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Wexner Buoys Bendel’s: Plans New Branch Outlet And Might Grow Chain

Henri Bendel is set to expand with a branch store in the Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, that could serve as a prototype for a specialized format.

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NEW YORK — Leslie Wexner, chairman and chief executive officer of Limited Brands, is ready to give the Henri Bendel division another shot at expansion.

Bendel’s operates just one store, a flagship on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, but a branch store, possibly a prototype for a potential chain of specialized Bendel’s units, will be opening in the fall in the Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, where Limited is based.

Last Friday, Wexner disclosed in a letter to associates that work has begun on “an exciting new launch” of Henri Bendel at Easton. He called Bendel’s “an American prestige brand with a long history and devoted following.”

Wexner has a history of mushrooming brands into billion-dollar businesses, including Abercrombie & Fitch, which was spun off into a separate public company; Bath & Body Works, and Victoria’s Secret stores, both of which remain part of Limited.

At one time, Wexner believed Bendel’s could be a billion-dollar business, and in the Nineties he launched a strategy for expansion. However, only a handful of Bendel’s branches opened, each selling fashion, accessories and beauty products. The branches were closed after a few years and had difficulties securing top designer labels due to competition from Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and other stores.

According to market sources, the upcoming Bendel’s strategy is different. It will focus on beauty and lingerie, rather than a full assortment. Limited would not confirm that, though Wexner did say in his letter, “While the merchandise categories to be offered at Easton have not been finalized, we know that we will be offering a carefully edited selection of Bendel-branded and third-party products that consistently convey the exciting prestige experience that is synonymous with Henri Bendel.”

The Bendel’s flagship, while struggling for years to turn a profit, nonetheless has been a leader in launching beauty and lingerie brands and has been successful in keeping a high profile in a city where Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s operate much bigger flagships with huge buying clout.

According to Limited’s Web site, Bendel’s is a draw for “sophisticated, higher-income, thirtysomething women from all over the world.” The store has about 80,000 square feet, with only 28,000 for selling. Last year, it posted $40 million in sales and $1,429 in sales per square foot, but yielded a 20 percent jump in business.
According to one consultant, about one-third of the cosmetics space is devoted to the Bendel-branded products, known as HB Beauty.

The HB Beauty line, consisting of fragrance, candles and lotions, is sold at Bendel’s and also in Limited’s Bath & Body Works stores.

Just last week, the store’s vice president and general manager, Ed Burstell, left the company. However, he was instrumental in elevating the profile of Bendel’s again to a level of visibility not seen since the early Eighties, when the store was still on 57th Street. Product launches and parties have helped keep Bendel’s popular.

Earlier this year, Bendel’s hired a ceo, Michael McCadden, who was executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Priceline.com, and before that was an executive vice president at Gap Inc., putting Burstell into more of a secondary role.

Among Bendel’s recent beauty launches were the DVF Glamazonian compact, the Fragonard fragrance from France, Gosmile teeth whitening system, Freeze 24/7 eye care, Christian Breton and the Agent Provocateur nipple balm. More widely distributed lines, such as Mac, Trish McEvoy and Laura Mercier, are sold there, as well.

Bendel’s also is known for its Street of Shops, a series of boutiques offering a mix of accessories, jewelry and beauty products with narrow distribution. It’s a concept that could be replicated.

The Easton center was developed by Wexner and has been utilized as a testing ground for Limited concepts. The Aura Science beauty store originated there, and while some branches did open, eventually the strategy for an Aura Science chain was dropped, though Aura Science products are sold at Victoria’s Secret Beauty stores. Wexner has been divesting his ownership in Easton, but remains a partial owner, according to a Limited spokesman.