Boston Proper Puts Brakes on Retail Expansion

Blaming the rough retail economy, women’s apparel cataloger Boston Proper has put its plan to open stores on hold. In fact, the Boca Raton, FL-based company is scaling back on its existing retail activity: On May 10 Boston Proper announced that it plans to close one of its two catalog outlet stores in Boca Raton, FL, by the end of June to focus on gaining more closeout sales on its Website. The company still operates one other outlet store in Ellentown, FL, in suburban Sarasota.

Boston Proper had initially planned to start opening stores this year, says chief creative and Internet officer Skip Hartzell. Now the company will wait until the economy improves before moving into retail. “As we look at our fall and holiday catalog sales this year and into next spring, that will help us decide,” says Hartzell, noting that sales for the first half of this year have been strong–exceeding plan on flat circulation. “We still have a shaky business environment, and the retail industry is struggling. So do you become a contrarian and go into retail when retailers are singing the blues? We’re trying to be more realistic about this and not as opportunistic as we’d like to be.”

Further, Hartzell notes, the company wants “to get our Boston Proper direct business as tight as possible before we venture into retail.” Catalogers such as J. Jill and Victoria’s Secret maximized their mailings in retail areas before opening stores, he says. “The catalog must become our vehicle for [retail] brand recognition first.”

Up to now, Boston Proper had been closely following rival J. Jill’s model. The Quincy, MA-based women’s apparel cataloger/retailer in the late ’90s closed its Carole Reed and Nicole Summers catalogs to focus on turning J. Jill into a multichannel powerhouse. The company, which changed its name from DM Management to The J. Jill Group in 1999, opened its first store in November 1999, and currently operates 129 stores.

Meanwhile, Boston Proper sold its Mark, Fore & Strike country-club apparel title in 2002, and closed its Charles Keath gifts catalog early this year. It changed its name from The Mark Group to Boston Proper this past February, and had been gearing up for a push into retail.

Despite the delay, Hartzell is adamant that Boston Proper still has a plan for tapping the retail channel. “It’s just a matter of will we execute it next year or not. It depends on our sales, how the economic environment shakes out, what will happen with the current political mess—a lot of factors.”

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