Bloomie's Tries Losing The Attitude

This is Bloomie's? Large windows flood Bloomingdale's new Skokie (Ill.) store with natural light, and the aisles are wide enough for two baby carriages to pass. A cappuccino bar beckons near the Dana Buchman collection. There's glitz, yes, but without so much plum, black, and neon. Most important, it feels friendly. "You don't feel cramped or rushed," says Julie Drewniak, a 40-year-old customer shopping for her husband and two sons.

Call it a Bloomie's for the 1990s: The famed clothier to the fashion-savvy is giving its stores a makeover. In the next year, renovations at six of the chain's 16 other stores will incorporate elements of Skokie's user-friendly design and merchandising techniques. So will conversions into Bloomingdale's of up to six Broadway Stores in California. The flagship 59th Street store in Manhattan will be transformed over five years.

CLEAR MESSAGE. None too soon. Bloomingdale's trademark Manhattan aura has worn thin, especially west of the Hudson. "The mystique of the store hasn't been transferable" from New York, says retail consultant Alan Millstein. The stores "are either too avant-garde or too humdrum. And in many cases, their prices were too high."

After a much-hyped 1989 launch, sales at the cathedral-like Bloomie's in downtown Chicago have dropped off; ditto at the Mall of America outside Minneapolis. Bloomie's closed its Dallas store in 1990 after disappointing sales. The result: Bloomingdale's Inc. contributed just $1.3 billion to the revenue of parent Federated Department Stores in 1994, only a shade higher than in 1989.

Bloomingdale's chairman, Michael Gould, got the message. In 1991, he succeeded Marvin Traub, who during his 40-year reign had built Bloomie's into a gilded mecca of consumer indulgence. Gould wanted something dramatically different: "a store like someone's home, comfortable and welcoming, a store that puts people in the mood to stay and enjoy themselves," he says.

Although less the micromanager than his colorful predecessor, Gould got involved in everything from the concept of the Skokie store to the nitty-gritty of selecting its fixtures. At Skokie, the first Bloomie's to open during his tenure, he scattered plenty of couches and chairs around the selling floor and installed lighting 50% brighter than in other stores. Unlike the Bloomie's of the 1980s, which employed countless "boutiques" to display designer collections, the new store has an open floor plan with few towering fixtures, allowing shoppers to easily see where they're going.

SERVICE PLAN. The results? Although the company won't release numbers, Store Manager Rich Williams says that in September, sales in his better sportswear area, a critical department, were 60% above expectations, besting revenue of comparable departments in all the chain's other stores. Analysts predict Skokie will well outperform Bloomie's 1994 average of $294 in sales per square foot, though it won't match Nordstrom Inc.'s $380.

Ultimately, though, this battle could be won or lost on service. Chicago focus groups told Bloomie's execs they wanted a "New York store" without an uppity sales staff. In fact, disappointing service has driven the erosion in Bloomingdale's reputation, says Chris Ohlinger, president of Service Industry Research Systems in Cincinnati, which tracks consumer perceptions of retailers. "When you encourage high expectations, a disappointment in service is a catastrophe."

That's why 50 trained "selling experts" are scattered throughout the Skokie Bloomie's, supplementing the regular sales staff. Shoppers such as Leslie Schellie, a 37-year-old attorney and aspiring novelist from Winnetka, notice the difference. "After I publish that trashy best-seller, I'll definitely be shopping at Bloomingdale's," she says. Message: Service beats glitz. Maybe even in the Big Apple.

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