H. Bendel heads to Pentagon City

July 3, 2011

When high-end retailer Henri Bendel settled on a location for its first store in the Washington area, it skipped the region’s traditional luxury destinations, places such as Tysons Galleria or the tony Collection at Chevy Chase.

Instead, it is bringing its $300 handbags and $125 scarves to the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, a mall better known for its potpourri of mid-priced chain stores.

The move is apparently part of the New York fashion icon’s bid to appeal to a broader, younger audience. Officials at Limited Brands, which owns Henri Bendel along with Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, declined to comment on the Arlington store opening.

According to Pentagon City’s general manager, David Gott, Henri Bendel will occupy 1,550 square feet on the ground floor next to sister Victoria’s Secret. Just about all Limited Brand stores have a presence at Pentagon City, which Gott says influenced the Henri Bendel lease.

The posh boutique, slated to debut in September, plans to sell a collection of its brand accessories, following a merchandising strategy that emerged three years ago. Back then, Henri Bendel began opening stores sans the designer clothing and lingerie found at the flagship Fifth Avenue store. By the following spring, the 116-year-old company stopped selling clothes altogether, as that segment of the luxury market continued to suffer.

“Accessories is one of the areas where the high end of the market reaches a much wider segment of customers,” said Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst at the NPD Group. “If you think about pre-recession, we had people who could barely rub two nickels together spending $500 on handbags. That aspirational customer is what drove all the growth in the accessories market.”

To keep those customers spending amid a rocky economic recovery, he said, retailers such as Henri Bendel have lowered their price point and are “bringing the product to the people, rather than expecting the people to come to them.”

Henri Bendel’s strategy seems to be paying off. The company rang up $50 million in sales in 2010, a 20 percent increase from a year earlier. Since eliminating apparel, the company has opened six stores for a total of 11 locations across the country. That number is slated to grow to 18 by the end of the year, according to a Limited Brands’ quarterly filing.

The existing stores are either located in high-end shopping centers or luxury corridors of the mall. Neither strategy applies in the case of Pentagon City. Iraklis Karabassis, head of IK Retail Group, which develops and finds space for upscale retailers, said Limited Brands is now setting its sights on high-traffic shopping malls.

“Henri Bendel is now a mall concept and has nothing to do with luxury anymore,” said Karabassis, who has brought brands such as Max Mara into the Washington area.

For Pentagon City, Henri Bendel will be “a point-of-difference tenant that will attract a lot of attention,” Gott said. He noted the mall has welcomed more tenants selling pricey goods in recent years, including Hugo Boss, Michael Kors and Juicy Couture.

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