High-end department stores are slumming … sort of.
At pricey apparel retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales (M), outlet stores may soon outnumber traditional locations, according to a new report by Bloomberg Industries. In fact, they already do at Saks (SKS) and Nordstrom (JWN). Some 60 percent of Saks locations are now outlets, and all but two of the 15 stores it plans to open in the next two years will be discount centers. Nordstrom meanwhile, has 127 “Rack” outlets and plans to open another 17 by the end of the year..
The strategy is a simple play for the bargain-hunters who have driven handsome returns for Ross Stores and TJ Maxx of TJX Companies (TJX). “It’s predominantly an entirely different customer for these companies,” says Bloomberg Analyst Poonam Goyal. “They know they can’t afford the full-line stuff, but they still desire the brand.”
A steady stream of thrifty customers pays off in tight times. As the economy buckled in 2009, combined revenue at Ross and TJX swelled by 5 percent, while sales at Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks slid by 10 percent.
“It really took the recession for them to see the opportunity there,” Goyal says.
Separating shoppers by willingness to pay—better known as price differentiation—has long been a proven business strategy. It’s tough for a mid-market player such as Macy’s, but it’s perfect for a company that focuses on pricier products.
The trick, however, is to make sure that people who are willing to pay the higher price can’t easily switch to the cheaper option. That’s the beauty of outlets; they physically separate buyers. They also let high-end brands offload stale inventory without slashing prices in flagship stores, conditioning affluent customers to wait for discounts.
The discount stores are often more profitable than the glitzier retail hubs. In terms of revenue per square foot, Nordstrom Rack locations sell 40 percent more than the company’s traditional locations, according to the Bloomberg analysis. And expenses are lower at outlets, whose shoppers generally don’t need to be enticed by a swarm of sales staff, or by expensive displays and fixtures.
“The only real danger for outlets,” Goyal says, “is if everyone suddenly wants to pay full price.”