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As mall retail struggles, will Macy’s upgrades at Countryside secure the brand’s future?

The new look and added services at the Clearwater Macy’s come as retailers shuttered more stores in the first six months of 2019 than in all of last year.

CLEARWATER — Lidia Luna is searching through Macy’s dress racks with new LED lighting overhead and just-installed carpet beneath her feet.

She is helping a woman find a gown for a corporate event. Last week, Luna helped a Tampa General Hospital executive begin the hunt for the perfect casual dress.

Luna is the Macy’s full-time personal stylist. Anyone can see her at no charge if they book an appointment. It’s a new role at Tampa Bay’s leading Macy’s at Westfield Countryside Mall.

Macy’s is updating 10 Florida stores and dozens of others in an attempt to win over modern shoppers, spending millions on aesthetic upgrades, technology and new positions — all while having weary investors and missed Wall Street expectations last quarter.

“We really thought about what she would love,” said Clearwater Macy’s manager Juan Pacheco said, referring to the typical Macy’s shopper’s needs. "Everything has been done with her in mind.”

The department store’s updated strategy to personalize high-performing stores comes as mall retailers, even staple teen brands like Forever 21, are struggling, if not completely floundering. Retailers have closed more than 7,000 stores within the first six months of this year — that’s already more than the number stores that closed all of last year, according to a report from tax advisory firm BDO USA.

Customers hustle in and out of Macy's Countryside on Tuesday. The chain, founded in 1858 by Rowland Hussey Macy, is in the midst of revamping its brand and stores, including the Clearwater store, which is among 100 to get the new look and services for 2019. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

Macy’s had already updated 50 stores with services, items and decor as a test. The next 100 are slated to be done by the holiday shopping season. The Clearwater store will be done by mid October, but it’s the only one of the six Macy’s stores in Tampa Bay getting the updates.

The Countryside Macy’s has been designated as one of the “Growth 150” locations. Of Macy’s roughly 640 locations, the Clearwater store is among the fraction of stores that together generate more than half the company’s brick-and-mortar revenue.

So, what does that mean for Tampa Bay shoppers?

“The store feels so much brighter,” said Clearwater Macy’s merchandise manager Taylor Brown.

She was talking about the lights, but also the rich fall clothing trend displays and modern signage. The women’s clothing department has more dresses. It has been accented with dusty pink walls, gold fixtures and Edison light bulbs like you’d see at a boutique.

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Makeup artists at the cosmetic counters use handheld skin scanners to find your perfect foundation match. Sleek mannequins model each style of men’s suits alongside an easy to follow fit guide.

Style advisers are working the dressing rooms — not just to pull other sizes, but to grab shoes and accessories for complete styled looks. Luna, the personal style consultant, is already accepting one-on-one appointments even though the chic space she’ll have for client visits won’t be complete for a few more weeks.

Macy’s leadership first announced the growth strategy last year: it focused on elevating atmosphere, added specialty staff and new tech for convenience.

A virtual reality station allows shoppers to see how furniture could look inside their homes through the vision of high-tech goggles — the setup will be in Clearwater by next month. An “at your service” desk near the busiest entrance handles online order pickups and returns. The Macy’s app allows shoppers to check themselves out by scanning tags on their own smartphone.

Lilia Sarna, of Clearwater, gets matched with a foundation color with an Estee Lauder iMatch Digital Shade Finder at Macy's Countryside's makeup counter by sales associate Cathy Ruggiero, of Palm Harbor, at the department store in Clearwater. Enjoying the show is Lilia's son, 16-month-old John Sarna. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

Shoppers can also use the app to check if there are more sizes or colors available online or in other stores — or have an employee look it up on a store handheld device that can also cash them out.

Those kind of seamless, consumer-driven tech additions are already at brick-and-mortar leaders Walmart and Target. Their success, especially in apparel, has put traditional retailers in an even tougher place to compete with digital Goliath Amazon.

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Kohl’s is processing Amazon returns for free as a way to attract more foot traffic. Sears is axing another 100 stores and JCPenney’s stocks have been hovering around a buck and some change per share for the last year. Macy’s debuted its own TJ Maxx-style store with “Backstage” last year and saw some increase in sales. But trends stalled in December and its profit margins have dropped this year.

Julianne Bartosz, media relations manager with Macy's uses the Macy's Mobile App to verify the price of a dress at the Macy's Countryside store in Clearwater. The app interfaces with the Macy's website providing customers with a live portal to access inventory, color and size choices for clothing and the ability to shop and pay bills on the go. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

“But it’s not all because of eCommerce,” said retail expert Jonathan Treiber.

The cause of the so-called “retail apocalypse” is an array of reasons, he said, from consumers coming to expect more from brands, to stores’ over-discounting.

Treiber is the CEO of RevTrax, a company that uses data to help retailers understand shoppers’ patterns, paths to purchase, and how discounts and coupons should be used to push sales without hurting revenue. He’s made an entire business out of the very issue Macy’s is sorting out now.

Macy’s isn’t just unveiling remodels — it’s explaining to investors how it will shave up to $550 million in expenses each year. A lot of that planned savings comes from how the company will handle discounting, which has killed its profit margins.

Now, executives say they will move away from across-the-board coupons and discounting to targeted promotions. While the idea is right in theory, Treiber said, it has been historically mismanaged at other retailers. JCPenney, for example, infamously cut away the very discounts that made the chain famous in favor of everyday low prices in 2011, causing clientele to lose interest and kill sales.

“To go from way too promotional to less promotional creates a greater risk of alienating core customers,” he said. “There’s a lot of land mines for them to kind of blow their foot off on.”

Among the improvements at Macy's Countryside is a series of trend hits capsules touting the latest fashion trends. In this case, a capsule highlights the green being a big fall color. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

Macy’s told investors it will change the way it handles clearance items: Prices will be dictated by the inventory of each store, not the six “pricing regions” the company used before. It will make sale prices unique to each location, based on individual supply-and-demand needs.

In a way, it’s another example of Macy’s efforts to personalize each store.

“The bigger the company,” Treiber said, “the harder this is to do.”