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  • Jennifer Marks

Class distinctions

The president of a private textiles company called to announce he'd secured a name license — or at least what folks in the home textiles world consider to be a name license. He wanted to get an item into the paper about it, so we ran through the usual list of questions — how many skus, when does it launch, what are the price points. Then I asked him which channels are being targeted for the line.

That's where we hit a snag.

Specialty stores, department stores and catalogs, he said, and (pause) "what do you call Kohl's?"

I told him the phrase "mass market department store" is often used as an umbrella term for Kohl's, JCPenney, Sears and Mervyn's.

"Let's leave that part out then," he said. "We want Kohl's, but we don't want people thinking we're taking the license to the mass market."

It was a fine example of the philosophical disconnect between people in the trade — retailers and vendors alike — and consumers.

People in the trade see Kohl's as a distinct entity set apart from others in its class, and the rapidly growing chain is not alone in that regard. The same specialized status is visited upon Target, The Great Indoors, Expo Design Center, and, to varying degrees, Bed Bath & Beyond and Linens 'N Things.

Most technically fall into well-defined categories of retail. But in perceived terms, they operate on a more ethereal plane, usually characterized by better merchandising, better assortments and better customers.

Consumers notice the difference, too, even if they don't grasp these distinctions in quite the same way.

I doubt that Kohl's most fanatically loyal customers would for one second classify it as a department store.

I don't think Target's customers are deluded into thinking they're anywhere other than a discount store.

And it's highly unlikely that any normal person looks at a mass market storefront and thinks "mass market."

Nomenclature is a tricky business that can become as confining as it is defining.

Remember that it was once very cool to be or do business with a "category killer." And you have to hand it to retail entrepreneurs: they left no category un-killed.

Today, category killers of every stripe are politely known as "specialty retailers," whether they sell Egyptian towels or 5-pound packages of No. 2 pencils.

Then there are the stores that don't want to be classified, the most notorious being Fred Meyer. It may stock private-label coffee filters, but it also vends some real honest-to-goodness department store brands. And that, they will tell you, is why they are not a supercenter. They are "a unique retailing concept."

When you consider it, the class distinctions that fissure channels really boil down to the idea of being a "unique retailing concept." The stores that stand apart from others have carved out an identity that makes them distinctive.

It's another reminder that a store is not defined by whether it uses a racetrack layout, but by the merchandising it sets up around it.

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