Retailers try to offer stress-free environment for holiday shopping.

Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2001

Bergdorf Goodman will set up TV sets in its men's clothing department this holiday season, offer children's book readings and showcase home merchandise such as frames and candles on the first floor instead of the seventh.

Proffitt's, an upscale department store chain that's part of Saks Inc., will turn to soothing holiday classic tunes like ''Winter Wonderland,'' instead of loud contemporary music. It's also focusing on merchandise such as comforters and big sweaters and downplaying structured clothing like suits.

And Intimate Brands' Bath & Body Works is training employees in sweetening their sales pitch of new offerings, including its spa and aromatherapy line. Sales staff are now expected to engage shoppers in light conversation before demonstrating the merits of orange ginger oils and salt scrubs.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many retailers are changing their holiday plans, hoping that a softer, more comforting approach will put consumers, who have been cutting their spending back for months, in the mood to buy once again. Amid anthrax scares and fears of more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, retail executives acknowledge that consumers are jittery and that stores need to be more in sync with customers' needs.

''We want a more cozy Christmas. We want our customers to feel our store is a safe haven,'' said Robert Burke, vice president of fashion at Bergdorf Goodman.

''We just need to take the time to say 'hello.' Consumers are more sensitive these days,'' said Ken Montera, executive vice president of Bath & Body Works.

Other retailers including Target Stores Inc. and Home Depot Inc. said they are sticking to already-planned holiday strategies, which they feel are still appropriate. And teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters believes the holiday ad campaign it conceived last spring will resonate even more than expected with shoppers. The retailer's ''Get Together'' campaign, which will begin in mid-November, shows an ethnically diverse group of young people at home sharing the holidays together.

Consumers are pulling away from big-ticket luxury items and other discretionary purchases, and more toward cocooning merchandise, as they retreat to their homes. Sales of knitting needles and other arts and crafts, as well as home decor have picked up at stores including Michaels Stores Inc.

Since the attacks, Americans have been eating more at home, spending more time with family and friends and leaving work on time, according to Arnold Worldwide, a Boston-based advertising agency, which has been surveying 1,000 consumers each week since mid-September.

All this translates to consumers wanting a higher standard of comfort when shopping, said Graceann Bennett, director of brand planning for Arnold Worldwide. ''They're craving human contact, warmth in the stores,'' she said.

But will a warm and fuzzy approach encourage consumers to buy?

''It will certainly help, and allow parents, husbands, boyfriends to shop together, but it doesn't help the key consumer issue,'' said Burt Flickinger, III, a Westport, Conn.-based retail consultant, ''Consumers are tapped out. There are massive layoffs of high paying jobs and concern about looming layoffs.''

Daniel Barry, a retail industry analyst at Merrill Lynch, forecasts that retailers will have the worst Christmas in 33 years, with total general merchandise sales up only 0.2 percent, compared with last year's 5 percent gain. Same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, for the 72 companies Barry tracks are projected to be down 0.8 percent for holiday, compared to last year's modest gain of 1.4 percent.

''The terrorist attacks have created a 'bunker mentality' among consumers who are more centered on the home, shopping less often and spending less freely,'' Barry wrote in a report.

So far, some retailers are reporting some success with their new strategies. Bergdorf Goodman, which just began to offer refreshments in the store, finds customers are lingering longer -- and buying.

And Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Fashion Square said it had a good turnout for a quilt-making project it put on. Marketing director Shana Yao said the mall hopes its free holiday classes on yoga and knitting, planned in the aftermath of the attacks, will get people to stay longer.

But merchants' fate probably lies with consumers like Heather Cole.

''Since Sept. 11, I wanted to be closer to my family and friends, and so when I go out to a store, I feel more vulnerable,'' said Cole, 25, from Boston. ''I am looking for a higher level of comfort than I did before.''

She doesn't want in-your-face selling tactics. ''I want to be able to go to a toy store, for example, where there is product for you to play with,'' she said.

Still, a nicer shopping environment probably won't make her buy more, given her overall worries about terrorism and the economy. This year, she plans to spend $700 on holiday gifts, far less than the approximate $1,200 she spent last year.

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