BRADENTON — Dave Alves, the new president of Beall's Outlet stores, isn't your stereotypical Beall's customer.
He's not from Florida, he seldom golfs and, at age 45, he's far from retirement. Before a headhunter contacted him about the job, he had never even heard of the Bradenton-based retailer.
But his background made him a good fit.
He spent 15 years with Hudson's Bay Co. in his native Canada, which, like Beall's, has outlet and department stores. Next he joined TJX Companies (TJ Maxx, Marshalls), where he grew the HomeSense division from five to 70 stores and later brought the TJ Maxx brand to Europe.
He traded corporate life to be CEO of Sterling Shoes, a fledgling, publicly traded footwear retail chain based in Vancouver. A private equity firm took over, and he left.
In October, Alves became president of Beall's outlet store division, leading 470 Beall's Outlet and Burke's Outlet stores in 17 Sun Belt states. (The chain also operates 65 department stores.) Attracted to Beall's humble, century-old roots, he believes the company is poised to become a major discount retailer. Buying a Christmas tree in shorts wasn't too bad, either.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Alves spoke about plans to add new stores, re-educate the public about its brand and energize the shopping experience.
What's your task coming into the job?
We've kind of grown organically up to this point. My task is to take the organization national, not only as we go coast to coast but, more importantly, in our thinking. We are still a Florida-based regional player. Although more than half of our stores are outside Florida, we still don't have a full understanding of what retailing looks like outside the nonresort Florida-type markets. That's one of the things I bring to the table, that experience in four-season retailing.
What are some of your goals?
We'd like to see constant growth. It's not so much store counts, but it's real estate space. We'd like to see 8 to 10 percent new square footage in a given year. We were at a pretty good pace — obviously in 2008 things kind of slowed down and we retrenched. Although we've had a healthy new store campaign, we've got a bit of repositioning to do and then we're going to dial that up again.
How many new stores are you looking at?
Thirty to 50 stores a year for the next number of years. There are more states that we're not in than we are in. We have plenty of green space to grow into. In order to do that, we need to understand the four seasons. As we get farther north it gets a little more distant for us as far as understanding those nuances and product diversity.
Those are pretty aggressive growth plans. So you think the worst of the economic times is over?
I think so. The reality of our business is, when done properly, we are really recession-proof. If we deliver on the right value and right brand, when times are tough, customers look to us. And when times are good, everyone still wants to save money. If anything, we should do even better during a recession. We need to leverage that better than we have in the past. So we're looking for opportunities to rebrand ourselves and demonstrate our evolution. If you walk into our stores today versus five years ago, the assortment of what you see on the racks is significantly improved. A lot more name brands in the mix. A lot more fashion and value. We aren't yesterday's news on the rack. We're tomorrow's news on the rack today at a better value.
What are your criteria for growth?
We're looking to focus on density. We're in many states where we have a very small number of stores and we'd like to see that become more significant so we get the efficiency of resources and improve our ability to market more to those markets. Our real estate strategy hasn't been about clustering our growth, it has been opportunistic. In the next three years, you probably won't see us growing outside the states we trade in. We have some real opportunities to dense up some states. We are far from cannibalizing ourselves.
Beall's has largely catered to an older clientele. Is that your target audience?
That may have been, but I'm not sure we were very clear about what we wanted to be. Are we about that resort, retired customer in Florida or do we want to be something else? The reality is we want to be both. Our primary growth customer is the family customer. Our secondary customer, who we don't want to ignore, is our retired, resort customer. Our average age for our customers is 48, but if you get outside Florida it's closer to 45. We have a lot more families shopping our stores outside Florida. We have to find ways to re-educate people that we're much younger and much broader.
Beall's is perceived as very much a Florida store. What's the perception elsewhere?
We have another interesting dilemma to add to the equation. In Florida, Georgia and Arizona we're called Beall's Outlet. Outside of that, we don't have the rights to Beall's Outlet and we're called Burke's Outlet. In those markets it's a blessing and a curse. They don't know who Beall's is or who Burke's is so we have an opportunity to paint ourselves in whatever light we want to. When we don't have a predetermined view of who we are, we get a much younger, family-oriented customer.
What are some of the greatest challenges facing retail?
The customers' needs are relentless. She wants to see something fresh and gets bored easily. She wants a reason to shop. A product that used to go through a life cycle measured in years now is measured in months, if not weeks. That's a challenge for retail. It puts a lot of pressure on supply and the buying process. When you look at retailers that are working and retailers that aren't, those that are constantly delivering fast fashion and newness are doing well.
What do you see for the company's future?
I look five years down the road and if we were No. 3 behind TJ's $25 billion company and Ross' $10 billion company, I think we'd be doing okay. And we think we can. We need to continue down the path of delivering great fashion and value, and we need to add a bit more energy and passion back into the retail environment. Retail is entertainment, and we need to provide that in the store. All that is well under way.