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Designer sportswear? Customized settings? More coffee pots? Three big retailers are undergoing a revolution of sorts. : What's in Store?

September 17, 1993|WILLIAM KISSEL | Special to The Times

All those glitzy boutiques that once housed the Broadway's upscale clothes have been dismantled to make way for "everyday low price" T-shirts, slacks and sweaters sporting the store's private label.

Bullock's still has its share of Donna Karan sportswear and Giorgio Armani suits, but those labels are losing space to less expensive ones--and to Cuisinart coffee pots.

And Robinsons-May, whose first post-merger stores will open next month, is starting to look a lot more like a Robinson's than a May.

Why all the rumblings in retail? Because Southern California's big three department stores--the Broadway, Bullock's and Robinsons-May, with a combined 117 stores here--are struggling. The economic hard times and intense competition that recently triggered bankruptcy reorganizations and a merger have forced the stores to reinvent themselves for the '90s.

The Broadway aims to become what its executives call "the hometown friendly local store" by featuring more moderately priced sportswear in customized settings; Bullock's is making more room for less expensive clothes and housewares, and Robinsons-May is straddling the fence, launching fine cosmetics and designer sportswear in some stores while eliminating high-end goods in others.

"We all use department stores for different purposes, and in Southern California, unfortunately, there is a lot of overlap (among stores)," explained Ed Weller, a department-store analyst with Robertson Stephens & Co. in San Francisco. "The Broadway is focusing on faster-moving goods. And Bullock's is still the upper-level department store, but it has also begun trading on moderate merchandise lately."

While the retailers are working to establish separate identities, shoppers can expect to find at least one thing in all three stores: more "value-driven" products.

"We're not trying to be pricey," said Rudolph Borneo, president of Macy's West/Bullock's. "We're trying to be a store filled with lots of fashion and lots of value. Let's face it: All department stores carry a mix of the same merchandise. But it's the breadth of that assortment mix that is important today."

For the price-conscious but style-savvy Bullock's shopper, that mix now includes a higher percentage of designer secondary lines--Donna Karan's DKNY, Liz Claiborne's Lizsport and Liz & Co., Jhane Barnes' Barnes Storm and Calvin Klein's CK--priced 30% to 50% less than their black-label counterparts. And, ever mindful of the Gap success story, both Bullock's and the Broadway are courting consumers with their store-brand sportswear: jeans, Ts, dresses, dress shirts and jackets.

The Broadway is rethinking not only what it sells but also how it sells. Finding a clerk to assist you in the hunt for this season's must-haves could be tough, but that's OK with William Podany, vice president of merchandising for Carter Hawley Hale, the chain's parent company.

Customers want to see clerks behind the cash register, not on the sales floor, he said. "Our market research tells us that people are more interested in salespeople being friendly and approachable than they are in having Phi Beta Kappa knowledgeability levels on every product that is sold," Podany said. "People are so much more educated now they don't really need to be sold a product."

Plans to reposition the Broadway as a one-stop spot for moderately priced goods--a notch above JC Penney but not as label-driven as Bullock's--include making each of the 41 stores a reflection of its surroundings. In Santa Anita, for instance, newly installed murals depict horses and jockeys from the neighboring race track. There is also talk of hanging pictures of local business leaders, teachers and community volunteers.

"We are really dedicated not to have glamorous, extemporaneous stores that are too beautiful and intimidating to the consumer," Podany said, adding that the no-frills philosophy applies to the merchandise as well. "We're dropping out of those designer businesses we never executed well."

In addition, some departments are being redesigned to function as the kind of self-help centers more often found in a Target or Wal-Mart. The menswear department, for example, features a display of pants in which different styles appear on platforms of varying heights. A coordinating chart details the sizes, colors and prices of each style.

Podany calls this tiered system "a numeric choirboy" approach to merchandising, explaining that it allows the customer to see the gamut of styles in one place. "Then, if (the customer) wants to know where that pant is, (he) can walk around the department and all the fixtures are numbered appropriately."

Such changes are part of the store's attempt to replace its traditional departments with "lifestyle zones." "That means more golfwear, that means more spectator apparel and that means more casual active wear," Podany said.

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