DSW Milestone: Revamping Retail

It’s out with the cardboard boxes and in with mobile fixtures at DSW, where store design has evolved at least four times in the last 20 years.

According to Dave Crawford, VP of store planning at DSW, the firm hasn’t historically spent a lot of money on its locations, leaving some of them old, tired and not as hip as the brand would like them to be.

To that end, the firm is remodeling 60 doors this year, with each project costing about $1 million, according to Bill Jordan, EVP and general counsel at DSW. The firm’s CEO, Michael MacDonald, wants specifically to phase out cardboard fixtures in all stores by mid-2013 and replace them with permanent “slider” fixtures that create a modular system.

The latest round of stores aims to reflect what DSW has come to represent: a modern fashion retailer offering value, rather than a conventional shoe warehouse peddling close-out merchandise.

The newest outposts will feature materials such as stained concrete, raw steel and cedar wood to create a contemporary yet warm-and-cool vibe, while all will feature several key elements that Crawford called “non-negotiable,” that will make the DSW stores distinct.

One element that defines the DSW shopping experience is something all the firm’s execs call the “snake.”

“Here, shoes are merchandised by end use instead of by brands. So when you come in the front door, handbags and accessories are on the right — if at all possible — and the cash [registers are] always on the left. [The aisles are lined from] north to south, and they start with women’s evening,” explained Jordan.

Zigzagging his finger up and down in the air, he continued: “Then it goes: women’s dress, women’s casual, women’s seasonal, women’s athletic, men’s athletic, men’s casual, men’s dress. And clearance is always in the back. When you watch customers come in, they always go to the right, and move in a pattern through the aisles, like a snake.”

Other key elements include the black-and-white striped carpeting inside the store and a black-and-white striped awning outside.

Another fresh feature is a modular wall on the side of the store that will prominently display key trends or other product worth highlighting. When Footwear News visited the Polaris Parkway store near the company’s Columbus, Ohio, headquarters last month, the wall featured back-to-school product from brands such as Converse.

“The whole idea is the space is 100 percent flexible,” explained Crawford. “It allows us to accent some handbags and maybe some accessories. [Each] store can do a lot of different things here [because] the hardware system is flexible with shelves and cubes you can play around with.”

Over the last 20 years, the firm has tried — and subsequently thrown out — the old “white box” layout; the Bar design; and more recently, the Easton design.

The historical layouts didn’t work for various reasons, including issues related to store navigation and having product showcased on cardboard box fixtures, which made the stores look too much like an actual warehouse.

And when customers found it intimidating to walk into “a sea of shoes displayed all at the same level,” said Crawford, DSW implemented side walls and a center “stage” area to compartmentalize the store, visually.

“It helps to break up the real long lines in a store that’s 25,000 to 30,000 square feet. We don’t want the rows to become bowling alleys. There’s nothing worse than going down an aisle and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t get out,’” he said.

Another important feature that has been reworked over the years is the clearance area in the back of some stores. It’s an essential part of DSW’s business, but got lost behind a wall in some doors, creating a visual and psychological barrier from the main selling floor.

“We were hiding [the] clearance [area] and the store looked smaller, and customers didn’t like it. So we’re going back to an open plan,” said Jordan.

Crawford added, “We put it in the closet and realized that was the wrong thing to do. We realized that was a huge part of our business and who we are. When we took those walls down, we also turned the [aisle orientation] north-south, so [when customers walk in they can see straight to the clearance in the back].”

DSW implemented plush, circular banquette seats in its Easton-design stores, then observed that they were unpopular. They reverted to simple rectangular benches, placing one in every 200 square feet of selling space.

The firm also learned that the little mirrors attached to the benches were insufficient. Shoppers really wanted full-length mirrors so they could see how the shoes matched their outfits.

“It’s a big thing for ladies to be able to see the whole thing. And we learned that through research and our customer [feedback]. You’ll notice that you can’t really walk too far in this store and not find a full-length mirror, and that’s the goal,” said Crawford.

Because DSW plans to eventually operate 450 stores, it’s important to have the layout down pat to convey a consistent brand message, Crawford said.

“It also helps us from a construction standpoint: If [the stores are] all the same, we can order the same materials and shipment, [thereby making it] cost effective,” he said.

The company also is being strategic in its search for the right real estate properties.

“The good [locations] have been absorbed; the bad ones that nobody wants are still out there. And with the recession, you don’t have many new developments,” said Steve Ramey, VP of real estate. “But Borders just went out of business, so now there’s a whole new crop of stores coming in for us to look at. For strong retailers like us, [the recession has] actually been a good thing because it has opened up some markets.”

For instance, next March, DSW will unveil its much-anticipated second Manhattan outpost, on 34th Street. Taking over a space previously occupied by a Howard Johnson hotel, the store will be larger than its Union Square location and boast three levels of shopping, said Jordan.

“It’ll definitely have more prominence and presence. You’ll see it’s basically a building dedicated to DSW,” he said.

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