Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Shoppers swarm Filene's clearance

But even amid this retail circus, many voice nostalgia and sadness over the end of an era

By Jenn Abelson,
Boston Globe Staff

BOSTON - Dishes now fill the cosmetics counters. Bed skirts line sleek black shelves that once displayed perfumes by J. Lo and Marc Jacobs. The Coach purses are almost gone, and don't even bother looking for Calvin Klein lingerie. Filene's, once a beacon of shopping pride, is coming undone.

''It's very depressing. This is not the same Filene's," said Beth Bailey, a secretary shopping recently at the Downtown Crossing location on her lunch break. ''Everything is picked over."

This is the beginning of the end of Filene's, a Boston institution since 1890, when William Filene opened a five-story store selling fancy goods and women's apparel. The Downtown Crossing flagship is one of seven Filene's in Massachusetts that is closing in the coming weeks as part of Federated Department Stores' $17 billion acquisition of the company and other regional chains. The remaining Filene's stores will be converted into Macy's by September. Federated, the parent of Macy's, is closing nearly 80 stores across the country.

Retail analysts say the nationwide clearance is the biggest dumping ever of department store merchandise, with nearly 14 million square feet of space being vacated -- or the equivalent of nine South Shore Plaza malls.

Clearance sales, which began a month ago, have turned the closing stores into a retail circus with bargain-hungry shoppers tearing through racks. During a weekday lunch hour, customers lined up 10 deep at registers in the lingerie department at Downtown Crossing.

Garish yellow, pink, and blue ''Nothing Held Back" and ''Inventory Clearance" signs hang from ceilings and are plastered across walls. Just about everything is 40 to 60 percent off, and Federated will continue to slash prices every week until the stores close.

Throughout the Filene's in Downtown Crossing, employees scurry to pick up after frenzied customers who have dropped clothes and other goods. With every sale cashiers remind shoppers that all sales are final -- that means absolutely no returns or exchanges. But don't try calling: Customers can no longer phone employees on the sales floors.

Last week Federated gave 60-day layoff notices to 582 employees as part of its previously disclosed plan to eliminate more than 1,000 jobs at Filene's administrative office. Workers still haven't been told exactly when their stores will close or how many will be eligible for jobs at area Macy's.

''It's sad," said Paulette Schipani, 64, who has worked for 10 years at the Filene's in Burlington. ''I love retail. I found it late in life. I'm hanging in to see what kind of position I can get."

Already, sections of Filene's in Burlington and Downtown Crossing are blocked off, with makeshift walls erected to -- somewhat unsuccessfully -- hide hundreds of empty metal clothing racks intertwined like vines. Merchandise from the top floors is constantly being brought down to be sold in empty spots on lower levels. At the Chestnut Hill Filene's, several mannequins stood partly naked.

And merchandise from former rival Macy's has already begun to make its way into some areas of Filene's, such as the Alfani men's sports coats (50 percent off) found resting on wooden Macy's hangers. At the Burlington shop, Filene's employees pointed to racks full of Macy's clothes on clearance in an apparent attempt to empty out some of its own merchandise.

For some customers, like Ana Caldeira, the sales are confusing: Clearance signs are misleading, and prices can change when you get to the register. It took Caldeira nearly an hour to find a dress she wanted at the Filene's in Burlington -- and another 15 minutes to figure how much it actually cost ($12.99 -- marked down from $70).

But many customers interviewed recently were not impressed with the sales, saying prices looked better months ago. One Filene's employee said merchandise was marked up before the inventory sales started in January. A Macy's spokeswoman said items on sale before the inventory clearance may have been marked up to original prices, but she is unaware of any other markups.

''It takes a great deal of patience and control," said Laura Marshall of Arlington, as she tried on shoes at Filene's in one of the few spaces not occupied by boots and shoes strewn across the chairs. ''Just because things are marked down doesn't necessarily mean it's a good deal."

Some Massachusetts residents, like Maureen McCloskey, want to take part in the dismantling of Filene's, no matter how painful the process. Several weeks ago, the Lexington resident got a job as a temporary worker at the Filene's in Burlington Mall.

''It's a great store, and I felt really nostalgic. I just wanted to do this for a few months," McCloskey said. ''It's the last of the big Boston chains that we grew up with."

Some customers say the loss of Filene's is especially difficult because unlike other store closings, the Filene's brand was still thriving and simply the casualty of corporate takeovers. Wendy Leeds and her mother Shirley Buck shopped every Friday at Filene's in Burlington for the past 10 years but made their final trip last month.

''It's the end of an era," Buck said. ''But we can't bear to come back and see Filene's empty out like a warehouse. It's too depressing."


  1. I've visited several Robinsons-May stores in SoCal that are conducting similar clearance sales. A circus indeed. It's obvious that Federated cares little about providing adequate staffing or maintaining the appearance of the stores.

    I also noticed that a lot of Macy's merchandise made into the clearance sales. It appears that the best of Robinsons-May's merchandise was pulled from the shevles before the sales began. I agree that this is not the "sale of the century" but a deliberate attempt by Federated to kill May's stores in the most ignominious way possible. May's stores are being depicted as failed operations.

    A friend of mine knows someone who worked many years at Robinsons-May's HQ in North Hollywood. To my surprise, she has been offered a job with Federated -- in Minneapolis. I think the employees are the ones who have suffered the most at the hands of this merger. Customers may ultimately suffer more, but such judgements can only be made several years hence.

  2. Federated is definately trying to sully the image of May. The thing is that Macy's has mqny blemishes on its past as well. Some of theose blemishes will fade with the new marketing push, but will there be enough positive spin on the Macy's name and merchandising in the long run to keep making money using it? Stay tuned.