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  • Jennifer Marks

Hit-and-run retailing

Bluefly.com has become the latest retailer to set up temporary shop in New York City for what is billed as a seasonally opportunistic selling event.

Since this marks the fourth such event to hit Gotham in the past 12 months, you gotta wonder if we're not seeing the emergence of a new type of urban retail formula: seasonally targeted, single-strike retailing.

This is in-and-out retailing of a new sort. Instead of merchandise rolling through a store in seasonal waves, we're seeing retail brands roll through a major urban area in waves.

Target Stores made the first run at it in November 2002, when it floated the Target Holiday Boat across the Hudson River to woo Manhattan's strip mall-deprived holiday shoppers. By early summer, it was Wal-Mart settling down by the riverside — albeit under a tent — in what was billed as the "Wal-Mart Neighborhood Tent Event." Target was back again in the fall with a small temporary store at Rockefeller Center to debut its autumnal Issac Mizrahi apparel line.

The New York excursions have shared a number of common traits. All involved small footprints and tightly edited assortments.

Target's dockside holiday 2002 merchandise mix consisted of just 92 skus — all for either gift-giving or decorating. Its Issac Mizrahi store was even more narrowly assorted. Wal-Mart's tent sale offered only a handful of skus of a practical nature, including light bulbs, fans, dehumidifiers and air conditioners.

And all of the events were brief, running from a couple of weeks to about one month.

The lure of a strategic strike strategy is obvious. It gives suburban-oriented retailers a chance to extend their reach without long-term leasing commitments. The task of inventory replenishment is far tidier given the streamlined and seasonally focused selling model. And the brief urban foray potentially builds the brand, particularly the online business, among a crop of consumers who may only occasionally have an opportunity to visit the bricks-and-mortar store.

Not that this approach is entirely new. Mall owners have leased out unoccupied space on a temporary basis for years, particularly during the holiday.

The strategic strike offers some interesting opportunities — and not just for traditional suburban boxes that can't stomach urban rents. A designer who, for instance, couldn't justify operating a store year-around in Phoenix, might find the hit-and-run store idea useful.

Even mighty Bed Bath & Beyond, which already has an urban presence, might find the hit-and-run model useful for extending its brand deeper into more distant neighborhoods within the city.

In the meantime, New York appears to be serving as something of a laboratory for heartland operations with urban aspirations.

As the song says, "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere." The new idea may be: "If you can make it there for a few weeks, you can count your money and go home."

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