Filene’s Basement to be reborn as a low-price online retailer
The place “where bargains were born” is about to be reborn — online.
Filene’s Basement, the legendary discount retailer that went bankrupt and ultimately closed four years ago, is making a comeback under new ownership as a low-price e-tailer.
“We’re launching our new website in a few weeks & we can’t wait to see you there,” @FilenesBasement tweeted Wednesday, linking to a Web page where shoppers can sign up to be notified when sales begin.
The site is scheduled to go live in late September, with discounts of up to 70 percent on brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, and Calvin Klein.
Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion industry publication, was first to report the reopening.
The company behind the new venture is Trinity Place Holdings Inc. of New York, which emerged from the remains of Filene’s Basement 2011 bankruptcy filing. Trinity also owns retail property in New York, New Jersey, and Florida.
A major question looms ahead of the Filene’s Basement reset: How can this virtual incarnation possibly mimic the original? With its automatic markdown system, messy bins full of merchandise, and customers stripping in the aisles (there were no changing rooms for women), Filene’s Basement was known for a one-of-a-kind shopping experience.
Skeptics are already lining up.
“My reaction is, it’s not Filene’s Basement — it’ll never be Filene’s Basement,” said Sue Edbril, coproducer of the 2010 documentary “Voices from the Basement,” about the chain’s history.
It may be impossible to replicate the excitement of women clamoring for cheap gowns during the annual “Running of the Brides” sale at its flagship Downtown Crossing store, but the online version will attempt to honor the century-old spirit of Filene’s Basement, said the site’s chief marketing officer, Mara Wedeck.
“We know we have a loyal following that has an emotional connection to the brand, particularly in the Boston market,” Wedeck said. “We’re really going to empower shoppers to maintain the sense of hunt that they loved in brick-and-mortar stores but also provide them with a personalization feature that will help them quickly and easily find what’s unique to them.”
Simulating the hunt for bargains that loyal shoppers recall is hardly the site’s only challenge. The competition that helped drive Filene’s Basement out of business in the first place has intensified in recent years, said Sucharita Mulpuru, an e-commerce analyst with Forrester Research.
“I’m baffled why someone would do this,” Mulpuru said. “There is some value in the brand, which is really a regional brand, but relaunching online doesn’t seem like a smart decision to me. It’s an incredibly more competitive retail environment than Filene’s ever faced in its heyday.”
Framingham-based TJX Cos. — parent of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, and one of the Basement’s strongest rivals at the time of its closure — continues to thrive with its appeal to thrifty “Maxxinistas.” This month, the off-price merchant reported second-quarter sales of $7.4 billion, an increase of 6.5 percent from the same period last year.
Meanwhile, the field of online-only discounters is crowded and lacking a model of runaway success for Filene’s Basement to follow, said Nikki Baird, managing partner at Retail Systems Research of Miami.
“They’re coming out in the context of a trend of disappointing performances by the likes of Groupon, Gilt, Rue La La,” Baird said. “There’s a sense that the flash sale and deep discount market is a bit overplayed.”
Nearly a decade has passed since the Filene’s brand began to wither away. Filene’s department stores, which had split from Filene’s Basement in 1991, were folded into Macy’s in 2006 after an acquisition the year before.
The flagship Filene’s Basement location in Downtown Crossing was shuttered in 2007, then the company went bankrupt in 2009. Syms Corp. bought Filene’s Basement at auction that year but lasted just two years before its own bankruptcy in 2011, marking the end for the chain’s 21 remaining locations.
The digital resurrection of Filene’s Basement comes as the Downtown Crossing property is completing a dramatic renovation that includes a Roche Bros. grocery store, which opened in April; a Primark clothing store coming next month; and a 60-story luxury condominium building, Millennium Tower, which is expected to be completed next year.