Macy's confronts challenge of giving traditional Kaufmann's a slightly edgier feel
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Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
John Williams checks out a customer at the soon-to-be Macy's store at Ross Park Mall.
Macy's Charter Club private label line of clothing and housewares is considered very traditional, very classic -- some say boring. But the retailer that later this week will replace Kaufmann's on the local department store scene sees the brand as very Pittsburgh, a label that resonates with local shoppers. "The sweet spot," as one executive described it.
How should we take that? Are we being called stodgy? Or just accurately assessed as conservative? These are the questions officials at Macy's must wrestle with as they take what to many has been the icon of local retailing and turn it into what some may view as a racier, bolder chain with Manhattan roots.
Indeed, if we are where we shop or what we buy, this market on the mental divide between the East Coast and the Midwest, this city that loves both fine culture and great coupons, and dresses conservatively while lusting after New York cachet, certainly will test Macy's strategy of becoming the nation's stylish department store chain.
The retailer, whose parent Federated Department Stores last year bought Kaufmann's owner St. Louis-based May Department Stores, will have its name on more than 800 stores by the end of this week, including the last local Kaufmann's. It has set a goal of correctly assessing and appealing to the customers in each individual market while somehow hanging onto the aura bestowed by its roots in the fashion hotbed of New York City.
It's hard to say which piece of that challenge will be more difficult. When Cincinnati-based Federated renamed its former Lazarus stores Macy's awhile ago, customers soon realized the name alone didn't bring New York accents to the cash register or make every shopper feel like the star on the shopping bags. This time around, the company is trying to ramp up the power of its signature red star by improving the shopping experience.
Last week, at the Ross Park Mall Kaufmann's, for example, the soon-to-be Macy's store was getting new artwork for expanded fitting rooms that include seating areas with televisions for those who wait. Bathrooms have been redone with sleeker fixtures and brighter lights, aisles have been widened and de-cluttered, while black-and-white shopping carts designed to help carry heavy bedding had arrived on the third floor.
On the first floor, customers can get a taste of the sort of exclusive, more luxurious offerings Macy's planners have developed to set their stores apart from competitors. At the edge of the shoe department stood a limited edition collection by Vivienne Westwood for Nine West. The British designer's work included a $250 belt and a $475 pair of boots, both done in the same gray and red tartan plaid.
The display will be offered for a month and then replaced by other limited edition collections. In October, former Harper's Bazaar editor Thakoon will present pieces ranging from $180 to $400. The following month, during the thick of the holiday shopping season, shoppers will see shoes, handbags and ready-to-wear accessories designed by Greek-born Sophia Kokosalaki and priced between $200 and $450.
It's worth noting, though, that the Vivienne Westwood display is a very small one. Customers hurrying to the men's shoe department to find Rockport shoes or up to women's clothes on the second floor for Liz Claiborne pants might miss it.
That's the way Macy's wants it. It is seeking to offer more luxury and fashion to those who crave it without repelling those more comfortable with moderate lines or traditional styles. It's as if Macy's understands that while the East Coast in Pittsburghers likes a little more flash, the Midwest in them doesn't want to be hit over the head with it.
"I don't think the people of Pittsburgh are going to see anything that will turn them off," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a retail consulting and investment firm headquartered in New York. "The changes are going to be nuanced."
The retailer's staff spent months analyzing each and every store around the country. Federated even hired a number of former May Department Stores executives to help understand the Midwest markets where it was not as strong.
Southwestern Pennsylvania shoppers do not shop exactly alike, if Macy's merchandising decisions are any indication.
The retailer, which has been in Allegheny County but will suddenly have its name on stores stretching from Westmoreland Mall to Beaver Valley Mall to Washington Crown Centre, has decided to put the limited edition designer collections only in the Ross Park Mall store.
A new collection called T Tahari from designer Elie Tahari will be sold there, as well, but also in the Downtown store and in South Hills Village. The retailer described the line as targeting a neo-traditional customer and offering a heavy concentration of career product.
Meanwhile, a snowboarding-inspired clothing line called Burton will be offered around the holidays only in Ross Park and South Hills.
Macy's care in choosing assortments store-by-store extends to its own private label brands. While most will be available across the chain, the fashion-forward brands INC International Concepts and ML Material London will only be placed where the company thinks there are pockets of receptive customers.
"There is going to be some variance by individual stores," said company spokesman Nathan Shore.
The fact that the majority of Pittsburghers have been identified as fans of traditional, classic styles should not be taken as an insult, said Lois Huff, a senior vice president at consulting firm Retail Forward Inc. in Columbus, Ohio.
"The reality is that Pittsburgh and Columbus and many noncoastal markets tend to lag in embracing the latest trends and may never do it to the same degree," she said. Whether that means those areas are more practical or just feel less peer pressure to rush out for skinny jeans, the fact is that retailers tend to find a lower percentage of early-fashion adapters outside of the major markets.
"Is it a mind-set? Is it an approach to life?" asked Ms. Huff, who didn't claim to have the answer but admitted she herself was wearing a suit in last season's colors.
Some hometown merchants who have been buying for Pittsburghers for years argue consumers here are willing to take more risks than people give them credit for, although at times a little nudging may be required.
"I would like to see the women in Pittsburgh push the envelope a little more," said Linda Bucci, owner of Shadyside store Ruth Young by Linda Bucci. She knows customers who will wear more daring fashions when they visit other places but hesitate to don the same pieces here. "I don't understand that," she said.
In addition, she said, some people don't realize they can already buy some of the edgier fashions in town, a point that Little's shoe store buyer Justin Sigal agreed with. While he admitted there's a strong base of traditional customers in the region, he argued that the fashion-forward group is significant.
Actually, the customer mix in the Big Apple leans toward traditional as well, said Roseanne Cumella, senior vice president of merchandising for The Donegar Group in New York, who has seen her share of crowds at the nearest Macy's one-day sale. "It's not like [Charter Club] was born in a cornfield," she said, laughing.
If Pittsburgh is a sweet spot for the line, then so is most of America. "You're mainstream. Mainstream is what most of the country is," said Ms. Cumella.
For those consumers who need to break out of mainstream, Macy's will offer more choices than Kaufmann's did, retail observers say. And for those Kaufmann's shoppers who feel abandoned by the new Macy's, they note competitors such as Boscov's, J.C. Penney and Kohl's stand ready to serve.
First Published September 3, 2006 12:00 am