Filene’s Basement Files for Bankruptcy Just in Time for the Holidays

On a quiet Monday after the lunchtime rush, everything is business as usual in Filene’s Basement at Friendship Center. Customers browse the wide aisles of women’s and men’s clothes, jewelry and handbags. Others stand in line, clothes draped over their arms, until it is their turn to cash out. 

It doesn’t seem as if these are the store’s final days in northwest Washington. The parent company of Filene’s Basement, Syms Corp., recently filed for bankruptcy and therefore all Filene’s stores will be going out of business after the holidays.

When it opened, Filene’s Basement was unique in its policy that merchandise would automatically go on clearance based on how long it was in the store. The longer a product was in the store the higher the discount, rather than the entire store having a sale because of a holiday or Black Friday. Filene’s has filed bankruptcy twice before, but this time the 109-year-old store is going out of business.

“When I worked downtown, I shopped at the Filene’s on 14th Street often, and when I wasn’t shopping in there I was just walk around pricing items for my next Filene’s shopping spree,” said Teria Powell, a Upper Marlboro, Md. resident.

“I truly enjoyed having the Filene’s there because most of the downtown places to shop are very expensive,” Powell said. “Being a young wife and mother, I couldn’t afford to buy a $90 black dress for a office happy hour from Lord & Taylor but I knew I could find one at Filene’s in my price range.”

A letter from Syms said that, if approved by bankruptcy court, most stores will close by the end of 2011, after the holiday shopping season has ended and all merchandise has been liquidated.

This also means the end of Filene’s famous “Run of the Brides” event. Every year, the store holds an all-day event where brides can buy sample bridal gowns for extremely discounted prices. In the past, brides-to-be have camped out in front of Filene’s across the nation to secure a gown.

“This has been a challenging time for Syms and Filene’s Basement,” CEO Marcy Syms said 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.”

Other discount stores such as Marshalls are providing that increased competition. “Filene’s is a step up from Marshalls,” said Minnie Bush, who formerly frequented both stores. “They have more named brands, but you also have to spend more money there.”

The higher prices at Filene’s have caused Bush to shop more frequently at Marshalls, which is also closer to her home. “I haven’t actually shopped here in a long time,” she said.

The national retail chain employs thousands of people in 25 stores and nine states, including Massachusetts and Illinois. Three stores are in D.C. Most of these employees will be looking for work at the close of the year. Although they face possible unemployment, the cashiers and other employees of Filene’s were pleasant to all the customers. Store employees are not allowed to comment on the future plans of the company.

“I want to express my appreciation to our employees, many of whom have devoted their careers to Syms and Filene’s Basement, for their loyalty and hard work,” Syms said in the press release. “I also want to thank our educated consumers and bargain hunters for their dedicated support over many years.”

Filene’s is the second large chain to go under this year, after Borders this summer. Borders had three bookstores within D.C. Both Borders and Filene’s had locations in the Friendship Heights neighborhood in northwest D.C. and also in downtown D.C. The Borders store in Friendship Center has been empty since August

“I don’t know much about the store’s history but I do think that wherever Filene’s are located there will be a lot of people to miss them being there,” Powell said. “I think since they are closing during the holiday season, their already affordable prices will be even lower.”