The Hecht Co. is moving uptown -- literally and figuratively.
In three weeks, the 125-year-old retailer will move its flagship downtown store six blocks north and west, to 12th and G streets NW from Seventh and F streets NW.
In the process, the 23-store chain hopes to polish its image, catering less to the bargain-conscious shopper that helped make the chain successful and placing greater emphasis instead on the more affluent consumer.
In truth, the $40 million, five-floor, marble-and-granite store at Metro Center has moved closer to the heart of a downtown area that is seeing a resurgence of retail growth. It makes a dramatic and luxurious contrast to the eight-floor store that has stood at Seventh and F streets for 89 years.
In place of that store's time-worn, frequently mismatched linoleum, industrial carpet and fake brick floors, the new store will have marble parquet and expensive Karastan carpeting. Mahogany paneling inlaid with brass will replace the darkly painted -- and often clashing -- walls of the old store.
As different as the decor is from the old store, the new Hecht's plans an even sharper departure from the other store's traditional merchandise. First and foremost, the budget shop that was housed in the basement of the F Street building -- and which accounted for about 10 percent of that store's business -- will be eliminated. In addition, many of the lower-priced goods in other departments will be dropped.
"We'll see a general upgrading of the content," predicted Paul Proietto, a regional vice president of Hecht stores for the Washington area. "Here at the F Street store , 60 to 70 percent of the inventory is at budget-to-moderate price points. At Metro Center, 70 to 80 percent of the merchandise will be moderate-to-upper-moderate and better price points."
For instance, where Hecht's downtown store used to carry only Waterford as its top line of crystal, the new store will add a broad array of Mikasa and Orrefors items to the more expensive line.
As for apparel, the difference will be even more striking, Hecht officials predict, with more than a doubling of space devoted to higher-priced men's and women's clothing. Clothing from Anne Klein II, Christian Dior, Adrienne Vittadini and Ralph Lauren -- not currently offered in the downtown store or in most of the chain's other 22 outlets -- will be prominently displayed.
The selection of $6 handbags -- available in a large number of colors and styles at the F Street store -- will be extremely limited, replaced by the much more expensive Coach and Anne Klein II lines.
The new Hecht's also will sell the popular Giorgio brand of perfume, whose sales are limited by the manufacturer to the most exclusive stores in the country.
Meanwhile, the new store's home electronics center will house more than twice the number of televisions, videocassette recorders and stereos as the older store, with most of the new models more sleek and sophisticated than those displayed until now.
"We're trying to cater to the professional man and women," said Hecht's chairman, J. Warren Harris, at a tour of the new store.
In moving to upgrade its merchandise and look, Hecht's is following many other retailers that recently have gone through similar face lifts, including retailing giants Sears Roebuck & Co., K mart Corp. and J. C. Penney Co. Inc.
"We're not abandoning any public segment," said Harris, explaining Hecht's decision to go upscale. "We're just trying to reach out to another group of customers."
The new store is slated to open to the public on Halloween -- an appropriate date for a company that is trying to put on a new face.
The F Street store will close its doors sometime before that date, however. Since September, it has been running a modest relocation sale, offering 25 percent discounts on much of its merchandise.
Beginning this week, Hecht's will launch an even more extensive sale, offering discounts of 50 percent or more on the merchandise left in the old building. None of that unsold merchandise will be transferred to the new store, which is being stocked from scratch.
To prepare for the sale, Hecht's has shut down the F Street store until Thursday, Oct. 10. The store will close for good by Oct. 26, at the latest, company officials say; it could close earlier if most of the marked-down merchandise is sold quickly.
The store's 250 workers will then be transferred to Metro Center to help prepare for the opening. The company also plans to hire another 450 employes, anticipating that the new store's annual sales will be $11 million more than what the old flagship brought in -- even though its overall space, 275,000 square feet, is about 50,000 square feet less than at the F Street store. (The chain doesn't release figures on each store's actual sales.)
Hecht executives said they believe the new store will do so much better, despite the smaller space, partly because the items will have higher prices, but primarily because the floor space will be better utilized, with much of the merchandise displayed on the walls.
Hecht's is negotiating to sell the Seventh Street store and hopes to make an announcement about its purchase within the next few weeks, Harris said.
Why the move? "If we tried to rebuild the F Street store -- which is made of four to five different buildings -- we would have had to tear it down and build it up," Harris said. "That would have meant we would have to close down and go out of business for some time." Hecht's thus decided to build at a new site.
"This is the first free-standing department store being built downtown since the 1940s," Harris said.
The site provides Hecht's with an even better location downtown and gives the retailer a direct entrance to the Metro system -- access it has sorely missed since the Metro system began operating in 1976, especially considering that Hecht's archrival Woodward & Lothrop Inc. has had a Metro entrance on its lower level for nine years.
The move will put Hecht's smack in the middle of downtown's revitalized shopping district, the same distance from Garfinckel's (on 14th and F streets) as from Woodies (10th and G streets). City officials still are trying to attract another major department store -- Bloomingdale's -- to the area, just across from the new Hecht's.
But even without Bloomingdale's, the Hecht's move is expected to give an added boost to downtown, which has been showing more and more life recently thanks to the opening of restaurants and stores at the Old Post Office and The Shops at National Place.
"This will provide a significant magnet to the revitalization of downtown," declared Kwasi Holman, the executive director of the District of Columbia's Office of Business and Economic Development. "This should help consolidate our retail core and help smaller shops in the area by functioning as a magnet."
Nonetheless, the closing of the aging Seventh Street complex "marks the end of an era," said Jim Higgins, a regional vice president in charge of Hecht's Baltimore stores. Higgins was brought to the Washington area to help oversee the closing.
"My mother used to bring me down here when I was 4 years old," he recalled. "Now, 40 years later, we're getting ready to close the store. A couple of generations of people shopped and grew up here." CAPTION: Picture 1, Hecht's new $40 million, granite-and-marble flagship store at 12th and G Streets NW will attempt to improve sales by droppping the old store's bargain-basement image; Picture 2, Hecht's officials are looking for buyers for the old 8-story flagship on F Street, and hope to announce a sale soon. That building is 89 years old; Picture 3, The new Hecht's store, still under construction, will feature marble parquet floors, expensive plush carpeting and mahogany inlaid with brass. ; Picture 4, Hecht's chairman J. Warren Harris and Irwin Zazulia, the chain's CEO, in the new store. By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post