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Corporate Strategy

The Bay steps up its game with a focus on shoes Add to ...

Bonnie Brooks wants to woo women one pair of Ralph Lauren heels at a time.

After almost two years as boss of the Bay, she is shifting her attention from shirts and dresses to shoes in her race to revitalize the fatigued department store. After ditching 800 tired brands throughout the store and replacing them with 200 updated ones, this fall, Ms. Brooks will move to pump up designer shoe lines - ending more than two decades of ties with Browns Shoes.

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She thinks that she can expand footwear sales more quickly, and with better profit margins, by taking it under her wing. Her move with shoes is an extension of a strategy with brands she is rolling out elsewhere in the store.

Ms. Brooks is betting that coveted lines throughout the Bay's 92 stores will help breathe new life into her business, with the shoe department a big beneficiary.

She may be heading in the right direction with her shoe fetish. In 2009, Canadian footwear sales rose 0.8 per cent to $5.1-billion, while clothing and accessories sales fell 2.1 per cent to $25.2-billion from 2008, according to Statistics Canada.

"Shoes wear out a lot faster than clothes do - you have to replace them," says Maureen Atkinson, senior partner at retail consultant J.C. William Group. Beyond the basics, shoes are a feel-good fashion purchase for women that can perk up a dated outfit.

In her goal of cashing in on women's love affair with shoes, Ms. Brooks follows in the footsteps of tony retailer Holt Renfrew & Co. in severing its connections with Browns and walking alone in the shoe section. Holt's made the move a few years ago, profiting from a much-expanded shoe offering, says Pat Di Bratto, a senior vice-president at the chain. Its shoe business has more than doubled, and climbed 18 per cent year to date from a strong 2009, she says.

For Ms. Brooks, dropping Browns from the nine Bay stores they are in, allows her to reduce costs by dealing directly with suppliers, many of whom are already Bay vendors. Taking control of the shoe department gives her more flexibility to ship different sizes from store to store for customers, and prevents merchandise overlaps with Browns. "It was just a logical progression for what we're purchasing anyway, by our own team," she says.

With Browns sales currently making up less than 10 per cent of the Bay's footwear business, she predicts she will double sales in the department in the next few years by stepping up its array of brands by between 20 and 25 per cent.

She's reaching into her extensive rolodex of contacts for suppliers that in the past snubbed the Bay for being too fusty. She gained fashion credibility in her previous stint as the head of Asian luxury retailer Lane Crawford and, before that, as an executive at Holt's. Juicy Couture, for example, has started stocking its trendy $175 sweat pants at the Bay, and soon will supply the stores with shoes and handbags.

She is also bringing those labels into home goods. Increasingly, fashion powerhouses such as Ralph Lauren, Juicy Couture and Lacoste have moved into home goods. It's another piece of a strategy she hopes to use to build another area of the Bay's business: the bridal registry. Ms. Brooks thinks selling designer brands throughout the store will help turn brides into lifetime customers. Women who want to snap up snappy Kate Spade sandals can also register for Kate Spade dinnerware.

"Our competitive advantage in bridal is that we have a lot of designer names in multiple departments," says the Bay's chief executive officer, looking on trend in a floral-print silk dress by Canadian designer Erdem ($570 at the Bay's upscale The Room.) "We relate to the modern bride. If a bride wants she could always put shoes on her list. That's what used to happen in Hong Kong - the brides would cash in all the china for shoes."

The challenge for Ms. Brooks is to introduce change quickly enough to get noticed.

"The challenges are enormous," says Ms. Atkinson. "It's not just reinventing the Bay. It's reinventing what a department store is."

To this end, Ms. Brooks has tapped another networking powerhouse - her boss, Richard Baker, the U.S. real estate mogul who bought the Bay almost two years ago. Mr. Baker, who also owns U.S. department-store retailer Lord & Taylor, was instrumental in persuading Coach to stock its shoes and handbags at the Bay, starting this fall.

"He's been great at helping to open doors," she said.

Ms. Brooks is also borrowing a page from her apparel playbook by leaning on her contacts at fashion labels to secure lines that are carried nowhere elsewhere in Canada. That eliminates having to match a rival's prices on the same product.

These efforts play into her bid to woo brides and bolster the gift registry business. The Bay remains Canada's top destination for wedding registries, with 73 per cent "top of mind" awareness among consumers as the place for couples to sign up for gifts, according to industry publication Weddingbells. At Lane Crawford, Ms. Brooks noticed that brides who registered for traditional items, such as china and crystal, often would switch them for shoes.

"Having a compelling reason for people to come to your store," she said, "is having a product range that isn't anywhere else."

Follow on Twitter: @MarinaStrauss

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