Room at the Top

The Robin ReportEveryone says America is overstored and that there are too many retailers chasing after too little business, that there are so many stores competing in every market segment that no one can make a decent living.

And then there’s high-end home furnishings.

There is probably no product classification in general merchandising as under-stored as better home products. In fact, you can pretty much count the number of stores selling a full mix of upstairs home furnishings on one finger, and the name on that finger would be Bloomingdale’s.

Think about it: Macy’s (M) and Dullard’s [sic.] and Belk have pretty complete home assortments in most stores, but nobody has accused them of being upscale since old Izzy Strauss went down with the Titanic.

Neiman Marcus has gifts, a few pillows and throws and maybe some tchotchkes tucked into a corner of its stores, and does sell a broader assortment online and through its catalogs, but a fully developed home business it is not.

Saks? Also a few gifts and every once in a while something bigger than a breadbox, but nobody’s going to confuse it with Bed Bath and Beyond with an attitude.

Nordstrom has a dedicated area for gifts that’s about the same size as the ladies’ room and only slightly better assorted.
And that’s it. There are a few high-end furniture stores, a couple of specialty operations like Gump’s in San Francisco and ABC in New York, but really nothing much to speak of if you’re talking about national or even regional players.

Only Bloomingdale’s. And they do a fine job. They have a well-developed furniture business, a broad mix of tabletop products, and their home textiles bed and bath business is very strong.

In fact, the urban legend in the business is that the bed and bath floor at Bloomies’ 59th Street flagship – perhaps one of the worst, most difficult-to-merchandise spaces in all of department storedom – has the highest sales per square foot of any comparable department in the country.

Even without a good competitor, Bloomingdale’s stays on its toes and is a strong merchant.

But that’s just it: it has no competition. None of the other department stores that duke it out with them on the fashion, cosmetic and jewelry fronts is in the home business.

How strange is that?

Not that home is exactly a, well, home run. It turns slower than fashion…sometimes much slower. Return on investment productivity can’t come anywhere near fragrances. Some categories, like mattresses and rugs, take up a fair amount of real estate.

And there’s the whole issue of delivery, especially for furniture, a skill set long forgotten by just about every department store in the country.

But Mike Gould’s mom didn’t raise any dumb kids and you’ve got to think the Bloomingdale’s president would not be in the home business if it weren’t a good business.

And any good department store worth its weight in departments knows that the sum of those departmental pieces is greater than the total. You need to have a lot of different hooks to get that customer in.

It’s one of the colossal mistakes many stores made in an entirely different category – children’s footwear – when they abandoned that business years ago because it was high maintenance and less profitable than underwear. Kids’ shoes get young families into your store where if you are any good at it, you can establish a lifelong relationship with the individuals in that family unit. It’s a lesson Kohl’s has learned quite well, much to its financial benefit.

Home plays a similar role, bringing in shoppers at a certain stage of their lives when they are forming the shopping habits that will define the rest of their purchasing lifetimes.

Bloomingdale’s gets it, but why don’t any of the other high end department stores? Maybe they can’t beat Bloomies at its own game, but the next guy in there is going to be a solid number two by default and that’s not too shabby.
Which shouldn’t be that hard to understand…even for retailers.

Warren Shoulberg is a business journalist who has reported on the home furnishings market for a long, long time. He is editorial director for Home Textiles Today and Gifts and Decorative.

Warren Shoulberg About Warren Shoulberg

Warren Shoulberg is editorial director of several home furnishings magazines and has been reporting on the home business for a long time. He is currently working on his next book, Stupid Business.