John Harris & Anthony Salamone/The Morning Call - Kutztown resident June Van Duren has remained a loyal Bon-Ton customer, often venturing to Trexlertown to shop even as the department store chain’s once-sprawling offerings began to dwindle in recent years.
“They just don’t carry the merchandise they used to have, the variety,” she said.
Her complaint is just one reason why Bon-Ton is struggling — and just one reason why the chain on Wednesday announced the locations of 42 stores it plans to close over the next few months as it tries to turn around its business.
The Trexlertown store, off Hamilton Boulevard, is one of eight that will close in Pennsylvania, a list that also includes the Bon-Ton at Stroud Mall in Stroudsburg. The beleaguered Phillipsburg Mall also will lose its Bon-Ton.
“I will kind of miss it, but it doesn’t have the feel of vibrancy,” she said.
That’s putting it lightly. The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., the department store chain co-headquartered in York and Milwaukee, is loaded with about $1.1 billion in debt, has deteriorating sales and appears headed for a restructuring.
The news Wednesday didn’t come as a surprise, consistent with Bon-Ton’s announcement in mid-November that it would close at least 40 stores in 2018.
“As part of the comprehensive turnaround plan we announced in November, we are taking the next steps in our efforts to move forward with a more productive store footprint,” Bon-Ton President and CEO Bill Tracy said in a news release.
Retail expert Jeff Green, owner of Jeff Green Partners in Phoenix, said Bon-Ton clearly had too many stores in a market the size of the Lehigh Valley. He also doesn’t think the closures are done.
In fact, in a filing Monday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Bon-Ton disclosed a plan that suggests — in addition to closing the 42 stores — putting at least another 20 on a “watch list.”
“You can’t tell me that they don’t already have an idea of what’s going to happen with those,” Green said. “Those 20 are probably going to close. You’re alerting Wall Street to, ‘Guess what? There’ll be more.’ ”
As for the 42 closures announced Wednesday, closing sales will begin Thursday and run for about 10 to 12 weeks.
Bon-Ton spokeswoman Christine Hojnacki said the 42 stores together employ about 1,860 people, who will be offered the opportunity to interview for positions at other stores. A store-by-store employment breakdown was not provided.
In the Trexlertown store Wednesday, there was nothing posted about the liquidation sale. But the store saw a decent amount of activity, with one executive saying it had thrived on “day” customers. She declined further comment, referring questions to Hojnacki.
The departure of Bon-Ton will leave a sizable vacancy at the Trexlertown shopping center, referred to as Trexler Mall by owner Cedar Realty Trust. While Cedar Realty Trust’s corporate office in Port Washington, N.Y., did not return a call seeking comment, a brochure for the property indicates the space Bon-Ton leases measures 62,000 square feet — the center’s second-largest tenant after Kohl’s.
Meanwhile, at Phillipsburg Mall, the impending loss of Bon-Ton is just the latest blow. Sears in November announced it would close its department store there, a few years after J.C. Penney also pulled out of the mall. Mall owner Mason Asset Management of Great Neck, N.Y., did not return a call seeking comment. It was not known whether Bon-Ton leases or owns its space at Phillipsburg Mall.
The Bon-Ton stores slated for closure in Trexlertown and Phillipsburg are both in shopping centers that also have a Kohl’s. In an investor note Tuesday, analyst Randal Konik of the investment bank Jefferies suggested Kohl’s could be the biggest winner as Bon-Ton closes stores and restructures its fleet.
“Bon-Ton’s closures could be a cherry on top” for Kohl’s, Konik wrote in the note.
While the presence of Kohl’s in Trexlertown and Phillipsburg certainly didn’t help Bon-Ton stores there, retail expert Green believes the company’s decision came down to store performance and what it saw as the upside potential in each market.
In Trexlertown especially, the upside potential appeared limited — at least according to the observations of longtime Breinigsville resident Nelson Velez.
Velez said he noticed the Bon-Ton there appeared to be doing less business, and he pointed out its location in the shopping center between Kohl’s and Marshalls.
“I’m sorry to see it go, but they have to think of the bottom dollar,” Velez said.