City embraces Famous’ lifestyle

Columbia shoppers help the store have its best opening in years.
Friday, December 19, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:22 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

Amy Lewis loves to shop. So when the new 140,000-square-foot Famous Barr in Columbia opened in October, it was “like Christmas coming two months early” for the 25-year-old physical therapist.

“Being from St. Louis, I’m a die-hard Famous Barr customer,” said Lewis. “It’s what I do.”

Lewis and other Famous Barr loyalists have helped the high-end retailer to one of its most successful openings in years. Helen Weiss, a divisional vice president of public relations, said the opening of the Columbia store at 201 N. Stadium Blvd. has been “one of the best we’ve had in a long time.”

“We’ve wanted to come to Columbia for so long and we were embraced with open arms,” Weiss said. “Now it’s paying off.”

Weiss and other Famous Barr officials are attributing some of the early success to the store’s new “lifestyle” design. Called the “next generation prototype,” the store features bright colors, wider aisles and more dynamic signage and graphics. Along with such fixtures as the Gen Y Zone, a department exclusively for youth merchandise, the design is part of Famous Barr’s effort to lure younger shoppers — and steal market share — from top competitors.

“We would like to think that the Columbia store’s success is due, at least in part, to the design,” said Mark Allen, senior vice president of May Design and Construction Co., a division of Famous Barr’s parent, the May Co. “We’ve viewed the Columbia store as a test, so our results will give us a good indictor as in which direction to head, from a design perspective.”

Allen says that the store has probably also benefited from its close proximity to Wal-Mart.

“They generate a lot of traffic,” he said.

Another reason for the new store’s success could be the timing of its opening, said Mike Davis, Southern Methodist University economics professor and an expert on the retail industry. Davis says that while the second half of 2003 hasn’t been particularly profitable for department stores, it has been good for new store openings. He also credits increased consumer spending in the months approaching the holiday season.

“Chances are, if you opened the same Famous Barr in the same location a year or two ago, the results wouldn’t be as favorable,” Davis said. “Consumers have had a nice increase in disposable income. And apparently in Columbia, like everywhere else, they have decided to spend it. When you put those two factors together, they become a very potent combination for retail sales.”

Whatever the causes, according to the observations of some local shoppers, Famous Barr’s success might be coming at the expense of other large, local retailers. Robyn Westly, a waitress and self-proclaimed “shopping aficionado,” says that she has noticed that the JCPenney and Dillard’s — two department stores that anchor the Columbia Mall — have been “noticeably less crowded” since Famous Barr opened.

“Dillard’s has been dead for the past few weeks,” said Westly, during a recent shopping trip to Columbia Mall. “Personally, I still like to shop here, but I know a lot of people who have switched to Famous Barr.”

Dillard’s has fallen upon hard times of late — the company lost $15.8 million in the third quarter this year — but company spokeswoman Julie Bull says that she doesn’t think the new Famous Barr has had any significant impact on Dillard’s in Columbia. And Royce Bervig, store manager for JC Penney’s Columbia Mall location, said the new Famous Barr may even have helped business.

“Having Famous Barr works to our favor,” Bervig said. “We want to keep customers here in Columbia, not leaving the area to do their shopping. Famous Barr helps keep them in town.”

And while Famous Barr officials are pleased with the performance of their “stand-alone” store, Bervig says JC Penney’s position inside the mall is an advantage. Statistics show, he says, that customers still want “the mall experience.”

“There’s no question that people are going to go to Famous Barr, but they’re also going to come to the mall and shop at JC Penney,” he said.

That’s not the case for Tim Spits, a Columbia resident and “occasional” shopper, who was recently in Famous Barr.

“I don’t have the stamina for the mall, especially during the holiday season,” said Spits. “You come in on the weekends, the place is packed, the lines are long, babies are crying. And I’m saying to myself, ‘All I need is a belt.’ I’d rather just avoid all that madness.”

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