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Look again

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 7:29 a.m. November 8, 2013
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Strategies
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Bealls Inc. executive Lorna Nagler received looks from quizzical to doubtful when she recently took a revamped image of the Bradenton-based retailer on a trip to New York City.

After all, the chain's 74 department stores, from Tallahassee to Naples to Jacksonville, are known to cater to an older customer. That's traditionally someone who fits snugly into the Sunshine State's stereotypical retiree mold.

Nagler, though, now delivers a new message to industry buyers, competitors and customers. It's one that Bealls, which also operates a separate outlet store unit with 460 locations in 17 states, can be more than a shop around the corner for seniors. Brands the department stores now carry, for example, include shoes designed by guitar rocker Carlos Santana; urban fashion line Baby Phat; and clothes from pop star Jessica Simpson. The tagline is “Take a Brand New Look.”

In essence, Bealls wants to get younger — but not too young. “We understand our mission and who we are,” Nagler says. “This is an innovation and an evolution, not a major revolution.”

Adds Nagler: “We are never going to be the young millennial. That's never going to be our space.”

Moreover, given how entrenched Bealls Inc., founded in 1915 by Robert Beall Sr., is with a Florida-centric customer, any alteration to the mission is significant. That's probably why Nagler, named president of the department store division in early 2011, recently surprised industry insiders at a New York trade show when she boasted about the new brands. Says Nagler: “They may be thinking of the Bealls from 10 years ago.”

The shift involves a balance of satisfying current customers while attracting and retaining new ones — a tough task in any field. In retail, however, where margins are silky thin, it can be daunting. Bealls Inc. had $1.23 billion in 2012 sales, up 5.6% from $1.17 billion in 2011; the firm doesn't break out revenues by divisions.

The former CEO of Plymouth, Minn.-based retailer Christopher & Banks, Nagler began the Bealls makeover about two years ago. She visited every store. She watched people shop.

She learned Bealls, in an effort to maintain a customer base in the downturn, over-emphasized low cost at the expense of choice. “We were focused on price, not product,” says Nagler. “But value is not just about price. We probably had underestimated the capacity of our customer to go younger.”

So Nagler set out on a mission to add more brands, especially bigger and bolder ones. Additions include surfing brands, high-end shoes and athletic additions, from Adidas and Asics to Nike and PGA Tour gear.

Nagler shifted marketing dollars to get the message out, rather than add significantly to the budget. The company has a large direct mail campaign, for one, which targets specific niches, such as people with children and single women. Bealls has also started to remodel some of its stores, including its Jupiter and Fernandina Beach locations. And Nagler recently hired a marketing director, Sean Sondreal, who previously ran marketing departments at Harbor Freight Tools and Kohl's Department Stores, a top Bealls competitor.

While Nagler moves ahead in the brand evolution mission with enthusiasm, she's also cognizant of what she doesn't want to do. Foremost on that list is anything like the gaffe-cum-disaster at JCPenney in 2012, when former CEO Ron Johnson attempted to retrain customers to not rely on discounts. “The previous regime at JCPenney's tried to fire their core customer,” says Nagler. “We won't do that.”


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