Grand dame discounter turns to men for help Loehmann's: The pioneering discount store for women's clothing is trying to rejuvenate itself by adding menswear.

October 08, 1997|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

First, Loehmann's let men into the Back Room.

Now, it's going to try to sell them clothes.

Loehmann's, an institution in women's discount shopping, is opening a men's department today in 19 locations nationwide, including Timonium.

The struggling retail chain, founded 75 years ago by Frieda Loehmann in an automobile showroom in Brooklyn, N.Y., was famous for its Back Room, where women undressed to try on designer clothes. Meanwhile, men sat outside on benches waiting for their wives.

When Loehmann's renovated and nearly doubled the store size in Timonium in May, the Back Room was separated from the communal dressing room and became a department in the store.

Loehmann's, which posted a loss of $2.5 million, or 27 cents a share, for the first six months of its fiscal year, is hoping that men will get out of their seats and paw through racks of their own.

Such was the case yesterday for Ahmad Anvari, who has followed his wife, Eleanor, into Loehmann's for many years. "She wants my idea on what to pick up," he said. Then he saw racks of men's clothing and began to look on his own.

"It is nice to have a men's selection," he said, but then added, "I haven't seen anything I like. I've just been here five minutes It's kind of Bill Cosby stuff."

Even as the sales staff opened boxes of merchandise and finished setting up displays at the Timonium store yesterday, men were buying.

Dress shirts and sweaters were selling best, according to the store manager Jodi Brennan.

Adding men's clothing to Loehmann's is an attempt to boost sales. The chain hired former Macy's executive John Mains in May and gave him responsibility for introducing men's apparel.

"Is it the salvation to their business?" asked Alan Millstein at the Fashion Network Report, a retail industry newsletter. "It is a Band-Aid for someone who has a bellyache."

Millstein said that while selling men's clothing in some of Loehmann's stores does not involve a lot of risk, it also isn't the answer to improving the bottom line. Menswear does not move as quickly as women's clothing, he said.

"It is not the fast turn business that Loehmann's depends on," Millstein said.

In its first six months of 1997, Loehmann's same-store sales were down 11.9 percent over the same period last year.

Recent changes in the apparel industry have meant a shortage of designer merchandise that had been the hallmark of the store. So much of the merchandise today has labels on it, rather than rarer designer clothing with labels removed.

In addition, Loehmann's has felt the heat of increased competition.

"There is a proliferation of discounters doing the same thing that the grand old lady of discounting has done for 75 years," said Millstein.

Even department stores have begun discounting merchandise regularly.

The question of whether the new department, carved from existing store space, will make a difference, may not be answered soon.

But another one has been answered.

Unlike the women, men will not have to share one big dressing room with other men.

The men will have individual dressing rooms.

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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