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Look at The Limited: a Revamp Connects with Young Women Shoppers

The Limited Now Tailors Clothes for ‘Tylers,’ ‘Amandas’ and ‘Megans’

Teresa F. Lindeman

For a while, Linda Heasley considered changing the name of The Limited.

By the time she was named CEO in 2007, the chain that started in 1963 with a single store in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, and went on to launch a retail empire –– founder Les Wexner’s The Limited Brands operations would include Victoria’s Secret, Bath & BodyWorks, Henri Bendel and more –– had lost money for years.

Ms. Heasley has since come to embrace the name. “Limited means get it now or it’s gone. There’s some power to that.”

Besides, she said in a phone interview, “People do remember the brand fondly.”

A new 5,100–square–foot The Limited store that just opened at Ross Park Mall –– a shopping center the chain left three years ago –– represents the brand’s newest incarnation. From the ruffled cardigans to the row of basic black suit components and the central checkout counter, everything here represents the new team’s vision.

For a chain that once wasn’t allotted money to build a website, there’s the E–Bar, a high desk with a flatscreen Macintosh computer that can be used to check the company’s now growing e–commerce operation or perhaps check another retailer’s site for shoes to go with a customer’s new outfit.

The point–of–sale system inspires longtime staff members of The Limited, those who remember the old, dated checkouts.

Even the fact that the store is brighter, lighter and smaller than past versions gets the attention of loyal customers. “They just remember that big black onyx box,” said Doug McCoy, manager of the new Ross Park store. “They go, like, whoa.”

The restyling isn’t done, but it’s coming together. “It’s taken us a few seasons to really hit our stride,” said Ms. Heasley, who is pleased to note the chain began turning a profit again in November 2009. Now that it’s private, it doesn’t release sales results.

Private investment firm Sun Capital Partners took 75 percent ownership of the chain in August 2007 in exchange for injecting $50 million in equity capital and arranging for a $75 million credit facility. The Limited Brands –– which still carries that name –– sold the remaining 25 percent to Sun Capital last year for $32 million.

Although The Limited chain is nowhere near its one–time peak of about 800 stores, it has come back from a low of around 200 stores to about 225, including longtime locations in South Hills Village and Westmoreland Mall. Plans call for adding 20 more this year, including the Ross Park store. Eventually, the chain could support 500 or 600 stores, Ms. Heasley said.

The goal is not to return to the old heyday of The Limited –– or its nadir. Customers remember both, if comments on Facebook are any indication. “We had so much turnover in the merchandising area and design,” recalled Ms. Heasley. “Every new head merchant [who] came in had [his] idea of what The Limited should be.”

Early on in the revamp, the team created a shopper description meant to help keep the focus on The Limited’s core customers. The Tylers, as they are known, are in the 28– to 35–year–old range and need career clothes but also are very active and go out several times a week. “They need a wardrobe that does double duty for them,” Ms. Heasley said.

In the last year, The Limited has identified two other audiences that shop its stores. Amandas are 18 to 25 years old and may have been brought in by their mothers in an attempt to help them expand beyond clubwear.

Megans are 30 to 40 years old and starting to have children. They need versatile clothes that are easy to care for but have a hint of fashion.

Women tend to be loyal to places where the pants fit, so the team made a considerable investment in its fits. “They love [that] they can count on the size they need,” Ms. Heasley said.

The Limited also is trying to build its way into women’s closets with its suit gallery, a midstore section in which black suit jackets can reliably be found in good, better and best price points. At the Ross store, Mr. McCoy showed off the $118 Studio 400 jacket, the $158 style from The Limited Collection and the $198 Luxe jacket.

Separates including pants, skirts and blouses are available, too, with a “runway” display of six mannequins showing off ways to mix and match and accessorize with jewelry. The chain promises not to change the shade of black that it uses so women can come back in the fall and buy different pieces that should work with the ones already in their closets.

Suits are a big commitment. Toward the back of the store, the displays hold trendier versions. The Limited’s current assortment includes grays, brown and a purple tweed, among others.

Brighter pops of color can be found in the sweaters, dresses and casual wear that round out the assortment. Ms. Heasley said research showed that the chain’s clientele wants fashion but isn’t looking for hard–core trendy.

The Limited’s place in the nation’s malls still isn’t exactly assured, even if it carries an iconic name and is credited by many with launching the era of mall–based specialty retail.

At Ross Park alone, competition is intense –– ranging from the fast–fashion of H&M to department stores like Nordstrom and Macy’s, as well as specialty clothing retailers such as J. Crew, Ann Taylor, bebe and Burberry. In online reviews, customers regularly compare The Limited to Banana Republic with lower prices.

The company has begun a more concerted effort to get its marketing message out. A recent print campaign that included spots in InStyle, Vogue and Glamour magazines was The Limited’s first. “We never were allowed to advertise,” Ms. Heasley recalled. “This was exciting.”

The days of being a sort of orphan brand trailing its siblings aren’t that far in the past.

During the recession, The Limited held events where women brought in pieces from their closets and the staff helped find ways to freshen them up, perhaps with a scarf or a new top or even suggesting they get the lapels of a jacket recut. That sort of personal shopper feeling is something Ms. Heasley would like to develop, perhaps with technology that makes it easy to track what a customer has in her wardrobe.

“That is definitely part of the vision,” she said.

It’s been awhile since Ms. Heasley has seen Mr. Wexner, the retail industry icon who created The Limited in the first place, and she can’t say what his opinions are of the chain’s new direction. But she doesn’t seem to be holding her breath.

“I couldn’t be more delighted with where the brand is going.”