2011 Retailer of the Year: Lord & Taylor

Clockwise from back left: Christina Callas, VP E-Commerce; Christine Merrick; DVP, DMM Handbags, Fashion Jewelry & Watches; Robin Lee, DVP, DMM Fashion Accessories; MaryAnne Morin, SVP, GMM Shoes, Handbags, Jewelry, Accessories, Coats, Suits and Swim; Amy Avitabile, SVP Marketing; Liz Rodbell, EVP Merchandising, Apparel, Accessories, Cosmetics and Shoes

The oldest upscale, specialty-retail department store chain in the U.S. shows off its makeover and kicks off a new chapter.

The $25 million makeover of Lord & Taylor’s historic Fifth Avenue flagship serves as an apt metaphor for the 185-year-old retailer’s repositioning. In addition to modernizing, contemporizing and revitalizing, much care was spent to preserve the original grandeur and heritage of the 650,000-square-foot landmark space. In essence, capture a more youthful customer without alienating the, ahem, more mature.
But this was no superficial facelift. The updated flagship reinstates Lord & Taylor’s position on Fifth Avenue and beyond, which had been in some question after the 46-store retailer was bought and sold three times in just six years, both via parent company takeovers/mergers and a single retailer sell-off. The dust has settled since 2008, and Lord & Taylor now boasts a new parent company (The Hudson’s Bay Trading Company), a new president and chief executive officer (Brendan Hoffman), new websites LordandTaylor.com and LTIntheKnow.com, and newly solidified merchandising, marketing and e-commerce teams comprised of company veterans. Two new stores are even planned to open next year—Lord & Taylor’s first expansion in 10 years—and a kick-off for a new chapter.

So far, so good. In fact, 2010 sales at Lord & Taylor’s 46 stores rose 12.2% over 2009, and are now higher than pre-recession figures, according to a recent article in The New York Times.

Leading the accessories charge are Liz Rodbell, EVP Merchandising Apparel, Accessories, Cosmetics and Shoes, and MaryAnne Morin, SVP, GMM Shoes, Handbags, Jewelry, Accessories, Coats, Suits and Swim. Combined they have decades of experience with the company and earned new titles in the restructuring.

Rodbell, who came to Lord & Taylor in 1985 as a dress buyer and became GMM in 1992, was promoted from GMM to EVP with the restructuring. Morin started at Lord & Taylor’s executive training program and was promoted through the ranks over the years to DMM jewelry, fashion accessories and handbags. After a brief hiatus, she was brought back into the company in 2009 as DMM shoes and was promoted to SVP GMM a few months later.

Both are thrilled to be working on accessories—the store’s hottest and fastest-moving area. Accessories have grown as a percent to store total by double digits, according to Rodbell, with footwear and handbags increasing the most. Lord & Taylor is clearly invested in continuing the momentum. To make sure no accessories space was sacrificed as cosmetics grew by 3,000-square-feet in the major Fifth Avenue overhaul, Lord & Taylor relocated certain men’s categories to upper floors.

New initiatives include a 50% increase in the shoe department, increased open-sell formats, new contemporary brands, new trend setups, outposting tests, even a newly created fine jewelry entrance giving Lord
& Taylor a Fifth Avenue fine jewelry storefront, like, oh, Cartier or Tiffany.

The renovation was clearly due and welcomed with opened arms. “We hadn’t renovated for over 30 years in any meaningful way. It was time for it,” says Rodbell. “The goal is to enhance the shopping experience and enhance the productivity for Lord & Taylor. The renovation—most evident in a lighter, brighter more up-to-date beauty department with video monitors and light boxes—sets the stage for the whole store to be more relevant to a younger consumer. Our existing customer has loved us, but it’s an important face to put on the store, and the whole lighting initiative has really driven sales.”

Construction-wise, the first thing the architects did was uncover many of the windows on various floors—such as the contemporary department—to let natural light flow in. “A lot of space was hiding this amazing light,” says Rodbell. “But the new floors are amazing.”

To maintain Lord & Taylor’s incredibly rich heritage and the building’s classicism, architects kept the building’s original light fixtures and installed a huge new Swarovski chandelier on the mainfloor. The look is historic and charming yet simultaneously modern. “Through our ‘architectural intelligence’ we really embraced the old and made it new,” says Rodbell about the decision to maintain a sense of history.
Heritage, in fact, remains so important at the company that Lord & Taylor serves as the company’s only in-house brand in accessories.

Specialty Store Approach

Lord & Taylor aims to offer an upscale experience but not exclusively upscale merchandise. This was a conscious decision after re-evaluating its positioning going forward.    “In the early 2000s, we positioned ourselves as more upscale, then 2008 came and we had a grouping of stores that still did well with that upscale assortment, but we took the time to reflect on what our opportunities were going forward and what our mix would be.”

But maintaining the upscale shopping experience was paramount. “We don’t want our stores to be too crowded or cluttered. It’s all part of the elevated shopping experience,” says Rodbell. “We spend a lot of time on directionals for visual presentation and work closely with the execution of visuals.”

“We don’t want our stores to be too crowded or cluttered. It’s all part of the elevated shopping experience,” says Rodbell.

Great customer service is also key. “We have coaching programs in place because we’re really focused on our selling team being consumer-centric,” says Rodbell. “And we still have personal shoppers [created in 1952].”

Lord & Taylor Westchester store, opening 2012

Lord & Taylor Westchester store, opening 2012

Lately, buzz is growing around the two new store openings. “We’re eyeing opportunities and thinking of how we can expand our reach further,” says Rodbell. One store, opening in Salem, New Hampshire, will borrow elements from the New York remodeling as it’s an existing building. The more impressive Westchester store, pictured above, is a brand-new building, with a “more modern, bright feeling,” says Rodbell. “And at 70,000-square-feet, it’s a smaller format than we typically work with. It’s a more edited assortment of Lord & Taylor’s best.”

“Edited” is a term that comes up a lot when discussing merchandising with the VPs, GMMs, DMMs and buyers. After all, with no private brands in many of the accessories classifications, Lord & Taylor must differentiate its national brands from those at nearby stores.

It’s all in the mix, and this varies by store profile. With just one buying office for all 46 stores and the online division, Lord & Taylor keeps close watch over what performs where.

“We spend a lot of time dissecting the DNA of each store and thinking through how to balance the assortments to the right demographics per store,” says Rodbell. “At our size we can do that.”

Lord & Taylor maintains each store’s profile on its Intranet for constant assortment re-evaluation. “It’s a specialty store mentality,” agrees SVP, GMM MaryAnne Morin. “We have a lot of the brands that a true department store has but we’ve bought them differently. Our environment is calmer and less cluttered. We think it’s part of what the consumer has responded to in the past few years and why we’ve bounced back.”

Another reason: with fewer layers of management to bog it down, Lord & Taylor can move fast. “We can make a decision on a Monday and make it happen by Wednesday,” says Morin. “Our vendors can scramble for us. And when something isn’t working, we can react quickly too and move on.”

All retailers might worship the all-important Monday sales report, but Lord & Taylor is different in that it also does mid-week readings for early indicators. They can also react quickly, which is encouraged from the top.

Brendan Hoffman, the store’s president [who came back to Lord & Taylor via Neiman Marcus Direct], has given the team more leeway to take risks. “Brendan expects us to be the experts in our field so we can move fast on the decision-making process,” says Morin. “A lot of us have been here a long time and lived through the various trends. If we see a new idea, we’ll tell the buyer, ‘go see what you can find and we’ll see how to make it big.’”

Rodbell praises the company’s unity. “We have a strong entrepreneurial approach; we work as a team but embrace new ideas and independent thought. When you go through the history of where we were and where we’re going as a corporation, we have strong communication and clear leadership.”

That leadership is keeping a close eye on new and existing opportunities. While contemporary and young consumers are outpacing the more classic business in growth, Lord & Taylor takes a firm multi-generational approach so as not to alienate its core but still entice a new base. The company already has a strong prom and mother-of-the-bride business firmly in place, and now it’s heightening efforts for brides and bridesmaids. “We go head to toe in these categories,” says Rodbell.

Tests are also under way for outposting accessories in apparel boutiques (BCBG is one such success on floor 2) and the concept is new to the Calvin Klein boutique on 4. “We’re exploring ideas on double-exposure.”

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Lauren Parker, Accessories Magazine

Lauren Parker, Editor-in-Chief, Accessories Magazine
As Editor-in-Chief of Accessories Magazine for the past 12 years, Lauren Parker has covered accessories both from a retail business perspective and a fashion point of view. In previous full-time magazine jobs and freelance gigs, she’s written about practically every angle of fashion lifestyle living, including women's fashion accessories, fine jewelry, Caribbean travel, private jets, Hampton’s real estate, the New York art scene, the bridal industry, men’s lifestyle and being a mom. She loves meeting designers and seeing how their latest offerings capture the current zeitgeist and fit into the entire cultural and social picture.