By Greg Paeth
Post staff reporter
Elder-Beerman's decision to close its store at Forest Fair Mall is the latest example the Dayton-based department store chain's "smaller is better" strategy.
The plans also end the chain's quarter-century presence in Greater Cincinnati, where it first entered the market in 1978 with a splash, purchasing the old-line Mabley & Carew stores, including the downtown flagship at Fifth and Vine.
Mabley & Carew traced its roots to 1877, when Detroit merchants C. R. Mabley and Joseph T. Carew, en route to Memphis, were stranded in Cincinnati by a late train and wound up going into business in the heart of what was then a booming river city.
In 1986, Elder-Beerman closed its store at Fifth and Vine downtown to clear the way for the Fountain Square West redevelopment.
In 1992, the Beechmont Mall store closed.
In 1994, the Western Hills Plaza store closed.
Its Swifton Commons outlet store closed in 1996.
Cincinnati's landmark Carew Tower was home to the Mabley & Carew department store from 1930 to 1960, when the business was purchased by Allied Stores, which moved it across Fifth Street into what had been the Rollman Department Store.
But while Mabley & Carew and Elder-Beerman and its traditional department store competitors had tried to provide all things to all shoppers, Elder-Beerman's new strategy is to pick its battles very carefully.
The company's strategic plan calls for developing smaller stores of about 55,000 square feet in small towns and cities, instead of major metropolitan markets such as Cincinnati. That's smaller than its recently built traditonal stores, which are about 75,000 square feet, and much smaller than its largest store, in the Dayton Mall, which occupies 212,000 square feet.
The company has introduced concept stores in Frankfort, Ky., and Warsaw, Ind., markets where it won't have any head-to-head competition for shoppers looking for better-quality merchandise, pokeswoman Gloria Siegler said.
"We are looking at markets where we can be the destination department store in a smaller market," Siegler said. "The bigger the market, the tougher that is because of the competition.''
"The Forest Fair store does not fit our strategic goals or future growth plans," Bud Bergren, president and CEO of Elder-Beerman, said Tuesday when the store closing was announced. "Our newer stores are smaller, single-level stores located primarily in strip centers in smaller markets."
The company relishes competing against Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, Siegler said, because the discounter lures shoppers. Elder-Beerman can provide an upscale alternative to Wal-Mart, she said.
The new stores will be typically located in strip shopping centers, built on one level with a "racetrack design," in which the aisles parallel the store perimeter. The stores have few walls and emphasize self-service displays, shopping carts and checkout pods rather than placing cash registers in every department.
The new checkout system has been so successful that it has been introduced throughout the chain, Siegler said.
Once the Forest Fair store closes, the nearest Elder-Beerman store will be in downtown Hamilton, about 30 miles from downtown Cincinnati. "We have no plans to close down any other stores at this time, and the Hamilton store certainly fits in with our smaller market strategy," Siegler said.
Audrie Thomas, a spokesperson for Forest Fair Mall, said Elder-Beerman has been a good tenant but the new owners of the mall see the departure as an opportunity to bring in new tenants. The mall is undergoing a major makeover that will require a number of the smaller tenants to vacate by the end of the month.
Retail analyst Kurt Barnard said the company's small-store, small-market strategy is sound. "Like other retailers, they're struggling for survival and they have to operate their business as efficiently and as economically as possible," he said. "Why run a 150,000-square-foot store when what you need is 55,000 or 60,000 square feet?" Barnard asked. "It's just extra work and an extra expense."
"They are pulling out of major malls where there is not as much foot traffic as years ago," he said.