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Retail smackdown 

Looking ahead: What competition for hometown Dillard’s could mean for the store and LR shoppers.

VISION OF THE FUTURE: Drawing of Parisian store.
  • VISION OF THE FUTURE: Drawing of Parisian store.
We can see the marquee: Dillard’s vs. Parisian, the Department Store Smackdown — coming your way in 2006. It’s a little far out to start talking about Parisian’s arrival in Central Arkansas, since it’s two years away from opening in a shopping center that right now is still a bare hillside crowned by a street of single-family homes. We’ve been burned before by supposedly sure-thing announcements of hot new stores coming to Little Rock, but Parisian’s pledge to open what would be its 40th department store carries a bit more weight. It came from the store itself — not from a hopeful developer — and a spokeswoman for the chain, Julia Bentley, says her company is committed to entering the Little Rock market, period. (It’s also rumored to be looking at a Northwest Arkansas location, but Bentley wouldn’t comment on that.) Two years is a lot of time for snags to pop up, but if Parisian’s plans to anchor Lou Schickel’s Pleasant Ridge shopping center on Cantrell Road fall through, there are other West Little Rock developments in the works. Besides, it’s Christmas, and we’ve got retail on the brain. So let the speculation begin about the impact on a market where Little Rock-based Dillard Department Stores has had a monopoly hold on the upper end of the department store market. First, a description of Parisian, for the probably vast majority of Central Arkansas shoppers unfamiliar with the chain. There are 38 Parisian stores sprinkled across the Southeast and Midwest, with a 39th set to open in Memphis next year. The closest Parisian now is in Tupelo, Miss.; Little Rock’s would be the first store west of the Mississippi River. The chain is part of the vast Saks, Inc., empire, a collection of about 400 department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Proffitt’s, Carson Pirie Scott and more than a half-dozen other chains. The company’s Saks Fifth Avenue stores have done very well lately, but sales for the rest of its chains — lumped together as the Saks Department Store Group — were down by about 2 percent for the first nine months of 2004, and the company’s stock price has dropped by about 15 percent in the last year. (Dillard’s, in contrast, saw sales in its 331 stores drop by about 2 percent in the first nine months of this year, while its stock price rose by about 50 percent since December 2003.) Parisian sits perhaps a bit higher in the department store hierarchy than Dillard’s, those who know both stores say. Both carry upscale national lines like Karen Kane and Sigrid Olsen and BCBG. But Parisian also sells a selection of high-end “specialty” lines that aren’t typically found in department stores, like Kate Spade handbags, Via Spiga shoes, Trish McEvoy cosmetics, Tommy Bahama men’s clothing and Robert Talbott men’s furnishings — all designers now available locally only in high-dollar boutique stores such as B. Barnett, Bauman’s and Barbara/Jean. Parisian is also more aggressive than other department stores in rolling out new concepts and merchandise categories in an attempt to bring back shoppers who’ve abandoned department stores in general, said Maggie Gilliam, a retail industry analyst based in New York. Parisian’s men’s departments, for instance, have pool tables, pinball machines and golf simulators to entertain male shoppers. Some locations have in-store Elephant Pharmacy boutiques, selling a line of organic cosmetics and health food based in Berkeley, Calif. Some stores have cafes and Italian ice cream stands, and sell other gourmet foods — something many department stores have long since given up because it wasn’t profitable enough, Gilliam said. “Nobody ever makes money on gourmet food, but it adds a bit of sizzle,” she said. The chain’s most successful partnership, though, is probably with Saks, Inc.’s, Club Libby Lu stores, which offer shopping and makeover party packages for preteen girls. Club Libby Lu stores “really make an impact” next to Parisian’s children’s clothing department, Gilliam said. Company officials haven’t finalized what elements to include in Little Rock’s Parisian — it will depend on what succeeds in other stores between now and 2006 — but Bentley said a Club Libby Lu is likely, because Saks, Inc., has been “pretty aggressively” rolling out the concept. In any case, Parisian’s core merchandising structure makes it a key competitor, said Rita Mitchell-Harvey, owner of the Elle boutique in Breckenridge Village. Mitchell-Harvey said she’s worked in markets with Parisians in the past, and knows the store well. “Parisian’s strength is women’s clothing, accessories and cosmetics,” she said. “They’re the sharpest edge in all of that.” The stores are clean, exciting and modern, she said, and the merchandise is well selected and well edited. “They’re very focused,” she said. “There’s no fluff — no big ugly horrid clearance areas.” West Little Rock, she said, “craves to have an entity like that closer to their doors.” Parisian will have the upscale national lines Dillard’s shoppers are used to, as well as the specialty lines carried in boutiques. And like Dillard’s, it also sells an extensive collection of “exclusive” clothing, designed and manufactured solely for Parisian. About a third of the Saks Department Store Group’s sales come from exclusive merchandise. Although Dillard’s merchandising is determined on a nationwide basis, Mitchell-Harvey said she can’t imagine Little Rock shoppers won’t see changes at the flagship Park Plaza store. “I can’t fathom those people, as smart as they are, wouldn’t notice and alter” some things, she said. She could say the same of herself, and the owners of other upscale boutiques in Little Rock. Mitchell-Harvey said she’s already started her own research, using connections in the retail industry to gather information about what kind of clothing Parisian will carry so she can make adjustments in her own inventory before the new department store opens its doors. “I would certainly ask the question of every showroom I visited, ‘Do you have a relationship with Parisian?’ ” Mitchell-Harvey said. “I would make some kind of different decision if they did.” She said she’s not expecting to make many changes at Elle, because she tends to carry lines from “more unusual manufacturers” anyway. Cheryl Steele, who works at Barbara/Jean, said buyers for that store operate in a way that is inherently flexible. Each season they pick and choose from designers’ offerings, so they may offer choices from a particular line one season and not the next. But cosmetics, she said, are a different story. Boutiques usually have contracts with cosmetics companies, so they aren’t able to switch merchandise as easily. Barbara/Jean carries Bobbi Brown cosmetics, a line Parisian sells and that Dillard’s added within the last year. Parisian — along with its anticipated upscale co-tenants at Pleasant Ridge — will have the advantage of combining in one shopping center high-end merchandise that’s now scattered in stores from the Heights to Chenal Valley, said Kim Dill, a commercial loan officer at First Security Bank and a veteran shopper. And department stores appeal more to shoppers who may feel intimidated going into small, high-priced boutiques. But Parisian will be up against the loyalty those boutiques have cultivated in their frequent customers, who are used to top-notch service from salespeople who often know them by name. So what about Dillard’s? Retail analyst Gilliam predicts it will come out the loser, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s the lone player of its kind in the market now, and any business Parisian does will have to come from somewhere. But she also criticized what she said is Dillard’s lack of imagination. While Parisian has aggressively rolled out new ideas to differentiate itself — retail lingo for offering something the other guy doesn’t — Dillard’s “doesn’t show any inclination to do anything at all like that,” Gilliam said. “Dillard’s doesn’t show any imagination at all when it comes to merchandise,” she said. “It’s just the dullest department store around.” Dillard’s spokeswoman Julie Bull takes exception. She said the company is already mounting a chain-wide push to liven up its stores with more youthful, “fashion-forward” clothing. The change is obvious at the Park Plaza store, where there’s now much more floor space devoted to hipper, edgier, more expensive clothing, and less taken up by the inexpensive basics and frumpy appliqued cardigans and pull-on pants that in the past took up great swaths of the store. There’s now a large section devoted to Dillard’s new private-label Antonio Melani line — hip, stylish clothing and shoes designed exclusively for Dillard’s. Across the aisle, there’s a large mini-boutique devoted to the BCBG line, popular in small, independent stores that cater to a younger, trendier clientele. The company has also added Michael Kors, a national designer. “There’s an underserved customer who’s not being served by traditional department stores,” Bull said — a customer who wants clothes that look like they come from funky boutiques. That’s who Dillard’s wants to attract, she said. “It’s an effort to just take it up a notch.” And probably just as important, Dillard’s is still planning to open a West Little Rock store of its own in a development slated for land owned by Deltic Timber at Chenal Parkway and Rahling Road. Like developer Lou Schickel’s Pleasant Ridge, the Promenade at Chenal will be a “lifestyle center,” the latest in shopping- center design concepts. Lifestyle centers are typically made up of several buildings, with stores opening to the outside, parking scattered among the buildings, and extra landscaping to pretty up the package. They usually include an upscale restaurant or two in the mix as well. The Promenade Dillard’s will be considerably smaller than the Park Plaza store, Bull said — 155,000 square feet compared with 280,000 — and will concentrate on the kind of higher-end merchandise more likely to appeal to Chenal Valley homeowners. But although the Promenade will be smack in the epicenter of Little Rock’s wealth, Pleasant Ridge’s location gives it an advantage — it’s close to Interstate 430, on a major throughway and at the nexus of several more densely populated, but still upper-income, residential neighborhoods. There’s also another important element: which stores fill up the rest of the shopping center. With at least four new retail developments in the works, competition for desirable tenants is fierce, said Kim Pruitt, vice president for economic development at the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. “In all honesty, they’re all wooing some of the same tenants,” she said. “From what we’ve seen, it’s who gets their project financed and developed first,” Pruitt said. “We all know we’re not going to have three Williams-Sonomas.” Right now, there’s no obvious front-runner. Pleasant Ridge, the Promenade at Chenal, Midtowne Little Rock (across University Avenue from Park Plaza) and a new retail/office development planned for the former Summit Mall site have made it through the zoning process. But nary a shovelful of earth has been turned at any of them on building construction. Bull said Dillard’s is still going with spring 2006 as the projected opening date of its West Little Rock store. Parisian will theoretically open about six months later. There’s been plenty of speculation that some of Park Plaza’s tenants might jump ship to move out west or across the street, but so far the closest thing to a done deal has been an announcement by the midtown developer that Pottery Barn would locate there — but as with everything else in retail, that’s open to change. Pruitt said she believes there will be enough to go around. Despite the explosion in Little Rock’s retail market in the last 15 years — remember life before Best Buy and Barnes and Noble? — there’s no shortage of stores to pick from, she said. “There are a lot of tenants out there — numerous ones that the Arkansas marketplace is not familiar with because they’re not here now,” Pruitt said. It’s also not likely that the Parisian-Dillard’s cage match would be a fight to the death. Pulaski County’s population is both larger and wealthier than it was 15 years ago, according to U.S. Census figures. Between 1990 and 2000, there was an increase of about 50 percent in the number of households earning the 2000 equivalent of $100,000 or more — from 9,531 to 14,748. (Adjusted for inflation, an income of $100,000 in 2000 was equal to an income of about $75,000 in 1990.) There’s also a significant amount of money going to out-of-state stores in Dallas, Memphis, Tulsa, and, of course, on the Internet. Pruitt said she’s seen a figure estimating 40 percent of Little Rock residents’ retail spending is out of state, but hasn’t been able to track down the source. Dill, the commercial loan officer, counts herself among a legion of shoppers who regularly travel in search of high-end clothes and other goods they can’t find in Little Rock. “I shop in Dallas a lot and don’t think anything of it,” she said. “I know a lot of folks who do that. … You jump a plane on Southwest, you’re there and back for $129,” she said. She also drives: “I can make it from my house to Highland Park [an upscale shopping center] in four hours.” So Parisian and other upscale stores that might locate in Little Rock won’t necessarily eat into existing retailers’ business. Dill said she thinks shoppers like her would instead be enticed to stay in Little Rock. “If [Parisian] weren’t coming, I wouldn’t be shopping at Dillard’s — I’d still be going out of town,” she said. “There’s definitely enough money in Little Rock to support it. There’s a lot of wealthy people in Little Rock and they’re spending their money somewhere.” It’s standard practice in retail to put on a public smile in response to new competitors, and that’s what Dillard’s — and Elle’s Rita Mitchell-Harvey — are doing. “Parisian is a formidable piece of competition that will help the whole market be better,” Mitchell-Harvey said. Bottom line for Dillard’s? Central Arkansas may not be used to having options in the upscale department store sphere, but for Dillard’s, sharing the market is nothing new, Bull said. “Competition is a way of life for us.”
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