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Stein Mart Banking on Nina, Gifts to Lift Home

Retailer Reveals Plans at Annual Meeting

Cecile Corral, Jeff Linville -- Home Textiles Today, June 18, 2007

Using the very upscale backdrop of the Cummer Museum and Gardens here, in the choice company of Picasso, Kandinsky and a room full of religious Russian icons from the Romanov era on exhibit down the hall, Stein Mart outlined the highlights — and the struggles — it experienced over the prior fiscal year and its new initiatives for 2007.

The highlights over the year did not include the home fashions category, which lagged after the retailer overhauled the department at the onset of 2006 in a failed attempt to attract new and younger customers with clean-lined contemporary fashions.

But that trend at the 268-unit promotional department store chain is poised for a 180-degree turn this new fiscal year, ceo and president Michael Fisher noted. The leading initiatives are the reintroduction of Stein Mart's popular gift assortment and the recent launch of the Nina by Nina Campbell designer linens program.

The performance in home is part of a broader challenge. While 2006 saw Stein Mart sales creep up 1.3% to $1.5 billion, comps were off 1.2% for the year, and earnings shrank 27.1% to $37.1 million.

Julie Thomas Dinklage, who assumed the vp, gmm post for gifts and linens four months ago upon the departure of Kassie Jones, explained to Home Textiles Today that Stein Mart has "re-done the floors" of the home department in five test stores — one in Orange Park, Fla., two in Atlanta and two in Charlotte, N.C. – to "bring back" its signature gift program.

The rollout to all units is expected to be completed by Aug. 1.

"We don't have the same gift department stack-ups [shelving] for this yet, because a lot of that disappeared when they changed home last year," she noted, but a re-work of the fixturing is underway.

The idea in the home area is to replace "the unique qualities we were known for," she went on to say, which includes not just gift items but also more "hostess" goods like serving pieces, pre-packaged tabletop goods including crystal, glassware, and dishes — which had been changed to open-stock — and the relocation of table linen products to this area.

"Open stock just isn't our customer" in tabletop, Dinklage explained. "We're not a Crate & Barrel. How can we expect our customer to transport these [separate] pieces to her car and then her home? It was hard enough for us to move them around the store. We're bringing back these items but already packaged in photo-gift boxes."

Added Fisher: "We're taking what was really the essential part of our gift business and bringing it back, but updated for 2007."

In home textiles, not the percent to sales but rather assortments are in flux, changing to appeal to the loyal Stein Mart customer base. The department will feature "more tasteful, more saleable looks," Dinklage said. "We just have to do what we do best in a more specialized way."

That includes more regional buys, particularly in the Southwest and resort areas, she continued.

Also new to the linens area is the Nina by Nina Campbell solid-color towel program, available in 12 tones, which began shipping to stores in mid-June.

In other news, Stein Mart this fall will launch a new advertising program with TV spots testing "a broader reach," as well as new free-standing inserts, direct mail pieces and "a more aggressive" internet-based effort including email alerts, Fisher said.

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