Educated Consumers Have Turned Elsewhere

Sy Syms cultivated “educated consumer[s].” In the end, they appear to have learned all too well. As have competitors. The off-price clothing chain announced Wednesday that it would be filing for bankruptcy, liquidating its merchandise and going out of business. It will take Filene’s Basement, a disastrous bankruptcy-sale acquisition it made in June 2009, down and out with it. Or, some say, Filene’s Basement took out Syms.

Discounting, Dana Mattioli informs us in the Wall Street Journal, has gone mainstream. “Fast-fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz AB's H&M stores sell jeans for $29.95, and competitor Inditex Group's Zara chain offers men's suits for less than $300. High-end department stores like Nordstrom Inc. and Macy's Inc.'s Bloomingdale's are stepping up openings of outlets.”

Having never paid as much as $29.95 for a pair or jeans in my life -- and I live in them -– I empathize completely withPhiladelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Armstrong, who moans this morning that “given that I'm not fashion-oriented, Syms over the years proved to be as reliable and cheap a place to buy suits as I'd found.”



Unlike Armstrong, I don’t have a sizing problem that Syms consistently answered (he always found an ample supply of 36Rs on the racks for his 5’7” frame, he tells us). Like Armstrong, however, I can’t tell you the last time I actually bought something at the store, though I’m sure there are some timeless, Syms-sourced sports jackets I rarely wear hanging forlornly in my closet. Something seemed to happen several years before founder and patriarch Sy Syms passed away two years ago and even before the likes of Neiman Marcus got into the discount game.

To me, it was Costco and Kohl’s, which seem to pay you to shop there. (That reminds me, I need to cash in that $10 “Kohl’s Cash” certificate I got for buying two pairs of Lee jeans and two Sonoma house-brand long-sleeved T shirts for about $80 last week.) Others go elsewhere but bargains seem to be ubiquitous nowadays -- if you don’t need to spend money just to show that you can.

On Monday, Sachi Fujimori of The Record, a newspaper that covers the northern New Jersey area, published a piece on the “wealth of options” available to bargain hunters in the affluent market.

“Not all outlet stores are created equal,” Fujimori writes. “The newness of their inventory, and the discount you’re getting, varies significantly. For example, the Diane Von Furstenberg outlet at Woodbury Common carries reduced-price dresses that were in retail stores like Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue as recently as three months ago. It’s more often the case, however, that designer outlets carry last season’s and even last year’s fashions -- but at a nice markdown, sometimes as much as 90% off the original price.”

Tellingly, Syms -– with corporate headquarters in Secaucus and a long-established outlet in Paramus –- was not listed as a destination within the “shopper’s paradise” Fujimori surveys.

The emergence of flash sales have also cut into Syms’ raison d'être. “If I were an off-price, brick-and-mortar discount retailer, I'd look at the flash-sale channel and be concerned," flash-sale site Rue La La CEO Ben Fischman tells the Journal’s Mattioli. And Retail Concepts partner Michael Tesler tells Huffington Post’s Alicia Ciccone that the rise of flash sale sites like Gilt Groupe "have been generating a lot of excitement, energy and buying power in the off-price industry."

We’re not writing anything that Syms CEO Marcy Syms doesn’t know. She said as much in a statement: “We have been faced with increased competition from large department stores that now offer the same brands as our stores at similar discounts; a proliferation of private label discount chains; a decline in buying opportunities as brand name labels have reduced overruns by improving their supply chain management –- all combined with the worst economic downturn in our lifetimes.

“All these factors affected both chains and they came at a time when Filene’s Basement, which was just emerging from bankruptcy, was already waging an uphill battle to rebuild its customer base.”

But the real Syms and Filene’s Basement killer is this, I think: Neither of my 20-something kids would have been caught naked in either one of them. They weren’t even on the radar -- they’ve become grandma brands like Bonwit Teller or Postum cereal were when I was growing up.

Says Tesler, a former executive with Filene's and Filene's Basement: "They [Syms] were using the same system that the store was founded on in 1959. They made no updates and were completely rooted in the past."

And so, they are history.

1 comment about "Educated Consumers Have Turned Elsewhere".
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  1. Gerald Nanninga from Planninga from Nanninga, November 4, 2011 at 9:38 a.m.

    Also keep in mind that fancy designer labels used to be a primary method for establishing status. Now, people can more easily establish status via cool technology. The poster child was Steve Jobs--full of status via cool technology but wore simple t-shirts and jeans.

    Once status markers drifted away from apparel, there was less need to seek out those exclusive labels, diminishing the value of a Syms of Filene's Basement.

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