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Home on 59th Street

RR Home Bloomingdale'sBloomingdale’s is in the midst of a full-blown, gut-job renovation and remodeling of its New York flagship store home floors…and not a minute too soon.

With all due apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, the last thing Bloomingdale’s wants to do on 59th Street is slow down because it’s moving too fast. And nowhere is that more apparent than on its sixth, seventh and eighth floors which are in the midst of a top-to-bottom renovation involving all of its home furnishings classifications. By the time it’s completed in December, the four cornerstones of the business—home textiles/domestics, housewares, furniture and tabletop—will all have been moved to newly located, built-from-scratch departments, something virtually unprecedented in both Bloomingdale’s and the overall department store history.

New Kids on the Block

The home renovation is part of a bigger picture for the fabled flagship, as over the next 24 months two of the store’s biggest competitors—Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus—will both open their very first stores in Manhattan. Combined with ongoing competition from Saks Fifth Avenue and more specialized players like Bergdorf Goodman, the better and luxury goods department store scene will get significantly more crowded.

In home, Bloomies will not quite have the same issues to deal with as it will in fashion, fragrances and cosmetics. That’s because alone among its top-end department store peers, the company has always maintained a full home furnishings offering, something that has been both a cornerstone and point of differentiation (not to mention a solid profit center). The other boys on the luxury block have chosen to stay away from home, at least when it comes to their physical stores. Nordstrom’s has tucked a small home boutique, consisting largely of soft home accessories, tabletop and candles, into a corner of most of its stores but leaves larger purchases to the online side. Same for Saks and Neiman’s, which have even more limited physical presences, mostly art glass, tabletop luxuries and the occasional frou-frou decorative pillow.

So the pressure from competitors old and new alike is not quite the same in home as for other classifications. That didn’t stop Bloomingdale’s from making the major investment to redo its home floors on a scale not seen in most of our business lifetimes.

Following the Bouncing Departments

A tour of what’s been completed so far—housewares debuted in January and domestics in late spring—gives a viewer (not to mention a shopper) a pretty good idea of what to expect in the new redo. First, some logistics. Housewares, which had occupied half the sixth floor, has been moved up to the eighth floor, which had previously been a children’s wear floor. Once that space was cleared, home textiles was moved down to six. That has freed up the seventh floor, where tabletop will be relocated from the other half of six. That is scheduled to be completed by the fall. Finally, furniture, which had been on five, will take over the old tabletop space on six. Got it? Scorecards are available for those of you following along at home. So, what does it all look like so far?

Housewares

The first department to move, housewares, was relocated into a slightly smaller footprint, which says all you want to know about the relative strength of this business for Bloomingdale’s. Housewares is a tough business for any retailer, particularly small electrics which is a cauldron of price comparing hell, made worse by the fact that now shoppers can search online for a specific brand by model, color and features. That Bloomies chose to cut back the space given to this category, even slightly, is not surprising.

The new housewares floor does not have the broad, open panorama layout the old department had, accentuated by what are particularly low ceilings for a retail space. The floor is cut up into various pieces, usually by classification but sometimes by brand. Space is given to the Sparrow and Wren house brand, a label the store launched a few years back squarely targeted at millennials. There is a demo kitchen area off to the side of the floor and Bloomingdale’s is promising a full schedule of cooking classes, demonstrations and assorted guest chefs. On the old floor, the kitchen area, while smaller, was more prominently front and center on the floor. This is the kind of in-store experience that the retailer will need to milk for all it’s worth to get shoppers off their screens and into the store.

Getting more floor space is the fastest growing category in housewares: hydration. You may think this has to with skin cleansers and assorted potions because most people who are looking for these products call them what they are actually are: water bottles. By whatever name, their sales smell just as sweet these days.

Even before the move, Bloomingdale’s made a major switch in one of the touchstone categories within housewares: gadgets. For those of you who are neither cooks nor buyers, gadgets are the never-ending lines of potato peelers, lemon zesters, can openers, spatulas and assorted kitchen doodads that seem to multiply every year at rabbit-like paces. Any retailer in the business is faced with a major merchandising dilemma: show these products by brand so that the packaging lines up all neat and nice or show by product classification, not nearly as organized but set up so a shopper can see all the measuring spoons in one place rather than hunt around among many brands.

Bloomingdale’s, like many retailers, had always gone with the former display model for years and its wall of gadgets was picture perfect. Last year it switched to showing by product and that has been retained on the new floor. Your search for a melon baller is now easier …if not as aesthetically pleasing. Housewares departments tend to be more seasonal in their merchandising than other home areas so this month’s lemonade jugs and plastic drinkware will be turkey basters and oversized roasting pans next time you come back. Sprinkled throughout the department are some whimsical signage, upscale fixturing—most of the inventory is back in the stockroom to give the floor a cleaner look—and focused lighting. But there’s no getting around that low ceiling and the lack of dramatic vistas, a challenge the store will face as the department settles in.

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Domestics

They still use that term, domestics, in the retailing world and in fact many shoppers refer to sheets and towels and such the same way, but home textiles is the more up-to-date label for the department, which in fact is very much more up to date. The home textiles area is the only one of the home categories that will get an increase in size, reflecting its positioning as an important element of the Bloomingdale’s merchandising mix. The department’s migration from its legendary former seventh floor is a fascinating one. The seventh floor is where you truly see that the 59th Street store is really a mismatched mélange of multiple buildings that were joined together … as best as they could be. The old department was on no less than four different levels and was probably about the most awkward space in modern American retailing. It was also among the most profitable home spaces. Nobody’s showing us the numbers but within the trade this floor was generally considered a virtual goldmine of profitability for Bloomingdale’s, with sales per square-foot totals approaching the lower ends of fashion accessories.

If there were awards for hazard pay for visual merchandisers, the 59th Street home textiles crew would have won it every year. On the new floor there are no such issues. The expansive space features 70 display beds on the floor, double the number on the old floor with the appearance of even more due to dramatic sightlines and vistas. Bedding is loosely split into casual and formal presentations though sometimes the line may be more in the buyer’s eye than the shoppers’.

There are dedicated shops for core brands like Sferra, Frette and Ralph Lauren and also a refreshing assortment of new, smaller brands not generally available elsewhere.

Again, most inventory is off the selling floor, requiring help from floor personnel. But there is one clever corridor that resembles a giant, walk-in linen closet for self-service. It’s a feature that can be rolled out fairly easily to smaller stores one would think. At the back of the department is towels, which is the holy grail of textiles margins, and if it’s a bit underwhelming, the Bloomingdale’s executives will be the first to admit they need to get it better. Attempts to get towels off the infamous “solid-color wall” are laudable but there still needs to be more pop in the department commensurate with its revenue.

One of the problems is a quirk of the store that retail archeologists of the future will no doubt have a field day with. In this former housewares department, there used to be a restaurant modeled after a French railroad dining car called Le Train Bleu. Turns out that getting the space, which was entered via a short staircase, up to American Disabilities Act code was prohibitively expensive so store designers just sealed it up like a culinary time capsule waiting to be discovered a couple of retail lifetimes down the road. Its effect on the towel department, which sits underneath it, is that the area has a low ceiling, limiting display options. But one has to think the Bloomingdale’s store designers are too good not to figure out a creative solution to this … well, train wreck of a situation. Whether the store will have the kind of sales per square-foot in home textiles it had in the old department remains to be seen. But clearly it is making a statement that good old domestics remains very important to its overall merchandising strategy.

Still to Come

Next up will be tabletop, which inherits the old home textiles space of the jigsaw puzzle, although execs say some smoothing out of the floor plan is in the works.

Tabletop had previously been shown in a circular layout that wrapped around a central rotunda. It was an interesting idea that probably sounded better on paper than it was in actuality. While it kept the customer in motion it probably made shopping a bit of a process for those trying to locate a piece of Waterford stemware. It’s hard to know in advance whether the department will get less real estate but it certainly wouldn’t surprise anybody if that turns out to be true. Tabletop is generally a classification in a slow but steady decline, the victim of a more casual lifestyle that eschews formal dinnerware, sterling silver flatware and crystal goblets. And while bridal registry remains the cornerstone of tabletop, all of those competing registries at Home Depot, Best Buy and Lululemon are taking their toll. There are those who expected tabletop to be adjacent to housewares as it was in the previous configuration since there are some overlaps. Whether Bloomingdale’s chose to split them up as a matter of floor space allocation versus merchandising game plan is unknown.

The last piece of the puzzle will be furniture, another category department stores don’t quite know what to do with. With special orders, large floor space needs and delivery, it is the antithesis of the modern department store M.O. But Bloomies has chosen to keep furniture in its mix to be able to offer a full compliment of home merchandise so a customer can get everything they want under one roof. It looks like furniture will get a reduced footprint too but one wonders if there are discussions to bring back the fabled Bloomingdale’s Model Rooms of the Marvin Traub era. They were expensive to produce, took up valuable real estate and probably never paid their way, but as a tool to get people into stores in this age of experience-based shopping, they may be a concept whose time has come back. We’ll see … although I wouldn’t keep my fingers crossed on this one.

You have to commend Bloomingdale’s management — and their Macy’s Inc. overlords — for making the financial investment to redo home. Certainly those funds could have been spent on more showcase departments like fashion accessories but it says a lot about the role the store places on home in its overall strategy. That old 59th Street song talking about feeling groovy may be a dated way to say it, but home clearly remains…well, dope for Bloomingdale’s.

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