In Recession, Strategy Shifts for Big Chains

Shopping as we know it is on the brink of major change.

By Stephanie Rosenbloom

Shopping as we know it is on the brink of major change.

Hammered by the recession, some of the nation's biggest retailers are seizing the moment to reinvent their business strategies. And the impact will mean both sweeping changes in the merchandise on their shelves and subtler alterations, like how many pantyhose to keep in stock.

High-end stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks and Coach will offer more midpriced merchandise. Many chains, including Wal-Mart, will carry less inventory and fewer brands. The likes of Sears and J.C.Penney will put self-service computers in stores so customers can browse collections or buy out-of-stock items. And retailers of all stripes will offer more exclusive merchandise and more attentive customer service.

One of the biggest changes consumers are likely to see is greater personalization and regionalization of merchandise.

An initiative known as "My Macy's" requires the retailer's merchandisers and other planners to go into stores each week to learn from the sales staff - who keep logs at the cash registers - what shoppers are requesting, snapping up or complaining about.

For instance, when strapless and bare-shouldered dresses were selling well everywhere except Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh, Macy's employees in those stores knew the problem was that their customers wanted more modest dresses. So they passed that information on to the merchandisers. Out went the strapless dresses; in came dresses with cap sleeves. And sales went from lackluster to robust.

Under the new system it will not be unusual for a local Macy's to stock the merchandise customers request, be it wide-width shoes or Sean John suits, and for those offerings to be different from the ones in a Macy's store 100 miles away.

"I think what Macy's is embarking on is perhaps the largest transformation in our company in a couple of decades," said Terry J. Lundgren, president and chief executive.

The Macy's change is just one example of a wide range of initiatives retailers are pursuing as they struggle to cope with an economy where sales are lower than they were just a few years ago.

At high-end stores, the era of ever-escalating prices on luxury goods appears to be over. In the future, consumers will still be able to buy chic brand names, but at a wider range of prices.

"Our customer loves our brands," said Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and chief executive of Saks. "They don't want to trade down to lower brands. But they want more of a range in price within the brands that they love."

And that is what retailers intend to give them. Burton M. Tansky, president and chief executive of Neiman Marcus Group, told investors on a conference call last week that "we're working with the designers to try and ease a portion of their collections into a new price range."

Prices will also be lower at some "affordable luxury" chains, like Coach, which is increasing the proportion of handbags it sells for less than $300. About 50 percent of the company's handbags will cost $200 to $300, in contrast to about 30 percent of handbags last year.

Another change is that consumers will have fewer brands from which to choose. Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, and PetSmart are just a few of the chains winnowing their brands. As Home Depot's executive vice president for merchandising, Craig Menear, put it: consumers are "time-starved" and "looking for simplification in the entire shopping experience."

That may delight minimalists, because it will be easier to find items on the shelves. But it also limits choice.

Another potential drawback for consumers is that stores may run out of stock more quickly than in the past because, as Mr. Lundgren of Macy's explained, "retailers learned that you can't get out of the merchandise that you ordered months before."

"Instead," he said, "you're more likely to see retailers ordering fewer of each individual size and taking that risk that they'll sell out and not capture every sale, rather than the risk of having too much inventory left over to mark down."

Another trend is on the horizon: seasonal transitions for apparel will probably have shorter lead times. With strapped consumers buying only what they need when they need it, it has occurred to retailers that selling swimsuits to New Yorkers in early March is not necessarily a winning strategy. And so chains are beginning to work with suppliers to shorten the time between ordering and delivering merchandise.

Consumers will also see even more of the exclusive collaborations between retailers and prominent designers that are so prevalent today. That will help distinguish stores as well as avoid price wars because the same items will not be sold at multiple chains.

Yet another change will be the obliteration of any remaining divide between online and in-store shopping.

In Sears stores, "appliance research centers" with computers are enabling customers to compare local competitors' prices. (If Sears does not offer the best price, it will match the lowest offer and hand over 10 percent of the difference.) Four J. C. Penney stores in Dallas are testing "FindMore" machines the size of arcade games, letting customers see every item J. C. Penney sells and find out if the item they want is in the store or online.

Shopping by cellphone will also become widespread.

"Everything we are developing is with a mind-set that it's going to be running on a handset," said J. C. Penney's chief information officer, Thomas M. Nealon.

Despite all the new technology, consumers will be getting more attention from sales staff. During the last few years, retailers did not have to work hard to separate consumers from their dollars.

But those days are over. More middle-market chains are striving for Nordstrom-quality service to win customers. Even Home Depot has adopted its "most extensive customer service training ever," its chairman and chief executive, Frank Blake, told investors and retailing analysts last week.

Of course, luxury chains have always featured a high level of attentiveness. But the chains say that in this economy, customers have heightened expectations. Saks, for one, has invested tens of millions of dollars in the last year on software that provides its sales staff easy access to information about client purchases and preferences, so that a returning customer might be greeted by a sales representative who recalls the shopper's suit size and penchant for Christian Louboutin heels.

Economists and analysts forecast that it will take up to 10 years to return to 2007 levels of consumer spending - which makes now a good time for retailers to re-imagine the future. Paul A. Laudicina, chairman and managing officer of A. T. Kearney, the management consulting firm, noted that major consumer innovations like Neoprene and Teflon came out of the Depression.

Mr. Lundgren pointed out that if consumers were still throwing money around, stores might not want to alter strategies that were still working. But with today's recession, he said, "now is the time to aggressively rock the boat."

Published: June 19, 2009