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SECRET SHOPPER GOES BACK TO SCHOOL.

ATLANTA-HFN's secret shopper, accompanied by a savvy teenager named Whitney, checked out a back-to-school selection last week in metropolitan Atlanta. We judged the stores on their merchandising, selection and service. We then noted the best features of each, and suggested which feature of the shopping experience could use more work.

Bed Bath & Beyond

Merchandising: The store's Totally Back To College program included a large, up-front display of bolsters, pillows and laundry bags mixed in with backpacks, storage and decorative items. Most merchandise was easy to locate, with easy-to-read signage. Large bins and center-aisle displays featured popular items, such as T-shirt jersey sheets, as well as the extra-long twin sheets required for most dorm beds.

Selection: The store offered a wide variety of brands. In the bath department, Wamsutta towels on sale for $6.99 and Fieldcrest Cannon's Regency collection for $8.99 were featured as back-to-school buys. The bedding section included a large assortment of the extra-long twin sheets, in sets by Revman, singles from Wamsutta, and Divatex flannel sets in denim and natural. The sweatshirt gray was sold out.

A large selection of colorful T-shirt jersey sheets included only one set -- in white -- left in extra-long. At least a dozen ceiling-high bed displays and approximately six floor setups featured entire bed tops, some with window treatment selections. There was also a good assortment of brightly colored Bed-in-a-Bag choices, down comforters, basic bedding, decorative pillows, accent rugs and throws.

Service: The sales associate in bath was very helpful and knew about different weights of towels. She suggested buying two sets of towels, and four washcloths, "because you don't have to wash towels as often," and she recommended towels that had a matching bath mat over a rug, "because the rug takes too long to dry." Another sales associate checked on the computer to see if he could find gray sweatshirt jersey sheets at any other location.

Accessibility: Products were easy to find. Bed and bath were adjacent to each other in the store's layout, with accessory products nearby.

Best Point: The store was open and spacious, well lit and clean, with minimal clutter for such a large arena. Its product mix was extensive, with enough sizes available to complete almost the entire shopping list in one stop.

Could Use More Work: The store has had its back-to-school promotion running for two months and is already clearing space for Christmas inventory. That meant some key items had sold out.

Rich's Department Store

Merchandising: Rich's was not really promoting back-to-school with department signage, although several beds were set up with Nautica's Blue Blazer and Ralph Lauren's Chambray collections, as well as Charter Club's jersey sheets. The department was very busy and merchandise was in a bit of disarray, because of a one-day sale and remodeling in the store.

Boucle throws were displayed at one entrance, but not visible from most of the department. The only extra-long sheets left were tucked away in the back of the department.

Selection: The limited selection of extra-long sheets was a bargain, on sale at $19.99 for 200-thread count percale, but the store had sold out of all but three solid colors, a stripe and plain white. Neither jersey sheets nor Bed-in-a-Bag offerings were available in extra long. Although the sales associate recommended a Ralph Lauren towel at $6.99, only one color washcloth was still available. Neither the RL nor Charisma towels had matching bath mats, although we found several that would work on an adjacent display rack.

Service: Once we found a sales associate, she was pleasant and helpful. When asked about items not available, she offered to check in the stockroom, and even offered to provide the phone number of nearby specialty stores.

Accessibility: The department was near an outside entrance, and relatively accessible, considering the construction.

Best Point: Helpful sales associate. Bargain price on Ralph Lauren towel.

Could Use More Work: The department was very cramped and cluttered with large comforters, towels and other merchandise in the aisles, making it difficult and confusing to shop. Signage was incomplete. Although we found a Ralph Lauren comforter in twin size, it had no price, and was not included on the sign.

Target

Merchandising: Target's Campus Life '98 sign was easily visible, and merchandise was displayed in orderly and clean assortments. The store's wide variety of Bed-in-a-Bag selections, in 200 thread count at $49.99, did not include extra-long sizes. Colors coordinated well across bed and bath departments, with emphasis on shades that mix and match with its Caribbean Brights collection. It also presented good signage, including visible pricing and the store's 90-day return policy. Basic bedding was displayed adjacent to sheets and comforters.

Selection: Royal Legacy's 30- by 52-inch towels at $5.99 were a bargain, and available in a wide selection of colors. The store offered a good assortment of decorative pillows and a small but diverse selection of chenille and cable knit throws.

Twin Cotton Luxury 200-count sheets by Springs were on sale for $4.44 each, and pillow cases for $7.14. The store also offered denim and waffle weave comforters similar to the specialty store's, at $59.99. A good selection of T-shirt jersey sheets did not include extra-longs.

Service: One sales associate did not know what a bolster was, and said we would have to take an unmarked item to the front of the store to find out its price, but another was very helpful and did locate a price for an unticketed item.

Best Point: Bed and bath included fashion colors of chambray, linen and denim at very good price points.

Could Use More Work: The store did not have the sought-after sizes in sheets or top-of-the-bed.
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Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Date:Aug 17, 1998
Words:949
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