In the cosmetics department at Hecht's in downtown Washington, construction crews have ripped out the traditional glass display cases, replacing them with a system of open shelves stacked high with fragrances from Chanel, Burberry and Armani, now easily within arm's reach of the impulse buyer.
In the men's department, staff have shuffled clothing racks to make room for chic new men's sportswear lines from designers Michael Kors, Marc Ecko and Emanuel Ungaro.
And in the home-furnishings department, workers have built a new bridal consulting center, where couples can list choices on their registries as employees show them a range of new products, from Kate Spade china to Anne Klein bedding -- a nice touch since couples still can't create gift registries online at Hecht's.
The sweeping changes are part of a $15 million renovation of Hecht's Metro Center store, which will be ceremonially reopened Oct. 26 with a ribbon cutting and appearances from top designers. But in many ways, it marks a deeper transformation underway for some time at Hecht's, the region's dominant department store chain.
Hecht's, buffeted by stiff competition from discount rivals and suffering from slipping sales, is fighting back with new casual clothing lines, easier-to-navigate store designs and stronger customer service.
"There is a really big opportunity right now to intensify customer service," Hecht's president and chief executive, Frank J. Guzzetta, said during an interview in the chain's headquarters in Ballston. "The customer is craving feedback from the retailer."
Amy Schoen, a wardrobe consultant and personal shopper in Rockville, has some feedback of her own for Hecht's: There are strong departments, such as shoes and handbags, throughout the stores, but it is hard to find products, the sales floor is too often messy, and there should be more staff at the registers.
"It's a middle-market department store," she said.
Retail analysts say changes at Hecht's are overdue. Revenue at the chain and its sister department store in the Philadelphia area, Strawbridge's, fell from $2.46 billion in 2001 to $2.36 billion in 2003. Sales per square foot, an important measure of a retailer's financial health, have slipped 8 percent since 2001, from $181 to $166.
Hecht's troubles mirror those of its parent corporation, St. Louis-based May Department Stores Co., which also owns Lord & Taylor, Foley's, and Filene's. From 2001 to 2003, May's revenue dropped 4 percent to $13.3 billion and earnings declined 38 percent to $434 million.
Analysts say the lackluster numbers can be blamed, in part, on changing consumer habits. Shoppers have abandoned mall-based department stores over the past decade in favor of lower-priced chains such as Kohl's, Target and J.C. Penney. Consumers who once might have headed automatically to the department store now shop for clothes at specialty apparel stores such as the Gap and H&M, and for housewares at Crate and Barrel and Williams-Sonoma.
But mid-priced department stores have, until recently, done little to lure consumers back inside, cutting back on high fashion, leaving aisles cluttered with too much merchandise and relying on coupons to drum up business, said Bill Dreher, a retail analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York.
"Consumers feel like department stores are inconvenient and overpriced," Dreher said. "So they are increasingly open to competition from new and more nimble operators."
Hecht's thinks it has found a formula to change that, and it has gradually been introducing improvements throughout the system, often starting with new stores and then incorporating the changes into existing stores.
The chain is kicking up its apparel offerings a notch, introducing new mid-priced men's and women's lines from New York designer Michael Kors, who has launched previous lines at high-end stores Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue.
In its men's departments, Hecht's has also signed up Ecko, known for his handmade T-shirts, and Ungaro, known primarily for his couture lines.
"These are important brands," said Anne Brouwer, a partner at McMillan Doolittle LLP, a New York retail consulting firm. If Hecht's is unable to compete against discounters and lower-priced department stores on price, she said, the chain will have to draw in consumers with better fashion.
Guzzetta said Hecht's is trying to shake its image as a store for older consumers buying tailored clothes. The chain will carry clothes for that shopper, but it will "significantly augment it with young, casual merchandise," he said. "It is not going to happen overnight."
Hecht's is placing strong emphasis on a few carefully selected non-apparel gifts, which May said produced strong results in the 2003 holiday season. For 2004, the chain is expanding its electronics centers to carry what it expects to be the season's hottest products -- DVD home theater combinations, LCD flat-screen TV sets and satellite radio.
To make stores easier to navigate, the chain has widened aisles by about two feet by pushing back display tables and racks. It has introduced shopping carts in several stores, including Hecht's Dulles Town Center and Manassas locations. Price scanners help shoppers avoid busy registers.
And in the cosmetics department, Hecht's has for several years been switching to a more open format that takes fragrances and makeup out of display cases and puts them on easy-to-reach shelves and stands.
The concept has improved sales at Hecht's Metro Center store, where a heavy lunchtime crowd of office workers traditionally swelled around cosmetics cases, waiting for store employees to retrieve products.
"We were missing sales before we did this," said Sue Sutherland, the store manager.
Guzzetta said efforts to reduce crowding in the store has resulted in 10 percent fewer complaints from consumers this year.
Hecht's is changing the way it presents and sells merchandise, too. Under a new initiative, staff will be trained by manufacturers and designers, such as Ralph Lauren Polo, to better understand clothing lines and offer more product information to consumers, Guzzetta said.
Merchandise is now displayed in wider combinations to guide shoppers. The chain is deploying more mannequins on the sales floor to create what it calls "complete looks" in apparel departments. The goal: to sell entire outfits, not just single items.
In the Metro Center store there is Club Denim -- women's jeans displayed on a row of mannequins to showcase different fits, colors and styles. "We have to excite the customer with the products," Guzzetta said.
Lois Huff, senior vice president at Retail Forward, a retail consulting firm, said Hecht's emphasis on higher fashion, uncluttered aisles and better displays are a baseline requirement for the department store to gain an edge over lower-priced competitors.
"These changes are not rocket science, but they are something that a lot of department stores have lost track of," Huff said.
Wall Street analysts said the chain still has not established its private clothing labels, such as its two-year-old modern line, Ideology, as well as rivals have. Chief among them is Federated Department Stores Inc., which owns Macy's and Bloomingdale's.
Cincinnati-based Federated's private label, I.N.C., has become a top seller and a well-respected name in fashion, said Jeff Stinson, a retail analyst for FTN Midwest Research Securities Corp. "May is playing catch-up here," he said.
Despite progress in store presentation and merchandise, Guzzetta said Hecht's lags behind its competitors in making its products available online. On Hechts.com, consumers can buy a wide range of gifts, including perfume and poker sets, but not many department store staples, such as dresses or furniture.
What's more, the chain has not developed a system to allow brides and grooms to create wedding registries online. Instead, they must make an appointment to come into the store, and the registry is posted on the Hecht's Web site.
"We have not done a great job capturing the online business," Guzzetta said. He said the chain is working to expand the Web site.
Guzzetta is convinced Hecht's -- and department stores as a category -- can still thrive in the face of growing competition. "The customer likes to shop in a department store because it's still the easier format," he said. "We cover everything from housewares to accessories to clothing."
The question is whether consumers think that Hecht's, as its advertisements claim, always has something there to excite them. Mary Cuthbert of Southeast has shopped at Hecht's downtown store for 35 years. The reason: a convient location and reliable quality. But it's not her favorite retailer. "I come here out of habit," she said.