Teen spending post-Sept. 11 dominated talk at the fourth annual ICR XChange Youth Market Business Forum, held here this month at The Block at Orange, a retailtainment center anchored by a Vans Skateboard Park and basking in a neon glow.
Analysts convened to hear low-key presentations from youth-oriented retailers and vendors who spoke of keeping a tight watch on trends and maintaining a conservative approach to business.
In place of a boom-time practice of showing growth to investors by opening new stores, retailers are finding other ways to grow. Those with the healthiest bottom lines are testing second concepts to reach disenfranchised groups and untapped markets.
For example, Hot Topic chairman Betsey McLaughlin said Torrid, the retailer’s plus-size concept, is nearing $629 a square foot in annual sales. There are plans to add 15 more Torrid stores this year to the existing six. “Torrid has the potential to be larger than Hot Topic,” speculated McLaughlin. She noted that no amount of pressure from regular-sized consumers who wander into the stores requesting smaller sizes could cause the City of Industry, Calif.,-based retailer to stray from this once-ignored customer. Besides, about 15 to 20 percent of traffic are non-plus-size girls shopping for accessories with plus-sized friends.
McLaughlin said the company is tweaking several elements of Torrid, including adding more dressing rooms — plus-size customers take longer in dressing rooms — and boosting its bottoms assortment, which she said is a surprisingly strong performer.
Urban Outfitters is also heading into new territory as the freestanding concept ventures into malls for the first time.
The retailer’s mall potential was so appealing that Izzy Israilson, president of Washington-based retail chain Up Against the Wall, singled out Urban Outfitters’ stock as his pick for the year.
Urban Outfitters has strong brand recognition and operates only 45 signature doors and 35 Anthropologie units in addition to direct mail and an e-commerce site, Israilson pointed out. If the company can reach 200 to 300 more mall units, “they could be a monster,” he said.
Analysts are clearly looking for the next fresh concept. They listened intensely as Los Angeles-based Forever 21 delivered its first presentation to Wall Street types, no doubt paving the way for an IPO scheduled for next year. President Don Chang talked about the trendy junior chain’s average annual sales of $475 sales per square foot and funding that is solely handled in-house. But some analysts didn’t swallow the retailer’s pitch. “They are too similar to Wet Seal,” said one.
Indeed, Wet Seal might be too similar to other mall chains. Chief financial officer Walter Parks said the Foothill Ranch, Calif.,-based retailer needs to better differentiate its Wet Seal, Arden B. and Zutopia doors. “I’m not sure we have clearly outlined our in-store experience,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re the best-looking in malls.”
Forum participants widely expect the recession to claim casualties this year.
Calling retailers Darwinian in nature, American Eagle Outfitters chief financial officer, Laura Weil, hinted there might be an acquisition of another retail chain in the Warrendale, Pa.,-based retailers’ future.
For now, the company says it plans to bump up its 30 stores in Southern California to 100 units, tapping into “the greatest concentration of our teen customers. We have not even scratched the surface,” she said.
The long malaise in men’s wear has forced several retailers to turn to women for growth. Anaheim, Calif.,-based Pacific Sunwear, once a men’s merchant, is now nearly 50 percent young women’s merchandise. Chairman and president Greg Weaver said the company will double its average store size to accommodate the segment’s growth. Meanwhile, the men’s wear design team is still hunting for that elusive sales driver, he said.
Adding his voice to those of other executives disenchanted with men’s wear, Guess Inc. chief operating officer Carlos Alberini said the brand will allocate more floor space to women’s merchandise to offset soft men’s sales.
The company is aiming for an overall cure of its retail division’s ills, with the possibility that a small number of underperforming stores will be clipped. Comparable store sales declined 13.6 percent in November. Although December results were slightly better — comp sales dropped only 4.4 percent — Alberini noted revenue contraction on the retail and wholesale side “makes it very tough to achieve profitability, no matter how much cost-cutting you do.”
Bucking the general trend to favor women’s wear, Quiksilver shelved its promising contemporary business Alex Goes in October to focus on a pair of men’s projects: the Hawk skate-influenced line and Fidra golfwear.
“In our world, sometimes size is the enemy of cool,” said Quiksilver ceo Robert McKnight. “You have to develop these side brands to contribute to the main company’s growth.”
On the women’s side, according to McKnight, Quiksilver is content to let junior powerhouse Roxy run the show.
“We’re being a lot more aggressive with Roxy,” McKnight said. “The main thing now is to get into her room — bedding, umbrellas, lamps, candles. Things that embody the lifestyle and aura of Roxy.” Last year, brand revenues grew 9 percent domestically and 50 percent in Europe, according to chief financial officer Steven Brink.
Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp., based in Irvine, Calif., recently reinvented itself to a new generation of youth, and now it’s eyeing older consumers. Chief executive officer Dick Baker said the brand is looking to license moderate women’s apparel for ages 25 to 50. The line would be branded Ocean Pacific (the Op moniker is used for the juniors line) and would have a resortwear emphasis.
Hollywood’s impact on retailing was another hot topic. Bebe president John Parros said one of the most significant changes affecting the Brisbane, Calif.,-based chain since Sept. 11 was celebrities’ toned-down dressing at awards shows.
“Women weren’t glamorous and that business had difficulties,” he said.
Pac Sun’s Weaver said the celebrity quotient is important to his business as well, with Jennifer Lopez’s J.Lo brand a big hit. The brand sells in the company’s 101 D.E.M.O. stores.
But Urban Outfitters president of retail Ted Marlow predicted a demise in celebrity labels this year.
“I think we’re looking at new heroes right now,” he said.
Retailers pointed to three tourist-driven regions in the U.S. that suffered after Sept. 11.
“Florida fell off the map,” noted Bebe’s Parros, adding that stores in Las Vegas and Northern California also performed poorly.
Store executives also spoke of the damage done from a highly promotional holiday selling season. AEO’s Weil pointed out that massive discounts are addictive for consumers. “It’s going to be very difficult to remove the needle from the arm,” she said. “Next year consumers are not going to expect to buy without the same promotions.”
One post-Sept. 11 positive: Real estate opportunities are more favorable.
“Rents have been going down for four years,” Pac Sun’s Weaver said. “Now the economy is causing developers to be more aggressive in holding onto their tenants.”
As for trends, skin-baring sexy styles continue to rule the juniors market.
“Styles are totally hormonal,” said Up Against the Wall’s Israilson, recounting the chain’s in-house mantra. “It’s what you wear to make your trap.”
ICR Conference Highlights
Hot Topic plans to open 15 new Torrid stores, for a total of 21.
Urban Outfitters is rolling its freestanding concept into malls for the first time.
American Eagle Outfitters hinted at an acquisition of another retail chain, and said it planned to increase its number of Southern California stores to 100 from 30.
Guess plans to allocate more floor space to women’s merchandise to offset soft men’s sales.
Ocean Pacific is targeting older consumers and is looking to license moderate women’s apparel for ages 25 to 50.
Executives predicted a falloff of celebrity labels this year, owing to relatively toned-down dressing at post-Sept. 11 awards shows, like the Emmys and Golden Globes.