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Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Armando Controntris of Fort Wayne looks through the latest men’s fashions at the Meijer store on Maysville Road.

Meijer changing its image

Embraces trendy clothing to the point of buying ads in Cosmopolitan

Cathy Rapone of Fort Wayne shops the women’s fashions at Meijer on Maysville Road. Meijer is upgrading its fashions.

Brittany Wysong doesn’t necessarily set out to buy clothes at Meijer, but if something catches her eye, the 22-year-old will snag it.

“I usually think of groceries when it comes to Meijer, but they do have some cute things, mostly for my children,” Wysong said. “I probably would think of Target first for clothes. Meijer has to have a good selection and prices.”

The retailer is working on it.

Meijer Inc. is touting a fashion initiative with the intent of changing customers’ opinions about its apparel line. The Grand Rapids, Mich., company has hired a consultant and plans to advertise in such magazines as Cosmopolitan, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar in the coming weeks.

And while national clothiers typically advertise in fashion publications, Meijer is by far no permanent staple on their pages. That is about to change – for a time anyway.

Lynn Hempe is group vice president of soft lines for Meijer. She said consumers are increasingly embracing Meijer’s clothing options.

She declined to say what percentage of the company’s sales is apparel or what the retailer is spending on the expanded advertising initiative, but it’s evidently important enough that officials want to take on Kohl, Target and Wal-Mart.

“There are a lot of retailers doing a lot of good things,” Hempe said, “and we should be considered one of them.”

Without providing exact figures, Hempe said Meijer’s apparel sales increased nearly 20 percent during the holiday shopping season. She believes this is proof the campaign, which includes a direct-mail clothing “lookbook,” is paying off.

With $15 billion in revenue, Meijer is No. 19 on Forbes’ Private Companies Top 20 list. The retailer’s publicly traded competitors’ revenue looks this way: Kohl’s, $19 billion; Target, $73 billion; Wal-Mart, $469 billion.

An emphasis on trendy apparel could help Meijer boost its fortunes. The business is the latest retailer in northeast Indiana trying to draw customers with diverse offerings. In the last three years, Target and Kroger expanded operations in untraditional ways. Target spent at least $6 million to bolster food sections at its Fort Wayne locations. And Kroger Co. invested more than $32 million on new Kroger Marketplace stores that feature general merchandise.

In fact, company spokesman John Elliott said the Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. is testing apparel sections at select stores outside of Fort Wayne.

“Our Fred Meyer stores on the West Coast have been selling apparel all along,” he said. “We’re trying to adopt and modify that at some of our locations.”

Retail analyst Ed Nakfoor of Birmingham, Mich., said the difference with Meijer’s campaign is that it isn’t reinventing the wheel.

“They’ve always sold groceries and general merchandise,” said Nakfoor, a marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience. “The key for Meijer will be educating their customers to want to cross the aisle from groceries to the apparel department.”

Meijer also has to avoid alienating core customers, Nakfoor said.

“Look what happened to J.C. Penney,” he said. “They’re still trying to recover from moves they made.”

Last month, J.C. Penney swung to a small profit in the fourth quarter from a massive loss a year ago. Penney’s earned $35 million, or 11 cents a share, in the three-month period ended Feb. 1. That compares with a massive loss of $552 million, or $2.51 a share, in the year-ago period.

The results, which cover the crucial holiday shopping season, show Penney’s is making strides in recovering from a bungled transformation plan.

The retailer is trying to win back shoppers by restoring the sales events, coupons and basic merchandise that the company ditched in a bid to attract younger, wealthier consumers.

“It was a huge disaster,” Nakfoor said.

In January, the retailer announced thousands of job cuts and the closure of 33 stores.

Nakfoor said other retailers – like Meijer – learned from Penney’s debacle.

“I’m a believer that if you sell general merchandise, do that well, and if you sell groceries, do that well,” he said.

That strategy is better than trying to be a jack of all trades but a master of none, Nakfoor said.

Hempe says Meijer is well aware of the risks. That’s one reason it’s moving cautiously, while integrating new labels that include a Jessica Simpson line and Spaulding Activewear in the women’s section and Izod for boys in the fall.

To further increase apparel visibility, all future new and remodeled stores will have taller walls that allow better signage and brand logos.

“We want to be fashion forward, but we don’t want to move too quickly,” she said. “We’re making sure things are coordinated. We know we have adult women who like very classic styles and we don’t want to lose them.

“We want to be more contemporary, but not to the extent that we scare off our (base) customers.”