Filene's feeding frenzy

Basement: The line for the dressing room was 20 deep as shopaholics descended on the area's first Filene's Basement.

March 27, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Linda Parsons hadn't been in the new Filene's Basement in Towson five minutes before she scooped up four designer purses - Nine West and Ellen Tracey, if you must know - in this season's bright colors and at less than half the normal prices.

The 51-year-old retired state government worker has shopped "the Basement" for 25 years, ever since the days when she had to wear a bathing suit to try on clothes at the flagship Boston store, which was famously devoid of dressing rooms.

"Once you start coming you can't stop," she said. "I'd rather come here and buy three shirts for what I would pay for one anywhere else."

Yesterday's grand opening of the first local Filene's - at Towson Place Shopping Center - attracted a store full of mostly female shopaholics who took the day off or played hooky to attend the anxiously anticipated first day.

They weren't deterred by the fact they had to ride up an escalator to get to "the Basement" on a second-story mezzanine of the shopping center at Putty Hill Avenue and Goucher Boulevard.

Women walked around with four purses hanging from their arms and hand baskets loaded with clothes. A customer tried on gym shorts over her pants. Another woman on her cell phone tried to persuade a girlfriend to come shop with her. The line for the dressing room stretched 20 deep.

Arlene Gregory, 45, arrived 25 minutes before Filene's opened its doors. Gregory's mother used to buy her Easter dresses when she was a child from the store in Waterbury, Conn. She's been a fan since.

"I like the quality of clothing," she said. "When you catch a sale, you really catch a sale."

Others just came to see what all the hype was about having heard the legendary stories, such as the annual bridal sale where women were known to get nasty over designer gowns priced at $200 that originally sold for $1,000 or more.

"I saw on the TV where people were throwing things and ripping things apart," said Janet Myers, 61, of Perry Hall. "I thought that this is probably a store I would like to go [to]."

Boston merchant Edward A. Filene founded Filene's Basement in 1908 as a way to sell off excess merchandise from his father's store, Filene's. The store became widely known as place where people could dress in high-priced clothes at department store prices. But then the retailer fell on tough financial times.

A bankruptcy organization in 1999 forced the chain to shut 35 of its stores. Shortly thereafter, the privately owned company was bought by Value City Department Stores, a Columbus, Ohio, company that later changed its name to Retail Ventures Inc. The Towson opening is part of an expansion of the 21-store Filene's chain, which is based in Woburn, Mass.

Heywood Wilansky, Filene's president and chief executive officer, said the retailer had lost its focus in recent years and needed to get back to its strength as a discount seller of high-end designers, such as Prada and Tahari.

A former chief executive officer of the Bon Ton Stores Inc. and former executive with the May Department Stores, Wilansky spent the past year teaching at the Robert Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park. Wilansky said Filene's would now carry designer brands that are no more than a year old and will order some merchandise directly from Italian manufacturers.

"The new word for us is `no,' " Wilansky said, as in, "No, we're not going to take that merchandise because it is too old."

The store is also opening bigger stores. Current stores average about 30,000 square feet, while newer ones like the Towson outlet will have 40,000 to 60,000 square feet.

Designer jeans by Paper Denim & Cloth, Diesel and Seven for All Mankind that normally sold for over $100 went for $49.99 yesterday. Coach purses were marked down to $149.99 from $278. A Burberry bag, locked in a glass case, was marked down to $244.99 from $350.

The prices weren't low enough for everybody, however.

Amedeo DeFeo, a retired New York sanitation worker living in Parkville, wasn't too impressed. "These are Hollywood prices," he said. "Marshall's is cheaper and has the same quality."

But long lines at the registers, signaled that others felt differently.

"I've been to all the Filene's," said Jo Gregory of Bethany Beach, Del., with a bag full of clothes. "None of them compare to Boston. However, this one isn't bad for little Towson."

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