Lana Cain Krauter is the first female president of Beall's, a Bradenton chain of 80 moderately priced department stores. A merchant who survived three decades of brutal department store consolidation, Krauter had a big hand in creating the "Softer Side of Sears" in the mid 1990s. She ran JCPenney's $5.3-billion men's and boys' business when CEO Allen Questrom reinvented the store in the early 2000s. Three months into her new role at Beall's, Krauter, 56, offers a glimpse of what's next:
What was your first exposure to Beall's?
We couldn't get a handle on our Florida business at Sears, so a bunch of us flew down to study Beall's. It was December. Our stores were full of coats and sweaters. Beall's was ready for spring. The buying patterns are completely different here, even city to city. It's very difficult for a chain of 800 stores to slice out 50 for an opposite treatment. A Kohl's buyer up in Wisconsin thinking about shorts in December is not going to happen.
Beall's strength is knowing how casually year-round Floridians dress. How are you changing how Beall's is organized?
We'll keep our conservative basics for everything from casual to church. But in Florida they want comfort. They want wash and wear. They want easy on and easy off, not shaped. A decade ago every retailer segmented customers: "25 to 40, middle-income, married, two kids and she's going to wear this." Women don't shop like that. So we are starting to merchandise by lifestyle, not age.
I dined with some Sarasota women in their mid 60s. They were all in great-looking tank tops, capris and shoes that matched. They lectured me that just because they were 65, don't think they will dress like their mothers. So our brands must be ageless. About 77-million baby boomers think like that. They're moving to Florida.
You have a Florida lifestyle hit with the outdoors look of Columbia Sportswear and your Reel Legends store brand for men. How about women? Your Brisas store label is sort of like J.Jill. Can it be a lifestyle brand?
The label sold a lot of product, but you have to look for it. So, by November we'll expand it to a collection so it's easier to put together cohesive outfits and inspire ideas for women 25 to 65. The Florida lifestyle for women is more resort: but in washed-out colors, 100 percent cotton, cool and casual, but still buttoned up. We're relaunching Emma James, a former Liz Claiborne brand for the young at heart, for spring.
At JCPenney, you came up with valued-added items like a $99 tux for men. What lessons did you learn there?
Focus. We narrowed it down to the 10 top brands, then tried to make the big ones bigger. It's about knowing what the customer expects to pay and engineering in the best quality for the money. Allen Questrom wanted a customer walking out to feel smart about her purchase.
Sears was a man's domain of Craftsman, Diehard and Kenmore when the "Softer Side of Sears" soared, then sputtered. What happened?
I learned you can change customer perceptions of a store despite its heritage, but we could not overcome the old line, military-like culture of the company. They treated us like competition. No matter how hard we tried to make it an apparel company, it would never happen.
As a retailer, have you ever seen an economy like today's?
Not since the 1970s. The tax rebate money is out there, but customers are trading down and apparel prices are about to go up. Typically, big brands people trust do okay in down times. So we build in value to keep our private labels relevant: cell phone pockets, features like hoodies, extra wicking for cooling.
Why a retailing career?
I grew up in a small town outside Austin, Texas. I liked art. So interior design was a natural and led to fashion merchandising. My dad was a cotton buyer for a mattress maker, he tried raising chinchillas and I worked my way through the University of Texas at his dry cleaning store. Once I got a job as a home decorator at Penney, I got the bug.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.