Regional merchandise strategy rolls at LNT

Clifton, NJ — As it rolls forward the expansion of its store-level "inventory ownership" program — now in about 70 stores — Linens 'n Things has also begun working to more broadly regionalize its assortments, executives said last week following the annual shareholders' meeting.

The ownership program is at the core of a larger initiative to enhance corporate productivity from the bottom up, beginning in the stores by giving managers more authority to merchandise their units.

Viewed from a top-down perspective, the company is roughly midway through the process of creating a regionalized merchandising process, said Audrey Schlaepfer, executive vp and chief merchandising officer. "There are some very clear and easy winners — Florida, the Southwest and California," she explained in an interview.

Schlaepfer said that some regionalization is being accomplished by tapping niche suppliers and some by creating private label. "But in some cases it's worked out so that we're dealing with our major suppliers."

High-end tabletop, now in "a select number of stores," is becoming an important piece of LNT's bridal business, although "for a majority of our stores, I do not see it as a selection," said chairman and ceo Norman Axelrod.

LNT Jr. departments, which debuted spring 2002 in a small group of test stores, have now rolled out to about 100 of the chain's 400 units. The company continues to tweak the mix and will begin adding wall art and other components to the assortment, which includes bedding, décor accessories, small furniture pieces and some activity sets.

"It's probably not going to be a fit in every store," said David Coder, senior vp, store operations, who noted that in communities that have a large population of retirees, for example, the department might not be appropriate.

Adult furniture — primarily RTA — represents a larger growth opportunity, although "we're still in the process of really rolling it out," he said.

"Furniture, gifts, accessories, food — all of these categories we think have great potential," Axelrod said.

Overall, Schlaepfer said, the company continues to strive for a better balance between fashion and core basics.

Addressing the latter issue, auctions continue to be a factor, Axelrod said. "It's a bigger piece of the process for us, and we've had some success," he said. "But if anyone thinks they can replace fashion with price, I don't see it being possible."

Axelrod indicated that while commodity-type products appear ripe for auctions, brands with a strong fashion franchise would not be forced through the process. "I still think buyers have a full-time job," he added.

As for his own role in the merchandising and buying operation, Axelrod said that he is more directly involved since the February departure of president Steve Silverstein, though not on a day-to-day basis.

"I have eight direct reports. They're more responsible and more empowered with one less layer [of management]," he added. "But I want to make it clear that that's not a comment on an individual. That's a matter of the structure we have now."

In addition to Schlaepfer and Coder, those direct reports include: Tony D'Onofrio, senior vp, supply chain management; Bill Giles, senior vp and cfo; Hugh Scullin, senior vp, real estate, store planning, construction and legal; Brian Silva, senior vp, human resources, administration and corporate secretary; Jeffrey Steinhorn, senior vp, cio; and Tim White, senior vp, marketing.

That structure is still being examined, Axelrod said. Ultimately, another position may be created to oversee some — but not all — of those areas, he said.

On the subject of SARS, D'Onofrio said that so far there have been no closures among the factories serving LNT. Like many other U.S. businesses, LNT has substituted travel to Asia with teleconferencing and more overnighting of samples.

"So far, it hasn't had an impact," Schlaepfer said. Whether that remains the case, she added, "depends on how long it lasts through the [product] cycle time."

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