It was less than four years ago that Filene’s Basement filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to quickly liquidate and close its stores, a victim of a hyper-competitive retail environment that was being dramatically reshaped by fast-growing off-price rivals and the rise of online shopping.
But now, the chain is back from the dead, re-launching next week as an online-only business that will have the familiar mix of home goods and apparel that customers remember from its previous incarnation. Even “Running of the Brides,” a blowout wedding gown sale at which women were known to throw some elbows in the name of nabbing the perfect dress, is being reintroduced.
Filene’s Basement was always known for having an unusually loyal customer base, so many shoppers will likely welcome its return to the marketplace. And yet their new position as an e-commerce store may make it difficult to replicate perhaps the most beloved part of shopping at the old Filene’s Basement: The thrill of the hunt.
Filene’s Basement — like other discount stores such as TJMaxx and Marshall’s or even warehouse clubs such as Sam’s Club — was a favorite of bargain-chasers who love to feel like they got a lucky break. It was a place for stumbling upon a fur overcoat that you didn’t know you wanted, or for pumping your fist in victory when you found the very last cashmere pullover in your size buried at the bottom of a bin.
“You went to Filene’s Basement, and it was an event, it was an adventure,” said Andrew Clark, Filene’s Basement’s director of consumer experience. “You had to wear the right shoes, you had to have the right bag, you had to make sure you ate something ahead of time, because you were going to be in there, working your way through the racks.”
The new leaders of Filene’s Basement are keenly aware that it will be important to preserve this feeling of discovery on their Web site. To achieve that, they’ve built a massive inventory of over 1 million individual items, or “SKUs,” a much larger assortment than customers would’ve had in a Filene’s Basement brick-and-mortar outpost.
They are also attempting to personalize the merchandise that shoppers will see on the site, and not just by using algorithms. Customers will be asked to take surveys to indicate which brands, categories and price points most interest them, and then they will see a unique Filene’s Basement homepage based on those preferences.
“We found it was important to people, as we were talking to former customers, that it not just feel like a machine,” Clark said.
They’ve also sought to craft the wording of their site’s recommendations in an open-ended way, so that it might open the shopper up to browsing different categories or brands.
Filene’s Basement’s efforts to create an off-price online juggernaut are especially bold when you consider its competitors’ positions in the digital space: TJMaxx and Nordstrom Rack were relative late-comers to selling online, while Marshall’s and Ross Stores have stayed away from e-commerce entirely so far. Analysts have said the off-price model — which counts on unpredictable flows of excess inventory — is notoriously hard to make work on the Internet.
The revived Filene’s Basement is headquartered in New York and is owned by real estate firm Trinity Place Holdings. Trinity obtained control of the brand’s copyright in 2012, and has said it always intending to revive the brand when the time was right.
Filene’s Basement is re-entering a category that could hardly be hotter right now. TJX Cos., the company behind TJMaxx and Marshalls, saw net sales leap 6 percent last year, and, for the first time ever, pulled in higher sales than Macy’s. The department store giant is not sitting idle, though: Macy’s has launched its own off-price chain this fall called Macy’s Backstage. Nordstrom is quickly growing its fleet of Nordstrom Rack stores, which they say attracted 4 million new shoppers in 2014.
But Trinity Place is convinced that Filene’s Basement can bring something different to the category.
“We also quickly realized that there is not one completely dominant online discounter – and those who have done relatively well are still considered a bit ‘soul-less’ by many of our likely shoppers,” said Matt Messinger, chief executive of Trinity Place Holdings, in an e-mail. “There is a percentage of online discount shoppers who are looking for a more personal and emotional shopping experience.”
Filene’s Basement essentially created the off-price category when it opened in Boston in 1909 as an outlet for upscale department store Filene’s to unload extra inventory. (Its name was quite literal: It was a no-frills spot located in the basement). Particularly in its flagship Boston location, the store was known for its unique shopping experience. Its automatic discounting system meant shoppers took a gamesman-like approach to shopping, and because there were no fitting rooms, it wasn’t unusual to see people undressing in the aisles to try on a garment.
The e-commerce site, which they’ve been actively working to build for about a year, hopes it can recapture some of that personality.
‘It’s not going to exactly replicate flipping through the racks and the piles of clothing at Filene’s Basement…but the idea is you can come into the site, have a look around and be surprised,” Clark said.