Like No Other

by Katie Lee

The venerable institution of Bloomingdale’s opens a cutting-edge new store — and its first in Hawaii — that merges the traditional design it’s famous for, sophisticated nods to Hawaiian culture, and smart technology designed at capturing a Millennial audience.

By Katie Lee

Hailing from Manhattan — one of the most iconic retail destinations in the world — and even epitomizing the essence of New York itself, Bloomingdale’s is among a handful of the most recognized retail brands in the world. With only 38 full-line locations worldwide, its discerning and selective nature toward opening new stores is part of what makes it so special.

Bloomingdales Ala Moana 068 alohaTherefore, Bloomingdale’s naturally made headlines in November 2015 when the store “like no other store in the world” brought New York to Honolulu, marking the retailer’s first foray into the state of Hawaii. The three-level, 165,000-square-foot store serves as the centerpiece of a major retail expansion and common area renovation currently underway at General Growth Properties’ Ala Moana Center, the world’s largest open-air shopping mall at 2.1 million square feet. Most of the renovation should be completed by fall 2016.

“It is a big deal to open a new Bloomingdale’s,” says Jack Hruska, the executive vice president of creative services for Bloomingdale’s. “When I started here [23 years ago], we only had 14 stores.”

In keeping with its selective store growth strategy, the company plans to open two outlet stores in 2016 (there are 14 outlet stores currently), and add one full-line store in 2017 and another in 2018.

The new store brings not only the first Bloomingdale’s to the Aloha State but also a new era of technology-driven customer service devices utilized in clever ways throughout the space. For a department store whose roots date back to the 1870s, ‘storied history’ and ‘cutting-edge technology’ do not always coexist. But with Bloomingdale’s, they do more than coexist — they thrive.

After extensive testing over a number of years, Bloomingdale’s piloted its technology-based customer service program first in its Stanford, California, store, which opened in October 2014. The Ala Moana store — from its design to its customer service technology — was based on the Stanford template. Yet, being in Hawaii, there are also elements that make it quite unique.

Bloomingdales Ala Moana 005 beamed ceilings“What really makes Ala Moana unique is we had extremely high floor-to-ceiling conditions in that store,” Hruska notes. “On the first floor, 20-some feet; second and third floors were 17-something feet. The very high ceilings made the store seem much more dramatic, and we took advantage of all that.”

With each store it opens, Bloomingdale’s design team likes to incorporate local elements into its design and décor. Ala Moana was no exception. Throughout the store are beamed ceilings; louvered black and white shutters; tropical wall coverings that depict birds-of-paradise and palm frond motifs in fitting room vestibules; commissioned art from local artists; and 18 sculpted 36-inch-long koi fish that appear to be bronzed, floating from the ceiling in the Fine Jewelry department.

Despite its Hawaiian flair, at its heart the store is distinctly Bloomingdale’s with a New York point of view. “Wherever we go and somebody wants Bloomingdale’s, that means they want New York,” explains Hruska. “We have a very specific aesthetic. It has the [black and white] checkerboard floors, a lot of black, very long vistas and very short distances from the aisles to the merchandise walls — something in the neighborhood of 15 to 18 feet. We’re not a very open store; we’re much more segmented, which is different than most stores.”

At 165,000 square feet, the Ala Moana store represents a preferred prototype size for Bloomingdale’s. Some of its stores are smaller, such as the Stanford store at 150,000 square feet and Glendale, California, at 120,000 square feet, but most existing stores are substantially larger. “We take over a lot of existing buildings,” Hruska explains, noting that Ala Moana, by contrast, was a brand-new building so they could mold it exactly to their needs. “It also depends on the marketplace. We’ll have to see — big stores are diminishing quickly, so we find that we’re using smaller stores.”

Bloomingdales Ala Moana 064 mingle roomStores may be getting smaller but they’re also getting smarter. The Ala Moana Bloomingdale’s showcases “smart” technology in fitting rooms and on the sales floor that is ahead of the industry curve. Each fitting room area features a large “mingle” room with five fitting room stalls fanning off from it. The mingle room is plugged in with charging stations for customers’ phones and flat screen smart TVs that promote store events and allow customers to access the Bloomingdale’s website. Tablet pads in each fitting room stall can be used to search for merchandise or notify a sales associate without having to leave the fitting room. A “smart” mirror in each fitting room stall adjusts to different environments and varying light levels. On the sales floor, all associates are equipped with hands-free phones and portable, handheld point-of-sale devices.

Bloomingdale’s will roll out this new technology in each of its stores over time. “We’re learning from things so that we can improve those things that aren’t working as well, and make an adjustment,” Hruska says. “It’s easier when you have a brand-new store because you’re starting out without a previous practice in place. It’s a little harder for the adjustment when we have a previous practice in place; it takes a little time to roll out.”

Eventually, the new technology will find its way to the grande dame of them all: Bloomingdale’s flagship location at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York. First opened in 1886, this iconic store has undergone many renovations over the years and is gearing up for another.

“The reputation of Bloomingdale’s is still extremely strong, and it stems mostly from our flagship store in Manhattan,” says Hruska. “We do a lot of work on that store, and we’re going to be doing a tremendous amount of additional work in the next 2 years. We’re renovating 80% of the building inside, and we’re doing some work right now on the exterior. We’re changing how we light the building, doing a lot of interesting treatments on the windows to capture light, and we’re installing LED lighting to light up the building dramatically.”

From its oldest store (Manhattan) to its newest (Hawaii), Bloomingdale’s represents, in so many ways, the past, present and future of department store retailing. Secure in its legendary history and reputation, Bloomingdale’s is not afraid of change or emerging technology, either. And, like every retailer, Bloomingdale’s has its sights set on Millennials and their ever-evolving shopping patterns.

Bloomingdales Ala Moana 001“The world is changing, so I don’t know how it’s going to wash out, frankly,” Hruska says. “I can’t tell you 5 years from now what will be. I do know that the Millennial population is gigantic, much bigger than the Baby Boomers, and they like to shop. They like to shop a lot online, and they like to pre-shop, but they still love to shop.”

As Millennials begin to move up the ladder and accumulate more wealth, they’ll be big spenders. “How we engage that group of young people — and how we engage them differently — is what everybody’s talking about,” Hruska adds.

An experiential, social experience in the brick-and-mortar environment versus the convenience of a digital environment is a hot button debate in retail — and has been for some time. But it doesn’t have to be one versus the other. How the two work together, interact and move the industry forward is how brick-and-mortar legends like Bloomingdale’s truly evolve and stay ahead of the curve.

“It’s going to be a combination of the two — I just don’t know the degree,” Hruska continues. “We’re doing everything we can to make our stores interesting [so that] people do want to come into our stores and have a social experience. The world’s changed so much in the last couple of years, and it’s rapidly changing the way we think about retail. We’re always in that conversation.”

Bloomingdale’s new store at Ala Moana Center in Hawaii has certainly raised the bar and pushes that conversation to new, creative, tech-savvy heights.


— This article originally appeared as the cover story of the December 2015/December 2016 issue of Retail & Restaurant Facility Business magazine. Email the editor at [email protected].

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