MEDFORD, Mass. — The mission was covert — travel to a newly opened Kohl’s store, do a walkthrough and see what there is to buy.

This story first appeared in the June 18, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The destination was a Kohl’s store in the Meadow Glen Mall in Medford, Mass., which opened last April. The store is situated in a modest indoor shopping center, where Kohl’s anchors one end and Marshall’s the other. Stores like Walden Books, Claire’s Accessories and Kay Jewelers fill the spaces between, while the stores closest to the Kohl’s are Old Navy, Pac Sun and a nail shop.

The layout of Kohl’s is straightforward — it spans about around 85,000 square feet and has gray, industrial carpeting, bright fluorescent lights and T-stands packed with low-priced merchandise. Entering from the mall entrance, the junior department is to the left and an extensive women’s department to the right. Shoes, housewares and luggage are toward the back of the store next to the men’s department. Jewelry, accessories and hosiery are in the middle area.

It was 11 a.m., Eighties tunes were playing lightly and the store was virtually empty. In the juniors department there were numerous racks and stacks of trendy, popular denim lines such as Mudd, L.E.I., Paris Blues and Levi’s in a slew of styles and rinses from dark to light to sandblasted. The styles were mostly low-rise, but they had lace-up jeans as well as standard denim and stretch. Denim skirts were in both mini and knee-lengths, either frayed at the hem or sewn and with waistbands or without. Placards on the various T-stands confusingly advertised the discounted prices of each item displayed, but the price tags did not reflect the discount.

The tops were mainly novelty T-shirts with the likes of Superman or the Pink Panther on them, while the rest of the shirts ranged from floral or striped tanks, to trendier peasant tops or those with drawstrings on the sides.

After making two rounds through juniors, I gathered two pairs of jeans, a denim skirt and a cream muslin peasant blouse from Younique and headed into the neat, brightly lit dressing rooms devoid of locks.

How did it go? Well, given the fact that I haven’t seen the inside of a high school locker in years, trying on jeans in the junior department probably wasn’t the best idea. But if you’re interested in how a pair of Glo stretch capris or Levi’s stretch super-lows fit a roundish figure well past the angular lines of a teenager, then the answer is: Not well.

However, a knee-length denim skirt with a slit up the front by SoGSJC was a perfect fit, as was a faded denim mini by the same label. Although the whiskering was a little too bold for my taste for a whopping $24 (which, at the register, actually turned out to be $12 after the discount), it was worth it.

I deposited the unwanted merchandise on a designated T-stand outside of the dressing rooms and seconds later they were removed and promptly put back in their place on the floor by a sales associate. There seemed to be only one sales associate in the department, who was busy rearranging and putting away clothes. At no point did anyone ask if I needed help.

The women’s department across the way was laden with casual and career ensembles from the likes of Villager, Norton McNaughton and Sag Harbor. It was clear the majority of the department’s labels were skewed toward an older, more classic consumer; anything trendy or fashion-forward seemed to stop in the juniors department. There were a lot of floral capri pants, flowy pastel dresses, elastic-waist pants and gingham printed skirts. However, there were some pieces that could work as basics if accessorized properly. While the apparel was merchandised fairly well, it wasn’t sized on the T-stands or folded in any order. So I had to literally go through three entire racks of Dockers in order to find my size. And while the store was certainly clean, organized and fairly neat, there were clothes that were falling off hangers and even a salesperson sitting on the floor cross-legged stacking merchandise.

The swimwear offerings in women’s ran the gamut of modest suits with skirts or shorts attached to cute string bikinis or boy-cut shorts with triangle or bandeau tops. The labels included Jantzen, Speedo, Baltex, Southpoint and Backflips. There was a healthy selection of merchandise in the activewear section as well — lots of running shorts, tanks and track pants from Adidas, Reebok, Nike and Danskin in scores of colors, styles and fabrics.

Feeling fairly optimistic, I meandered into the dressing room with a promising pile of merchandise — a navy terrycloth dress by Jason Maxwell, a pair of Havana Jack’s Cafe navy drawstring pants, a pair of white Dockers pants, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, a khaki tab-front skirt, a Speedo bathing suit and Reebok running shorts.

But the dressing rooms were a mess. Not only was discarded merchandise piled high in the dressing room, but the floor was littered with tags, fabric swatches and bathing suit pads. It was a far cry from the neat dressing rooms in the juniors department.

That noted, I emerged victorious nonetheless: Into my huge netted black Kohl’s shopping bag went five items.

On to accessories. There were a lot of jewelry cases filled with “fine jewelry,” such as gold and silver pieces with diamonds or semi-precious stones. Trendier items like earrings were available in open-sell fixtures. The most classic pieces were costume jewelry from Napier, including gold hoop earrings in a variety of sizes. I selected a pair of gold cuff earrings with a 14-karat gold post for $18.50.

The smallish hosiery department was made up primarily of Hanes and Jockey, but the lingerie department was nothing short of vast. A multitude of enormous nylon panties the size of bed sheets and industrial sized bras overwhelmed the smaller assortment of pretty, filmier pieces. The brands were solid national department store labels — Lily of France, Olga, Warner’s, Maidenform and Barelythere.

Wheeling around the store inconspicuously with a notepad and pen in hand, nary a salesperson asked if I needed help. However, given the fact that there was a canned announcement overhead delivering the following message: “If you like to shop at Kohl’s, you’ll love to work here,” perhaps this location was merely understaffed.

Three-and-a-half hours later, I headed to one of the central checkout areas. There was no line, since the store remained relatively empty during my excursion. My final purchases: Two denim skirts, a terrycloth dress, three pairs of running shorts, a jog bra, a slip, three pairs of panties, a pair of earrings, and a pair of draw-string pants.

During my expedition, I had been adding my purchases up in my head and expected to pay about $300. But at the checkout, everything except the earrings was discounted by at least 25 to 50 percent. So the grand total was almost half what I expected — $168.49.

Editor’s note: This is the launch of an occasional feature where WWD reporters will walk through leading retailers and report their observations.

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