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SHOPPING

Store Unconventional and So Are the Prices

March 03, 1989|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Some people approach a clothing store the way they do a library. Rather than buy, they prefer to "borrow" the merchandise until they make up their minds in the privacy of their homes, knowing that they can return the item the next day or even the next week. Tell them they can't return their selections and they recoil in horror.

But others, like the thousands of customers at Loehmann's, the off-price women's clothing chain, can handle the finality of shopping for non-returnable clothing.

The "no-return" policy at Loehmann's, a national, New York-based chain of 73 "designer discount" clothing stores (with 2 in Orange County), is not the only unconventional retailing device that the 68-year-old company uses to peddle its off-price merchandise. The uniform look of the stores, the missing labels and the communal dressing rooms are also part of the chain's iconoclastic marketing manner.

Each of the stores, located in 24 states across the country, looks the same: large, nondescript rooms filled with clothing racks, "communal" dressing rooms with no partitions for privacy, and a so-called Back Room, reserved for higher-priced garments. And every store has a row of rigid chairs for tag-along husbands or weary shoppers.

Although in the last few years, more designer labels are being left on the garments, most of the merchandise has had the manufacturer's label removed. Customers take the clothes--from Crazy Horse II, Perry Ellis Portfolio, Pia Ricci, West Bay, Nipon Boutique and other manufacturers--into the dressing rooms before taking the pieces to the cash register where, up until a few years ago, only cash and checks were accepted.

(After becoming a division of May Department Stores, the stores began accepting Visa, MasterCard and Discovery. Last year, the May Co. sold the apparel chain to an investor group led by Sefinco Ltd. and the Sprout Group, a division of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Securities Corp. Loehmann's still accepts the same three credit cards, checks and cash.)

Hy Leder, vice president in charge of advertising and publicity, says that all of the marketing idiosyncrasies are designed with a single purpose: to save customers money.

Loehmann's prices are kept down by low overhead and such administrative policies as the no-returns, Leder said. He contends that the company can charge "one-third to one-half off prices (customers) see elsewhere" by buying huge quantities of excess inventory from "famous makers and designers," some of whom require that the labels be removed before sale and some of whom don't.

"Our customers are fashion-dependent, not label-dependent," he says. "The heart of our business is to satisfy the fashion-savvy lady, a career woman who knows how to look good. She goes to the department store or the boutique and sees what she wants--and then there should be a little light bulb that goes off and says to her, 'What is Loehmann's charging for this same merchandise?' "

As for the communal dressing rooms, a startling sight for first-time visitors, Leder says that they not only accommodate more people but help the customer make selections.

"There's an old joke that when you shop at Loehmann's, you never go with a friend the same size, because if there's only one of the things you both want, you lose a friend," he says.

But the benefit, according to Leder, is that the dressing rooms enable customers to get feedback on their selections.

"It has its advantages. You go in with a friend and you see the garment on and you have instant opinions, both from the shopper and the salespeople. And (the shoppers) can see the garments on other customers, too."

Many of Loehmann's marketing methods have not changed since Frieda Loehmann--widely credited with pioneering off-price retailing--opened her first store in Brooklyn in 1921. But what has changed over the years is the chain's visibility in the marketplace. According to Women's Wear Daily, the company used to open branches off the beaten path so that its business wouldn't compete with traditional department stores. The chain rarely advertised and manufacturer's labels never appeared in the clothing.

Now, however, the company advertises regularly and labels appear whenever the manufacturer permits it.

A sweep through the store at Loehmann's Five Points Plaza in Huntington Beach found a variety of well-known labels left intact, and an assortment of sportswear, suits and evening dresses with labels missing. Among the clothes with labels were: an A.J. Bari size 4 petite black strapless cocktail dress for $69; a West Bay size 10 leather jacket for $129; a Pia Ricci pink ramie dress for $89; an Anne Klein II white cotton shirt for $29; a Nipon Boutique cobalt-blue silk dress for $139.99, and Calvin Klein Sport plaid shorts for $26.99.

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