Even if Barneys New York goes bankrupt and factors continue to restrict credit, there’s something about the brand that redefines sustainability.
Barneys has been through it all — bankruptcy in the Nineties, failed expansion strategies, disruptive ownership and management changes. It’s been a survivor through changing internal and external circumstances — big rent increases, shrinking profitability, increased competition and different ownership. But those challenges are raising renewed concerns about whether the 96-year-old retailer will continue to survive in some scaled-down, restructured form.
Reports of a possible bankruptcy surfaced last weekend, first on CNBC. They were followed by a statement from Barneys that “the board and management are actively evaluating opportunities to strengthen our balance sheet and ensure the sustainable, long-term growth and success of our business.”
That means Barneys wants to keep going, though one retail source suggested liquidation as a possibility, and that Barneys’ owners, Richard Perry and Ron Burkle, would recover more money in that scenario, escape what’s owed landlords and vendors, and that so far the owners have been unsuccessful trying to sell the company.
On Monday, amid reports of factors cutting Barneys off and vendors worried about shipping and wondering about Barneys’ immediate future, the luxury retailer had no further comment beyond its weekend statement.
Barneys principal owner, Perry, through a bankruptcy filing, could attempt to get out of leases where the retailer’s business is bad, and subsequently line up a new buyer for a smaller Barneys, with a handful of the most viable stores, including the Madison Avenue flagship, Beverly Hills, as well as barneys.com. On the other hand, Philadelphia, Seattle and Boston are said to be among those not performing as well. Barneys operates 24 stores and outlets.
“Something has to be done, but I don’t see an outright liquidation. Barneys has viable stores in New York and Los Angeles, but nobody is going to take on all the leases Barney has now,” said one former retail chief executive officer, who requested anonymity.
“Richard Perry has been trying to sell Barneys for three or four years,” said Allen Questrom, who took Barneys out of bankruptcy from 1999 to 2000 as its ceo then. Questrom, who also took Federated Department Stores out of bankruptcy and later Macy’s out of bankruptcy by combining the two retailers, suggested Perry, in his quest to find a buyer for Barneys, would pursue someone like Perry himself — wealthy and attracted to the prestige of the company. One difference: The next owner must understand Barneys’ limited expansion capability. “Barneys is a terrific store but it’s very coastal in terms of its appeal,” Questrom said.
And opening a second location in Manhattan on its original downtown site in 2014 was “something the company needed like a hole in the head,” he added.
Questrom and others said Monday that Barneys’ increased rent on Madison Avenue, which doubled this year to over $30 million, and also increased at the Beverly Hills store, is the biggest problem pulling down the earnings. “This is a company that hasn’t been big on profits for a long, long time,” Questrom noted.
Aside from higher rents, Barneys, various market sources indicated, is plagued by several weak locations, an assortment overly reliant on niche-y, lesser-known labels not carried with enough commitment to make an impression, and an oversize flagship on Madison Avenue with anemic traffic but a consistently crowded Freds restaurant.
Among Barneys’ biggest points of distinction: its lack of hard designer shops and leased designer shops, though that sacrifices a big chunk of potential business.
While Barneys does pride itself on exclusivity and being first in America to carry many designers, it lacks some of the world’s most productive brands, like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. In addition, a few of Barneys’ biggest, most productive brands, such as Celine handbags, have been challenging in terms of business lately. And the Beverly Hills store a while back, stopped carrying Goyard, the ultra-luxurious luggage brand.
“Barneys has always been an industry leader introducing brands to market. Of all the department stores, Barneys has the strongest modern fashion point of view, but ultimately the customer has many more places to buy those things today,” like Net-a-porter, said a brand president. “They don’t have the anchors like Chanel, but you don’t want to be overly investing in small niche brands. You do want to carry and nurture those brands but you also want to make sure you balance those with the big guns. Mark Lee [Barneys former ceo succeeded by Daniella Vitale] was criticized by some for trying to make Barneys more commercial. It probably needs to be more commercial.”
“There are a lot of these niche designers with about half a rack each. No one is making money off that,” said one designer who sells to the store and has been getting paid, albeit sometimes late. The source complained that Barneys eliminated numerous middle management slots, putting much more of the buying decision-making into the hands of chief merchandising officer Jennifer Sunwoo as well as Vitale, after undergoing some middle management streamlining to save money. But another source close to the company said no such management changes were made.
The source also said that payment on summer goods was three weeks late, which did threaten shipments of pre-fall, but after some prodding, the payment was made the following week, triggering the delivery. “This is not the right way to do business,” said the source.
According to Questrom, “As I go through the store over the last year, the assortment seems much narrower. There’s no depth behind most of the stock.” He compared Barneys to the renovated Saks Fifth Avenue flagship, indicating, “I think the renovated Saks is doing quite well, taking business from Barneys and Bergdorf’s. Saks has done a fabulous job renovating and attracting customers, with classification dominance. The percolation and attractiveness of the store is so much better. The whole store has really gone after categories they are good at. Athletic shoes is a hot category today and the new men’s shoe floor is on it.
Still, a major fashion vendor said Monday that Barneys had a good record of paying on time, until recently. But this particular vendor could have been getting favorable treatment. The vendor also said that compared to other big retailers, Barneys is not nearly as tough with charge-backs.
In the last couple of seasons, Barneys appears more promotional, and this year went early in the season with large discounts, including 75 percent off in June on designer merchandise.
Another market source said Barneys’ average sell-through rate for full-priced ready-to-wear hovers somewhere around 35 percent. Emerging designers, however, are often asked to sign agreements that bind them to a 65 percent sell-through rate, requiring them to buy back their own merchandise.
Nevertheless, there’s still the perception that Barneys is less promotional than its competitors, and that the store doesn’t run in-season promotions with the same intensity as Neiman Marcus and Saks. Importantly, Barneys still gets high marks for well-designed stores that retain their cache, with beautiful visuals, dramatic staircases and an air of exclusivity.
Most factors have not been extending credit for most of this year, a financial source said. “We haven’t given Barneys credit for the longest time. We were getting information from the cfo but then he stopped giving us information.” The source also noted that Barneys did recently get a term facility from Wells Fargo, which the store confirmed.
A financial source said that Euler Hermes, a credit insurance company, “was partially approving up to $200,000 with premier fees.” In response, an Euler Hermes spokeswoman said, “It is against Euler’s policy to comment on specific companies, clients or policies.”
Increased competition from Saks, particularly with the success of its renovated Manhattan flagship, as well as from Neiman’s, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, and brands opening their own stores and web sites and relying less on wholesaling, have bitten into Barneys’ business.
Yet amid all the difficulties, Barneys has signed leases with Bal Harbour Shops in Miami Beach, one of the most luxurious and productive shopping centers in the country, and at American Dream, the entertainment and retail complex opening in New Jersey in the fall, at least with the entertainment components.
At Bal Harbour, Barneys has agreed to move into an expanded section under construction. “We have a lease with Barneys. I have every reason to expect them to open as contemplated in four years,” said Matthew Whitman Lazenby, president and ceo of Whitman Family Development LLC, which owns and operates Bal Harbour Shops.
American Dream did not return a request for comment.
“I still think Barneys could be profitable if they get rid of some of the real estate,” Questrom said. “They’re doing enough business on Madison Avenue, Chicago and Los Angeles. Barneys has a narrow customer profile. It’s a very small business. They can’t make more money opening more stores. If they still had just that one store in Chelsea, I guarantee they would be making money.” Barneys was founded in 1923 by Barney Pressman on the Chelsea site, on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street in New York City. It was eventually closed but reopened there in 2013.
“It’s not really a surprise that Barneys is in this situation,” said the brand president. “The higher rent would have a meaningful impact on EBITDA. The market has been talking about that for a long time. What is a little more surprising, but in some ways make sense, is how they are looking for other opportunities for revenue growth now, like opening in American Dream particularly after closing so many tertiary locations,” in past years, including closing a few years ago all the smaller “Co-op” stores around New York City and elsewhere around the country.
“It shows that developers are willing to pay for the cache of having Barneys in a center and that Barneys needs to find ways to make incremental revenue without rent or much rent. My sense, my hope is that they are able to figure out a way to live another day. This is not the first time Barneys has had to deal with liquidity issues,” the executive added.