Conran's Closing In Center City

Posted: December 30, 1992

Conran's Habitat, the upscale home-furnishings store at Eighth and Market streets, will close Jan. 31, but its owners said yesterday they hope to reopen at another location soon.

Lester Gribetz, president of Conran Stores Inc., said he was considering Liberty Place, also in Center City; the Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey, and other sites for the new store.

"Philadelphia is one of our growing areas," Gribetz said yesterday in a telephone interview from New York. "We are here to stay."

The chain, known for its trendy displays and chic offerings, had been plagued with slumping sales in recent years, in part because of increased competition from such stores as Pier I Imports, Ikea and Bombay Co.

Marvin Traub, the former chairman and chief executive of Bloomingdale's, bought the Conran's chain from the London-based Storehouse PLC last month for an undisclosed amount.

But before the Traub deal, Storehouse had planned to close its two Philadelphia stores - the other is in the King of Prussia Mall - terminating their leases.

The new owners tried to renegotiate the leases, Gribetz said, but they were unsuccessful in dealing with the owners of the Mellon Independence Center/ Market Place East Building, who had already found a new tenant, he said.

But, Gribetz said, they were able to persuade King of Prussia officials to renew their lease. Consequently, that store will not be closed, he said.

The owners and managers of Market Place East could not be reached for comment yesterday. It was not clear yesterday who the new tenant would be at the Center City location, and Gribetz said he did not know who it would be.

Along with the Center City store, Conran Stores also said it will close a store in Manhasset, N.Y. The lease for that store has been turned over to Daffy's, a discounter, Gribetz said. He said the company is looking for another spot in the New York area.

Gribetz, who was Traub's right-hand man at Bloomingdale's, said he and Traub are confident they can turn around the chain. Since the purchase, sales at the Eighth and Market store had increased by 45 percent, he said.

"I'm not unimpressed with the numbers that are coming in from that store," Gribetz said. "Sombody is shopping there. Something is happening in this area."

In both stores combined, this December's sales have been up 61 percent over the previous year's, he added.

"I think the margins were too high," Gribetz said. "We're lowering them. They weren't as promotional as we.

"We are pretty good merchants in the home," he added. "We know the home business really well."

Since taking over, Gribetz said his staff has cut prices, instituted the ''more-you-buy-the-more-you save" promotions and expanded its merchandise line by bringing in small appliances, as well as down comforters and duvets.

Analysts said it's probably just as well that things happened the way they did because Eighth and Market isn't a good spot for a fashionable, upscale furnishings store.

"You see who's shopping at Eighth and Market?" asked Mercia Grassi, a marketing professor at Drexel University. "I just think it's not their taste level."

In July, Market Street Live!, the entertainment center that used to grace the complex, closed because of declining business, as well as delays in the opening of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The entertainment center included a 170-seat restaurant, Michael Jack's, named for former Phillies third-baseman Mike Schmidt.

The two Conran's Habitat stores employ 25 people, Gribetz said. He said those affected by the closing would be offered severance packages or jobs at King of Prussia.

As for when the new store would open, Gribetz said: "We hope very soon. I think we will know within a month or two what's available to us.

"We are in very good shape financially," he added. "We are probably one of the few unleveraged companies in America today."

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