Can Fortunoff's new owner turn it around?

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From its humble beginnings on old Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn to the opening of its sprawling suburban stores, Fortunoff has had the ability to attract customers looking for merchandise that they could not get elsewhere, including home furnishings, jewelry and holiday decorations.

But in the last few years, retail analysts said, the fabled Fortunoff lost its footing to discounters and national chains that have flooded Long Island and other New York City suburbs.

The question now is whether NRDC Equity Partners, the parent of the vaunted Lord & Taylor based in Manhattan can turn things around at the retailer that filed Monday for bankruptcy protection.

NRDC, based in Purchase, Monday announced it will buy Fortunoff from the two investment firms -- Trimaran Capital Partners and the Kier Group of Manhattan -- that own it. NRDC said it will spend $100 million refurbishing Fortunoff stores and even plans to open others. Richard Baker, chairman of Lord & Taylor and chief executive of NRDC, said in an interview he believes Fortunoff can be "a national chain."

Fortunoff now has 20 locations, including its Westbury store and three other "full-line" stores, two jewelry and gift stores and 14 indoor/outdoor furniture locations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennslyvania.

But among retail analysts, doubts exist as to whether Fortunoff can ever regain the prominence it held as recently as a decade ago, before chains such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Bed Bath & Beyond began to crush older retailers on the Island and in the metropolitan area with outlets that sold merchandise for less and offered more products.

Fortunoff's famed Westbury store -- a colossus in the heart of what's considered downtown Nassau -- "has always been a gold mine," Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Howard Davidowitz & Associates, a Manhattan-based national retail consultant, said yesterday. "But a lot of other things weren't good."

For Fortunoff to make a comeback, Davidowitz said, layoffs and possibly even store closings might be necessary: "I think their whole business has to be looked at."

Kurt Barnard, who runs a retail consulting firm, based in Nutley, N.J., Barnard's Retail Forecasting, commented, "Over the past dozen years or more the management has failed to take full advantage of the opportunities that were right there under their noses. The name, the reputation, the merchandise assortment . . . the customer loyalty -- those were all the opportunities.

"In my opinion, it was a matter of they simply didn't know how to do it," Barnard said.

"Obviously, everybody has lots of competition, and there's nothing new about that," Barnard said. "Just because there is competition, you don't take advantage of these opportunities? So that is a lame excuse."

Lord & Taylor, only a few years ago a laggard in the retail industry that was selling clothing the fashion-conscious found unfashionable, has managed to turn itself around, said Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst at NPD Group in Port Washington. Lord & Taylor's top management must help Fortunoff do the same, Cohen said.

"Fortunoff must ... get their personality back," Cohen said. "If they attempt to go the route of just another retailer, there is no need" for them. Fortunoff, he said, "must come back to the success they built their reputation on, the best assortment, some exclusive, and great service."

"If I want Martha Stewart outdoor furniture, I can go to Lowe's, Kmart and elsewhere," Cohen said. "If I want style and quality, I need to want to go to Fortunoff's Outdoor. That will work. Nothing less."

Baker promises that the combined company will have a different look. Fortunoff jewelry and home furnishings will be sold in Lord & Taylor stores. Fortunoff stores are already upscale, but, Baker said, "we want to move them up a bit more."

One retail analyst, who asked to remain anonymous because of his business relationship with the store, said that what Fortunoff also needs is another retail genius like Alan Fortunoff, the son of founder Max Fortunoff who ran the business for decades.

"I think you could say things changed when Alan died" in 2000, the source said. Fortunoff was sold in 2005 to Trimaran and Kier. Had Alan Fortunoff lived, the source said, the Fortunoff store still might have lost ground to the discounters and national chains, but he added, "he would have re-invented" the chain.

Shoppers at the Westbury store Monday said they look for quality goods at Fortunoff.

Zelma and Jay Shirocky of Brooklyn said they have been shopping at Fortunoff for some 35 years because the name is synonymous with "quality." Reviving the chain and building on its reputation would be a good thing, they said.

"When you buy here you buy quality," said Zelma Shirocky, who, with her husband, was in search of furniture to hold a flat-screen TV. "You buy good things, whether it's a bedspread or pillows."

Most customers said they hoped Fortunoff's new owners would retain the company's focus on housewares, jewelry and furniture, and maintain its standards.

"You would think the people in charge would have one way of thinking for hard goods and one way of thinking for soft goods," said Della Greco, 73, of Baldwin, who was with her sister and brother-in-law outside the Westbury store. "I don't think you can mix the two managements together."

Fortunoff has been the place to register for weddings or showers and the reliable source for anniversary presents, as well as gifts for other occassions.

"Quality always sells," said Benjamin Cupelli, 78. "You might not be able to buy it at the time, but you can save for it."

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