew out of Nordstrom’s and Bloomie’s. At moderate, it was a nightmare.”
Beyond price, vendors at all price levels say the limits of department store buyers’ ability and willingness to take fashion risks are hurting their performance in the juniors.
“Department stores do a very good job, but because of space restraints, they don’t always fully represent the collection and they don’t take chances on fashion pieces,” said Joanna Franko, vice president of merchandising for juniors at Tommy Jeans, based here.
Franko suggested that one thing vendors and retailers could do to help department stores take greater fashion risks would be to produce narrower collections, so a limited selection of core styles would leave room for a few fashion items to stand out.
Fashion newness is “more noticeable when you’re not all over the board,” she said. Michael Silver, president of Silver Jeans, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, made a similar argument, saying that department stores buyers “are simply sticking with the programs that are tight and easy to put to bed.
“In many cases, they don’t have a responsibility to move the product,” since their vendors have already guaranteed certain margins, he continued.
Alan Kemp, Silver’s design director, suggested that because department store salespeople don’t make a great effort to steer customers to fashion-forward items, those items tend to go unnoticed.
Kemp suggested that creates into a vicious cycle of designers trying to come up with wilder looks that junior shoppers cannot possibly help noticing.
“Most stuff that jumps off the rack will make you look like a cartoon character when you walk out of the dressing room,” he said.
In addition to stepping up their sales efforts, Kemp suggested department stores make a greater effort to hire salespeople who are closer in age to junior shoppers.
Harry Wasserstein, president of KC New York, which is extending its urban young men’s line, Mac Gear, into the junior area, concurred.
“The consumer goes into the dressing room and comes out, and who’s working the floor but a 62-year-old semiretired woman who says, ‘That doesn’t fit you properly,”‘ he said. “That’s someone they definitely don’t want to listen to.”
Vendors concurred that adopting shopping-as-entertainment strategies could help department stores lure more junior shoppers.
“Why can’t you have a deejay scratching disks? Why can’t you have new artists coming in every Saturday for jam sessions? We’ve lost the emotion and fun of it all,” said Silver’s Kemp.
Susan Davidson, president of jeans, activewear and juniors at DKNY, suggested department stores install listening stations where juniors can slip on headsets and groove to hip new bands.
“Make it fun,” she said.