Finish Line and Shopping Centers and Retailers and Retail and Real Estate & Retail

U.S. retail chains spending billions in bet on growth

June 7, 2012

For all the concern that the U.S. economy may be slowing, retailers from Express Inc. to Indianapolis-based Finish Line Inc. are poised to spend the most on capital improvements since the recession.

Having focused on growing online and internationally in recent years, U.S. retailers are accentuating the shopping experience in an effort to boost sales amid increasing online competition. With consumer spending on the rise, the industry will boost capital spending to $35 billion this year, compared with $29 billion in 2009, according to Fitch Ratings.

“We think the consumer is getting more confidence, and with that, the stores are getting more confident to expand,” said Laura Pomerantz, founder of commercial real estate advisory firm PBS Real Estate LLC in New York. “Stores have to be entertainment, they have to be service-oriented, which has clearly become very, very important to the consumer.”

Now that they are opening fewer stores in the U.S., retailers are trying to extract more dollars from each one. Store designers are striking a balance: making stores more Web-like, with mobile check-outs and kiosks, while turning them into hangouts, where shoppers can experience a retailer’s brand in ways they can’t online. They are also finding ways to add merchandise without making stores seem cluttered.

The splurge on stores is helping some design and architecture firms, as well as the suppliers of lighting fixtures, flooring and signage, which lost business after the worst recession since the Great Depression stifled consumer spending. Retailers spent at least $13.4 billion on interiors last year, according to the not-for-profit Association for Retail Environments.

U.S. stocks suffered their worst month since last September in May and gauges of consumer confidence showed mixed results, but more than 20 chains tracked by researcher Retail Metrics LLC have reported average same-store sales increases every month starting in September 2009. And though Express shares slid 6.4 percent this year, the Columbus, Ohio- based chain is refurbishing 100 of its more than 600 shops in the next three years.

Before the recession, retailers typically asked for “tweaks” to their store prototype, and now they’re asking for advice on how to create the “store of the future,” said Lee Peterson, executive vice president of creative services for WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio, a design and architecture company that has worked with the likes of New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc. and Abercrombie & Fitch Co.

“There’s definitely more capital in the marketplace,” he said. “I think everybody is fairly cautious, but less cautious so far this year than last year, and I’m knocking on wood, a hell of a lot more aggressive than two years ago.”

Express, hired Wonderwall, the Japanese design firm that planned the interior of Fast Retailing Co.’s Uniqlo flagship in Manhattan, to create a new prototype last year. Wonderwall understood how to add more merchandise to the floor without crowding the space and the need to organize by style, adding sophisticated lighting and attractive shelving, said Michael Weiss, CEO of the apparel company.

“We really believe it gives the consumer a more elegant shopping experience, a more upscale shopping experience, much more aspirational,” he said. By organizing the merchandise by lifestyle—wear-to-work, going out, jeans-wear and casual—customers often buy whole outfits versus a single item, driving a measurable increase in sales, Weiss said.

“We have received more requests recently to participate in projects where we are not only redesigning a retail space, but rebranding or redefining the brand image itself to create a more complete message for the consumer,” Masamichi Katayama, principal of Japan’s Wonderwall said in an e-mail.

Opening new stores and renovating existing locations will help drive a jump in capital expenditures to as much as $108 million this year, from $77.2 million in the similar period ended Jan. 28, the company said in its May earnings call.

“People are understanding that you’ve got to entice the customer with the experience, and the experience is a whole lot of things,” Weiss said.

Athletic-wear retailer Finish Line is testing a prototype that boosts collaboration with such brands as Adidas and Nike, and plans to have mobile registers in all its stores this year.

The Indianapolis-based retailer may boost capital expenditures to $85 million from $29 million in its most recent fiscal year, as it refreshes and remodels stores, opens 25 new stores, tests its new store prototype and adds point-of-sale technology, according to a March 30 earnings call. The company announced May that it planned to add 327 local jobs by 2016 as part of a multimillion-dollar expansion to upgrade its e-commerce offerings.

Aeropostale Inc., the New York-based teen retailer, is in the early stages of redesigning its more than 1,000 stores.

“Our key focus is designing a store that is innovative, fun and inviting, while providing an environment that the kids want to hang out in and stay a while,” Kenneth Ohashi, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail.

With higher expectations and capital expenditures still measured compared to before the recession, retailers want more statistical evidence on what works and what doesn’t in terms of prototypes, said Irwin Miller, a Los Angeles-based director at design and architecture firm Gensler.

They’re also better informed about what their consumer wants based on sharing across social networks like Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram, he said.

“What really good retailers around the world are now looking at is how do they create a unique experience in the physical store that gets people come in and want to participate in that,” said Wendy Liebmann, chief executive officer of WSL Strategic Retail in New York. “There are so many reasons for people not to come or not to come as often. It becomes really important to create more compelling and easier to shop environments that people feel is theirs, their store.”

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