Brylane’s Indianapolis DC Workers Moving Closer to UNITE

Employees at multititle apparel and home goods cataloger/retailer Brylane’s Indianapolis distribution facilities had a victory in their quest for union representation. Region 25 of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that there will not be a secret ballot election despite Brylane’s request for one.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) allows workers to pursue an election or card-check process to determine union representation. Brylane management wanted the employees to have an election despite the workers’ rights to decide their method of unionization.

Since last October, Brylane workers have been organizing with UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, AFL-CIO. Employees chose to pursue a neutrality card-check process that would allow the employer to recognize their demand for union representation by verifying if there is a majority of signed union cards.

Advocates of the neutrality card-check process say this method permits workers to express their wishes without undue influence from their employer. Other instances of card-check agreements show employers taking a neutral position to allow freedom of choice. On these occasions, management has agreed not to distribute anti-union materials, hold mandatory meetings, or support anti-union committees.

New York-based Brylane, a $1.6 billion subsidiary of French conglomerate Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR), markets and distributes apparel and home furnishings for nine mail order catalogs, including Brylane, KingSize, Jessica London, Roaman’s, and Lerner New York.

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Brylane

Brylane’s roots reach back 94 years, to the founding of the Lane Bryant clothing store in 1904. But the nearly century-long evolution that turned Brylane into one of the country’s 10 biggest direct mailers has been an unconventional one, and the company’s big growth push (it surged to $1.28 billion in sales in 1997) began in earnest only four years earlier.

Before 1993, New York-based Brylane consisted of three cataloger/retailers: Lane Bryant and Roaman’s, which specialize in plus-size women’s clothing, and Lerner’s, which sells value-priced women’s apparel. A leveraged buyout in ’93 separated the mail order divisions from their retail counterparts; the three catalogs formed the new Brylane, which concentrated on dominating the specialty-size catalog market.

Five years later, Brylane’s portfolio encompasses eight titles, with a ninth scheduled to launch this fall. Brylane’s sales have climbed 168% since 1993, and margins have improved every year as well. The company has taken advantage of growth opportunities wherever it has found them. Although Brylane has expanded its scope beyond the specialty-size market, the company maintains its focus on the apparel buyers it has come to understand. As chairman/CEO Peter J. Canzone says, “We know our customers and the type of merchandise they want, and the price they are willing to pay.”

Brylane’s 23 million-name specialty-size apparel buyers file is the world’s largest, and the company has always looked for innovative ways to grow its database. In 1994, it reached an agreement with Sears to distribute several catalogs under the Sears Shop at Home brand, gaining access to that company’s list of more than 30 million names.

In 1995, the company’s first catalog acquisition, specialty-size men’s clothing book KingSize, immediately gave Brylane the lion’s share of the men’s specialty-size market. A year later, the company’s purchase of Chadwick’s of Boston-a nationally recognized brand name in the off-price apparel market-strengthened and diversified its list and added new merchandise such as shoes and intimate apparel to its product lines.

While much of the company’s growth has stemmed from its acquisitions, Brylane’s successful spin-off of the Bridgewater catalog of off-price family apparel in 1996 and the specialty-size Jessica London catalog in ’97 leveraged the Chadwick’s brand and boosted sales. Last fall, Brylane launched Brett, targeting younger, active males. This fall, Brylane plans to launch its first nonapparel book-Gramercy Home, a collection of linens, curtains, and floor coverings targeted to the value-conscious market. And thanks to its recent partnership with French retailer Pinault Printemps Redoute, which bought 40% of the company from outside interests this year, Brylane is poised to expand into Europe, where the company believes the specialty-size niches offer tremendous growth potential.

Brylane hasn’t limited its investments to acquiring customers, however. Recent technological advances have helped the company better serve its existing customers. For instance, Brylane last year dramatically increased its telephone capacity and upgraded its warehouse facilities. Now busy signals and abandoned calls are practically a thing of the past, and one-pass picking and high-speed sorters rush orders out of inventory and into the hands of waiting buyers faster than ever.

The success of its initial public offering in 1997 (as well as a second later that year) shows that the company’s positioning and strategy have won Wall Street’s confidence-too rare a feat in the catalog industry. By committing to aggressive expansion while maintaining a clear view of its customers and how it can serve them, Brylane has propelled itself into the role of industry leader, and has earned Catalog Age’s 1998 Catalog of the Year award.

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