If retail success in today’s economic climate could be achieved by simply filling your store with trendy fashion items at remarkable prices, any specialty retailer could be doing as well today as Los Angeles-based Forever 21. But the formula’s apparently a lot more complicated.
Trendy fashions find their way into Forever 21’s stores so quickly they’ve triggered the term “fast fashion.” And the prices are so unbeatable that the goods tend to leave the stores just as quickly.
Los Angeles architect J.T. Nakaoka, who, along with an internal team, has been designing Forever 21’s stores for nearly 15 years, says a big part of the secret is a woman he still ceremoniously calls “Mrs. Chang.” “She can see an item of fashion apparel and envision whether or not it will be a hit among the Forever 21 clientele,” says Nakaoka of Jin Chang, who founded the company with husband Do Won (Don) Chang.
And it’s a growing clientele. What began as young adults is now practically ageless. “Design and fashion are no longer age-sensitive,” says Nakaoka. “They’re now lifestyle-sensitive. So, yes, the customer might be 21. But she also might be a 40-year-old woman who wants to dress, live and feel as if she’s 21.”
The Changs opened their first store in 1984, on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, referencing a number they felt was lucky and suggested an age of growing up. For merchandise, Jin Chang was inspired by many sources throughout the world to bring customers affordable fashion apparel, handbags, watches, jewelry and other accessories.
With success, the Changs and Nakaoka developed a larger store format. Nakaoka opened up the floor plan and developed a white color palette with bright, clean lighting. He bought high-density fixtures to increase the stores’ productivity, but had them refinished in stainless steel so they didn’t look cheap. And he has hewed to an urban but clean look and feel that’s a little edgy, what he calls “SoHo for the Valley Girl.”
“Forever 21 is probably the only retailer whose planogram of every fixture is not consistent from store to store,” says Bess Anderson, director of visual strategy at Chute Gerdeman Retail (Columbus, Ohio). “But they get away with it, because the color and trend-right stories are impressive, and the thrill of the hunt is the most important element of all.”
And the growth continues. Forever 21 has taken over an old Lord & Taylor store at Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas and an 80,000-square-foot former Mervyn’s store in Cerritos, Calif. The retailer is in nearly 500 malls around the country and on all the well-known shopping streets in the U.S., including its most prominent new location, a 91,000-square-foot flagship in the former Virgin Megastore on Times Square.
“Quality shopping streets are effectively malls, aren’t they?” says Forever 21 executive vp Larry Meyer, who’s in charge of the retailer’s real estate. “The most important thing is traffic.”
The brand is also focusing on international expansion, with a store in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, four stores in Japan including Tokyo’s Ginza district and locations on the way in downtown Dublin and at the Bullring in Birmingham, U.K.
In some cases, Forever 21’s locations have put it in direct opposition to its two biggest global rivals, the like-minded Swedish H&M and Spanish Zara. “So what?” shrugs Meyer. “The best centers are those with the best choices. The people who shop there are looking to buy. We’ll get our share of those sales.”
That’s because they take risks, says Lee Peterson, executive vp, creative services at WD Partners (Columbus, Ohio). “They have a great feel for what’s hot and they never have too much of it. They pick things that are cool in New York and L.A. and can’t be found anywhere else in your mall.”
Taking risks while remaining true to your brand is the perfect formula for being the VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year.
Forever 21 will share more of its brand story during the VMSD Retailer of the Year awards presentation at IRDC, held Oct. 13-15 in Toronto. For more information and to register, visit www.irdconline.com.