NEW YORK — Samuel Gerson, chairman and chief executive of Filene’s Basement from 1984 to 2000 and instrumental in expanding the chain and its famous “automatic markdown” feature from Boston to several other urban areas, died Saturday of a brain tumor. He was 61.
This story first appeared in the July 15, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Gerson retired from the company after it was sold to Value City in 2000. The company had gone into bankruptcy the year before, but despite the rough going, most of Gerson’s tenure at the helm was marked by a steady and high-profile expansion to 55 locations and roughly $600 million in sales. It’s currently about half that size, in stores and volume.
Gerson, always known as a sharp merchant, became one of the more familiar retailers in the Northeast, particularly in his home state of Massachusetts, through his own spirited appearances in TV and radio ads, where he would hype ribbon-cuttings and big sales. Gerson ran Filene’s Basement when it was still a part of Federated Department Stores, and through its spinoff and initial public offering in 1991.
The thrill of finding a great bargain was always a great lure to Filene’s Basement, particularly its historic downtown Boston location, founded in 1908. The store remains a major Boston attraction, but the bargain excitement and the rush of visitors, including some who would disrobe and try on clothes in public view right in the aisles, since there were no dressing rooms, never fully translated to out-of-town locations.
In addition, larger, more nimble off-pricers, such as TJX Cos., and the increasingly promotional posture of department stores proved to be too much for Filene’s Basement to withstand. Gerson did try to strengthen the company’s position with more moderately priced goods through the company’s Aisle 3 apparel retail division, which he started. They were bigger boxes, and did not offer the higher priced bridge or designer goods that could be found in Filene’s Basement. However, that concept never took off and the company filed for bankruptcy in August 1999. The following February, Value City of Columbus, Ohio, bought Filene’s Basement for $89 million. After a downsizing, Filene’s Basement was left with stores in the New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Massachusetts markets. Currently, there are 21 sites.
According to The Boston Globe, Gerson lived in Chestnut Hill, Mass., at the time of his death. He grew up in Dorchester, Mass., and was the son of a lobster distributor. In addition to Filene’s Basement, Gerson held top posts at Filene’s and The Denver department stores and, during its formative years, Gap Inc.
In addition to his wife, Geri, survivors include his mother, Edythe; a sister, Wendy Cheever; three daughters, Dana Unger, Michelle, and Jill Mark; and two grandchildren.