Goodbye to Woodies, hello to bargain fever Last day of business: Woodward & Lothrop closed all of its department stores in the Baltimore-Washington area yesterday, and the bargain hunters were out in force.

November 11, 1995|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,SUN STAFF

Karen Commerford knows she's afflicted, but hers is an illness she can live with.

It's called bargain fever, and Ms. Commerford was surrounded by similarly afflicted shoppers yesterday, combing the racks and sifting through piles of garments for one last deal on the last day of business for the Woodward & Lothrop store at the Mall in Columbia.

The venerable, 115-year-old department store chain known affectionately to customers as Woodies -- a bankrupt business sold in a bidding war in August -- closed all remaining stores in the Baltimore-Washington area yesterday after a two-month liquidation sale billed as the "End of an American Era."

The Alexandria, Va.-based retailer shut down a dozen stores in the region this week -- most of them yesterday, including its White Marsh and Annapolis stores -- sending bargain hunters into a frenzy.

"It's a disease," Ms. Commerford admitted as she scoured a glass case rapidly being emptied of jewelry at the Columbia store, elbow to elbow with other seekers.

"You come here. Do you want anything? No. Do you need anything? No. I'm one of the addicted ones."

Many shoppers and Woodies employees at the Columbia store said a heavy cloud of sadness hung over the daylong rush to the next 15-minute special offering discounts on items already marked down by 60 percent to 80 percent.

"I think it's a tragic situation. I hate to see it happen," said Ned Crawley of Columbia, a shopper who tagged along with his wife. Mr. Crawley experienced a scene similar to when he was laid off from his computer programming job by a California department store chain in 1990.

Signs of department-store mortality were everywhere.

Yellow "caution" tape, like that used at crime scenes, cordoned off escalators leading to the already-emptied second level and other large sections of the store. Mannequins stood nude, save for plastic garment bags. Employees pushed huge carts full of hangers, the remnants of racks picked clean like carcasses.

A huge billboard inside the store counted down the days, reading yesterday: "After 115 Years, Last 1 Days!"

Michael Bass, designer men's clothes representative at the Columbia Woodies, said the liquidation process -- progressively steeper sales over the last 10 weeks -- has been like "cannibalizing ourselves. This is like an animal eating itself up, like a cannibal, a snake. Everything's shrinking."

The shopping frenzy brought out some rude behavior, both customers and employees charged. One saleswoman complained that she was ready to go home and cry after the store had been open only an hour, saying that shoppers were switching price tags and pulling other sly maneuvers.

May and J. C. Penney acquired Woodies and its Philadelphia-based subsidiary, John Wanamaker department stores, in a bankruptcy court proceeding for an estimated $460 million to be distributed to creditors.

A retail consultant at Gordon Bros., a Boston-based liquidator that handled Woodies' sale, said that on many days over the last several weeks, the Columbia store generated three times the sales receipts that it totaled during the corresponding days last year.

The sale started slowly in September but picked up momentum as discounts reached 30 percent or more, said Peter Hurwitch of Gordon Bros. "It's never let up," he said.

Many of the Woodies stores will be converted to J. C. Penney stores, including the Columbia Mall location. Some will become Lord & Taylor or Hecht's stores; others will be sold. At the Columbia store, several loyal Woodies shoppers seemed almost lost yesterday, saying they didn't know where they'd turn for their future apparel and houseware needs.

Harold Cawthorne, a 72-year-old Department of Defense retiree from Landover Hills, drove nearly 30 miles for a last chance to shop at the store because the Landover Mall Woodies had already closed. In the afternoon, he said he'd head to the Woodies in Wheaton.

He said he's depended on the sales staff at Woodies for nearly 30 years to tell him which suits give him a --ing figure -- and which he should leave on the rack.

"You could rely on their judgment," Mr. Cawthorne said. "I'm going to miss them."

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