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Bendel's Focuses on New Strategy

Upscale retailer Henri Bendel will open accessories and beauty stores.

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A charm bracelet for $158.

Photo By Courtesy Photo

NEW YORK — Henri Bendel is focusing in on its core categories — accessories, beauty and gifts.

Under the retailer’s new strategy, the Fifth Avenue flagship will be downsized as Bendel’s concentrates on its most profitable areas while getting out of apparel. And the concept will be rolled out to shopping malls, where units will offer only Bendel’s branded merchandise. Six stores will open this year, joining the existing four.

Explaining the expansion strategy, Leslie Wexner, chairman and chief executive officer of Bendel’s parent Limited Brands Inc., said Thursday, “Bendel’s is one of the greatest and most recognizable brands in the world.”

Yet Bendel’s has never met Wexner’s criteria for successful brands. The store’s owner since 1985 has said that only brands with the potential to achieve $1 billion in sales are welcome in his stable. He’s also stated he’s happy to be out of the apparel business, having sold the Limited and Express chains in 2007.

As retail experiences its most traumatic period in a generation, the new Bendel’s represents yet another counterintuitive move by the legendary Wexner as he concentrates his empire on beauty and innerwear, having in the past spun off concepts like Abercrombie & Fitch. The refocusing gives Bendel’s another chance to be the cash cow Wexner always wanted.

“It’s no secret that he [Wexner] likes to think big,” said Bendel president and ceo Ed Bucciarelli said. “He reminds me of the fact that he only likes $1 billion businesses whenever [I speak to him]. We’ve been going in this direction for quite a while. It’s a natural progression. Fashion isn’t where we’re seeing our growth.”

He said the brand’s potential can now be fully realized on a national level, with an eye toward global reach. The concept, Bucciarelli said, is “viable in every A mall in the country. We think our strategy will allow us to be successful both domestically and globally.”

Under the plan, the Fifth Avenue flagship will be reduced in size from three to two selling floors, offering accessories, handbags, jewelry, gifts, beauty and fragrance from both third-party vendors and private label. Women’s apparel will be out of the picture, but Frédérick Fekkai will remain on the fourth floor. The fate of the Chocolate Bar on the third floor has not been decided.

Other than a unsuccessful 1991 attempt to expand into other markets with smaller stores — executives projected 40 to 50 units — Bendel’s has usually operated as a single, stand-alone business, an anomaly within the hard-charging, $9 billion Limited Brands. The retailer has frequently struggled to find its fashion footing, unable to secure collections that bigger retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman had access to, and trying to find the right mix between private label and designer merchandise. Sources said apparel represents only about 25 percent of Bendel’s sales, with the vast majority coming from the categories on which it is now focusing. In past seasons, Bendel’s third floor has carried designers like Missoni, Matthew Williamson, Michael Kors, Alice + Olivia, Milly, Jason Wu and Josh Goot.

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