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At Department Stores, Holiday Shopping Season Is Year-round Obsession With BC-Retail

December 18, 1988

At Department Stores, Holiday Shopping Season Is Year-round Obsession With BC-Retail View-Boutique

Undated (AP) _ EDITOR’S NOTE - With the make-it or break-it season in full swing for the nation’s retailers, The Associated Press takes an inside look at how two stores are handling the holiday rush in side-by-side stories from New York City and Grand Rapids, Mich.

--- By LISA PERLMAN Associated Press Writer

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Back in February, just weeks after holiday decorations were taken down, Lazarus department store executives began designing ″the look″ for Christmas 1988: seahorse planters surrounded by a red-and-gold decor.

Now, 10 months later, there’s anxious optimism that the perpetual planning for the holiday season has helped shoppers get into the spending mood and will translate into another color: green.

″We’re way ahead of last year and I’m exceeding expectations for this year,″ says a beaming Jean Hougard, manager for Michigan’s two Lazarus stores in downtown Grand Rapids and the suburb of Wyoming.

And for retailers, those are the magic words.

In the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, many retailers make about half their annual profit. And to make the most of the profit potential, department store chains such as Cincinnati-based Lazarus are thinking Christmas almost year-round.

″The planning begins in February - the promotional calendar, the merchandise we expect to introduce, how the stores are going to look,″ says Jerry Gafford, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Lazarus, which operates 43 stores in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky and West Virginia.

When the stores get the planning diagrams, merchandise schedules and props from corporate headquarters, they make adjustments for their individuals stores and begin the physical transition about two months before Thanksgiving.

″I spend about a week on 12-foot ladders,″ says Jane Mauchmar, visuals manager for both stores.

Mauchmar figures she’s trimmed nearly 100 trees, hung scores of 9-foot lengths of garland along with countless ″For Someone Special″ signs from the ceiling, positioned thousands of poinsettias and set up numerous special displays, many of which she guesses ultimately will be altered by rambunctious youngsters. She’s worked many 11-hour days and six-day weeks to prepare.

It’s also up to Mauchmer to make those stacks of heated ice scrapers for car windshields and golf ball monogrammers reach out and grab the shopper’s attention.

″It’s my job to make that gift look appealing, to make it look irresistible,″ she says with an exhausted laugh.

Weather plays an important part, too. Hougard was happy with the warmer- than-normal temperatures and sunny skies on the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. But she was even happier when it snowed Dec. 12, less than two weeks before the holiday.

″People feel like shopping for Christmas presents when it looks like Christmas outside,″ she says.

Mood is important not just for the customers, but for employees as well. At a recent meeting, the chain’s top corporate executives and the 42 store managers dressed up in Santa Claus beards and hats for a group photograph.

Though the hours are longer and the work more tiring, nearly every level of Lazarus employee says the brisk business is uplifting.

″Everyone’s spirits are high. When it’s busy like this, the days just fly by,″ said Ruth Alman, a sales manager in the Wyoming store.

The mood in both stores is in sharp contrast to the past 2 1/2 years, when employees were uncertain about their futures and head-spinning takeovers became a topic of everyday conversation.

The two stores used to be known as Herpolscheimer’s, a 117-year-old fixture that was part of Allied Stores Corp. But in December 1986, Allied was acquired in a hostile takeover by Campeau Corp.

The following month, the two Grand Rapids-area stores were incorporated into Block’s, a sister Allied division that was sold to Federated Department Stores Inc. in April 1987.

Federated, which owned the Lazarus chain, changed the Block’s name to Lazarus, and in November 1987, the Herpolscheimer’s signs came down and the bronze-and-white Lazarus signs went up.

But the stores, which were changed from ″home″ stores with houseware departments to apparel-and-cosmetics only, were far from ready for the Christmas season.

″People didn’t know who we were, stock levels were poor and we didn’t have the right merchandise,″ Hougard said. ″It took some time for us to build up our reputation - and get ’Lazarized.‴

The changes were traumatic, but they weren’t over. In May 1988, Campeau bought Federated and its department store chains, including Lazarus.

This year, there is upgraded merchandise, plenty of stock - and customers are responding. There are also plenty of incentives, including such giveaways as a free stuffed teddy bear that other department stores sell for up to $17.50 with a purchase.

″I see people walking in with gift lists and walking out with bags galore,″ said Ann VanKoevering, a sales supervisor in the downtown store. ″It’s a challenge to keep the stock out.″

What are they buying? Such non-necessities as silk men’s pajamas and boxer shorts at $24 a piece, Victorian-style lingerie, and adult-style fashions for children.

″Instead of things they need, like warm socks and coats, they’re buying holiday sweaters with holly leaves,″ VanKoevering said. ″I haven’t seen that before and I think it’s a good sign.″

End Adv Sunday Dec. 18

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