While most apparel retailers are still feeling their way out of the economic darkness, department store outlet chains remain in growth mode, catering to the budget-minded.
Nordstrom, Saks, Neiman Marcus and, last week, Bloomingdale's have shifted most of their growth capital to their outlet units.
But bargain-oriented Beall's Outlet expanded fast enough since the recession to slip ahead of its 80-store department store sibling in sales volume for the first time.
"We had a super year chasing the opportunity and expanding more aggressively in the coming year," said Conrad Szymanski, president of the family-owned, Bradenton-based outlet chain that racked up same-store sales gains "in the upper-single digits" in fiscal 2010.
Beall's Outlet took advantage of trading up to bigger and better stores on the cheap from what Colliers International estimates is a staggering 300 million square feet of empty big-box retail space nationally. The 120 million square feet vacated just since 2008 by the likes of Circuit City, Linens n' Things and supermarkets equals all the shopping center space in Baltimore, Cincinnati and Kansas City combined.
Beall's laid claim to more than 2 million square feet of it, moving existing stores to bigger quarters and expanding from 437 to 456 stores while pushing its northern frontier into Kentucky. The chain, which opened 26 new stores and upgraded 16 others in the past year, opens 22 more in October and has budgeted 10 more next spring.
"We really love small, rural towns where we often are the first new store since the local Walmart expanded into a supercenter," Szymanski said.
Beall's Outlets are deep discount/closeout operations augmented by its own labels. Men's polo shirts, for instance, are priced at $5.99 for a discount store brand to $12.99 for a Chaps. Women's jeans run $9.99 for Walmart's Faded Glory to $19.99 for Levi's and $29.99 for the occasional Lucky or Seven for all Mankind.
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JCPenney is pepping up its credibility with the young "fast fashion" set drawn to European chains like Zara and H&M.
Penney debuts MNG online this week, a line designed by Mango, a Barcelona-based retailer/designer that stays on top of trends by continuously bringing in new ones.
While women's stores are replenished five or six times a year, Mango/MNG stores get new styles every two weeks year-round. Trendy skirts or jackets are priced at $50 to $100.
Decked out in hardwood floors and chandeliers, Penney's MNG boutiques arrive in 13 Central Florida JCPenney stores next spring, including St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Spring Hill, Wesley Chapel and Westfield Citrus Park in Hillsborough County.
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New top management at Beef O'Brady's headquarters in Tampa is working up a new prototype store for the 240-unit chain of family sports pubs.
Code-named "Beef's 2.0," it is new chief executive Chris Elliott's vision shaped by consultants and proven ideas that Beef's store owners dreamed up on their own.
"This is an evolution, not a revolution," Elliott said. "I want to further set us apart from sports bars and other wing places by being about families, value-priced casual dining and engagement in local sports."
Likely to make the cut once new standards are adopted:
• A big 16-seat community table to draw groups like postgame softball teams and fantasy football leagues. It will be equipped with a chalkboard.
• A community bulletin board at the entrance for local events, heroes and sports news.
• An LED ticker with continuous score updates and a 24-tap line up of draft beer.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.