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Chain Takes Aggressive Approach in Caution-Minded Industry

February 6, 1989

Undated (AP) _ EDITORS NOTE - Before Christmas, the Associated Press looked at how two stores were handling the holiday rush, in side-by-side stories from New York and Grand Rapids, Mich. The AP went back to those same stores after the selling season to get their outlook for 1989.

--- By LISA PERLMAN Associated Press Writer

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) - Forecasters warn retailers to be cautious about 1989, but Jean Hougard is planning expansion, renovation and an aggressive advertising strategy for the two Lazarus department stores she manages.

″We’re not looking at doom and gloom in 1989,″ she said, basking in better-than-expected holiday sales. ″We’re going to make sure we’re in business to do business.″

That means big inventories, more advertising and swank additions, such as a Godiva chocolate counter to boost sales for Valentine’s Day. Hougard manages two Lazarus apparel stores, in downtown Grand Rapids and the suburb of Wyoming.

Jerry Gafford, senior vice president of corporate affairs for the stores, part of the Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores, said higher levels of stockpiled merchandise in 1989 reflects company optimism.

″We’re very, very bullish about ’89,″ Gafford said. ″Not to a point of doing anything stupid, but we’ll be very aggressive, increasing the breadth and width of our stock.″

Gafford said Christmas sales met the company’s expectations, which he described as ″pretty optimistic.″

The only thing conservative about Lazarus’ approach to 1989 is the traditional latticework decorations that will go up in the company’s 43 stores in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Hougard dismisses the warnings of economic forecasters, who have predicted sluggish retail sales this year.

″You can hear just about anything listening to economic forecasters,″ she said. ″You have to go forward and do business.″

Lazarus’ approach to competing for limited dollars is simple: customer service.

The idea is to combine the large selection and competitive prices of a department store with the personal attention a shopper might expect to find only at a small boutique. The anticipated result: a loyal customer.

The Lazarus emphasis on customer service ″is something that’s been highly prioritized in the last two or three years,″ Gafford said. ″And we’ve already seen the returns on it. That’s what the customer needs and wants.″

Lazarus, as whole store to herself,″ Hougard said. ″The sales associate keeps a file on each shopper and can call if something the customer has been looking at goes on sale. ... With people being so busy, this is really catching on.″

While many stores conduct customer surveys, Lazarus likes management to talk to customers in person.

Four times a year, a focus group composed of randomly chosen customers lunches with store officials to discuss suggested changes in merchandise and service.

Hougard hopes the strong performance of her stores during the holiday season will put her in good standing when corporate executives review proposals from store managers for alterations at individual stores.

″Stores are out there fighting for available dollars; it’s the same as (government) agencies fighting for grants,″ Hougard said.

She is requesting that her apparel-only stores be expanded and turned into home stores with linens, gifts and house wares.

An added plus is a new companywide advertising campaign, which will distribute a Sunday newspaper insert for the apparel-only stores as it does for its larger home stores. Most promotions, instead of beginning midweek and running through the weekend, will begin on Sunday and continue through the following weekend.

″It’s what the customer wants, and that’s what it’s all about,″ Hougard said.

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