Retailers like to say they’re thinking “outside the box.” But at Bloomingdale’s this holiday, it’s moved past sound bite and into a virtual realty.
Kicking off the gift-shopping season, Bloomingdale’s went online Monday with its annual holiday window unveiling with performances by singer Andra Day and American Ballet Theatre dancers with 3-D and morphing into avatar special effects by Sensorium.
Bloomingdale’s “on-screen” series of virtual events is running through the holiday season and into next year, substituting for the usual in-store events with online designer talks and classes of all sorts, from decorating the home to serving wine. Online events, while lacking the energy and immediacy of being there in person, pose an opportunity to reach bigger audiences.
And certain holiday “activations” offering refreshments, freebees and special services, the type seen last year inside the Manhattan 59th Street flagship, have moved outdoors this year, alongside the exterior walls of the big box.
The retailer has also reinforced its curbside pickup service with technology, making it easier and faster for store associates to retrieve and properly pack online orders and to identify the cars to take them to.
With the merchandise, the matrix is weighted more to categories and items rarely, if ever, seen at Bloomingdale’s, like games, novelties, food and beverage, face masks, bike helmets, ankle weights, massagers, as well as sweat clothes, lounge sets, pajamas and slippers. There are still a lot of sweaters and puffer jackets in the offering, and less evening, cocktail hour and special occasion wear. Overall the buying has been very conservative but eclectic, spirited, and with a degree of quirkiness.
Because of its in-depth, upscale home business, Bloomingdale’s is seen as having a leg up over its direct competitors, particularly nowadays.
“This is the year of the throw. The year of home fragrance. The year of wine and cookware,” exclaimed Tony Spring, Bloomingdale’s chairman and chief executive officer. “We have so many categories in home furnishings that consumers are discovering for the first time, or investing more in this year. I do think it’s an advantage for Bloomingdale’s being a multi-category destination and offering accessible and luxury brands,” covering a range of prices.
“The Bloomingdale’s brand has a lot of high points in terms of attraction,” Spring said confidently. “The team has done a terrific job thinking through the things we can do to make sure Bloomingdale’s the brand of choice. The way I look at it, we get a check for being multicategory, multigenerational and multichannel. We have advantages that others don’t have. We have an opportunity to exceed the plan we have put together, and exceeding customer expectations.
“This is a different kind of holiday season for Bloomingdale’s and our customers,” Spring said during the exclusive interview with WWD. “Their lifestyles have changed, and we have catered to that with our gift offering, including more special finds in categories like luxury accessories, cooking and entertaining, at-home relaxation, games and entertainment.”
Spring elaborated on the assortment, noting an expansion deeper into categories like toys, games, puzzles, hobbies for adults and home decor. “I just think this has been an opportunity to provide a better gift assortment this year, considering the times we are in. We certainly added new luxury brands, new electronics, and a different assortment of food,” Spring added. “We still have a great cashmere assortment, and great outerwear. It’s just not a year to buy an evening dress or a tuxedo for a black-tie event.
“There is the opportunity to do substantially more business in all categories,” and Spring, as well as other retail executives, foresee a surge in demand for special occasion and workwear once an effective vaccine against COVID-19 is mass distributed and people are no longer sheltering in. “We are prepared to respond to the demand, whether it be the trend of home and comfort or the return to travel and leisure as we emerge from the pandemic.
“In the short term,” Spring acknowledged, “the apparel disruption is very tough to offset” through the home side of the business.
Still, he cited this season’s “terrific performance” in luxury, across leather goods in men’s and women’s, and “a great response” to fragrances, casual sportswear, loungewear and home furnishings in almost all categories “where Bloomingdale’s has a dominant position and so many key brands. People are coming to us because they are spending more time in their secondary or primary homes and want to have better things. They’re not going on vacation. They’re not going to the theater. They want to enjoy some of the niceties in life.”
As the weather got colder, coats and sweaters started to move. Other standout sellers have been seen in luxury skin care, designer pool slides, slippers, face masks, bedding, cookware and bakeware, according to Bloomingdale’s officials.
The retailer added some fashion brands to the assortment this fall, including Ganni, Officine Générale, Heron Preston, JW Anderson, Ermenegildo Zegna and Nanushka. In home, Versace, Roberto Cavalli and Etro were added.
On most days the Bloomingdale’s flagship appears to have relatively few customers yet more than other big Midtown retail flagships. That’s because Bloomingdale’s developed over the decades a loyal neighborhood following, young and old, and some Upper East Siders have returned to the city since Labor Day after fleeing to less dense suburbs and other states seeking refuge from the coronavirus.
Tourism has dried up, and most office workers in big cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco, where Bloomingdale’s has some of its larger volume stores, are staying home to perform their jobs, and avoid getting infected.
“Our urban stores are definitely disproportionately hurt. I don’t think there’s more than 10 or 15 percent of office workers in the city,” Spring said candidly. “But we’re fortunate to have a good mix of locations, that we are multi-geographic and not limited to just operating city stores. We have a mix of urban and suburban locations. Our job is to distribute the inventory where the customer is.”
Asked if he’s seen any pickup in the number of shoppers visiting the 59th Street flagship since Labor Day, when families started returning home because their kids had to go back to school, Spring replied: “I think traffic remains at a very similar place. As the weather got colder we have been seeing a little more traffic in the stores. The biggest benefit we have had, while traffic has been down week over week, conversion in the stores is up considerably. People are not necessarily coming to browse. We are seeing a higher conversion rate.”
At all 35 Bloomingdale’s department stores and 20 Bloomingdale’s Outlets, “We are doing everything possible to make customers feel that Bloomingdale’s is a safe place to come to for a form of entertainment, to see the holiday decorations, and shop,” Spring said, while acknowledging that shopping indoors “is not necessarily going to be for everybody” amid the pandemic. He cited Bloomingdale’s various shopping options – Bloomingdales.com, buy online for in-store pickup or contactless curbside pickup, appointments with stylists and personal shoppers, and same-day and next-day delivery through DoorDash.
Bloomingdale’s, its sister Macy’s division, and stores industrywide, Spring said, have adapted “very comparable” safety practices, including requiring face masks, sanitizers, removing things from the selling floor after they have been tried on, enhanced cleaning measures and social distancing guidelines, building capacity checks, and colleague wellness checks.
“It’s very fortunate that the retail business is not a place being called out where there is high vulnerability” to the coronavirus, Spring said.
Last year, Bloomingdale’s generated about $3 billion in sales, sources said. Macy’s Inc. does not break out financial figures on Bloomingdale’s, however sources close to the company said its results fall within a couple of percentage points of what Macy’s Inc. reports for its total business. So for example, Macy’s Inc.’s comparable sales for the first nine months of fiscal 2020 were down 33.9 percent, and 20.2 percent in the third quarter. Bloomingdale’s numbers would be close to those.
Bloomingdale’s digital sales as a percentage of the total business are said to be less than at Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom, which report around one-third. This year, online sales as a percentage of total sales would be higher at those and other stores due to the temporary brick and mortar closings last spring due to the pandemic. Macy’s Inc.’s digital sales grew 27 percent last quarter, and represented 38 percent of total owned comparable sales. Bloomingdale’s digital penetration would be similar.
To support its online business, Bloomingdale’s ships products from all of its stores, in addition to having its own fulfillment center and utilizing Macy’s fulfillment centers as well.
“Our stores have done fulfillment for several years, and we are [currently] doing much more store fulfillment,” said Spring. “We have hired additional people, created dedicated teams, and new tools to find stuff quicker, with improved packing instructions. And for curbside pickups, we have updated technology to curbside 2.0 for more clarity,” so associates have more information and can efficiently bring products to cars.
“This being a very different year for everyone, between COVID-19, the presidential election and social activism, we wanted to make sure we are celebrating appropriately and that we are a source of inspiration – that we’re upbeat. Maybe you are not seeing your family in this same way that you would have last year. You still want to be happy,” said Frank Berman, Bloomingdale’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “Our gift guides are colorful, celebratory and very upbeat to convey Bloomingdale’s as a happy place,” Berman said, referencing the “Give Happy” theme of the 2020 holiday campaign.
About 1,000 people watched Bloomingdale’s online holiday event Monday evening. It benefited the Child Mind Institute that helps children struggling with mental health and learning disorders. The event was co-hosted by comedian/actor Ali Wentworth and Spring and had a half-hour of performances by singer/songwriter Andra Day, and American Ballet Theatre dancers Misty Copeland, Skylar Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer, utilizing motion capture technology, 3-D and animation effects where performers morphed into digital avatars. The holiday windows were unveiled at the close of the show.
Bloomingdale’s this year has been testing virtual events; 20 have been held since August, with Michael Aram, David Yurman, Phillip Lim, Charlotte Tilbury, as well as with Michelin chefs and a sommelier, among others.
Coming up, flower arrangements with Kobi Halperin on Nov. 30; training with Hyperice massage device ambassador Harley Pasternak on Dec. 7; a Jonathan Simkhai “sips and sweets” event on Dec. 11, and holiday entertaining with Laura Slatkin from Nest on Dec. 17.
Outdoor “activations” at the 59th Street flagship include the Barefoot Dreams blanket and loungewear brand’s “Palm Tree Lot” where if a customer spends $100 in Bloomingdale’s Carousel shop, they get a free palm tree, and there’s a Daikanyama happy hour station with drinks and edamame. There is also a Ralph’s coffee cart from Ralph Lauren.
Macy’s Inc., like other “nonessential” retailers, was forced to temporarily close all of its Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Bluemercury stores on March 18 due to spiking coronavirus cases around the country. They reopened them in phases beginning in May. “It was one of the most heartwarming things watching customers come back to our stores in the spring and meeting up again with associates they’ve known,” Spring said.
But this month, with COVID cases again on the rise, Bloomingdale’s and its parent Macy’s Inc. are bracing for another possible round of temporary store closures which could happen soon, potentially dragging down the holiday season. Among the states being most closely watched are California, Texas, Florida and New York. Bloomingdale’s business is concentrated on the East and West coasts.
Bloomingdale’s taps into the Macy’s Inc. “dashboard” monitoring “hot spots” of spiking coronavirus cases around the country. “We have access to the same information,” said Spring.
“We partner with Macy’s to take advantage of those daily calls so we are apprised of what’s happening.” And if local and state politicians demand another shutdown, “We’re able to make quick decisions when necessary,” said Spring.