Bon-Ton, Bergner’s, Carson Pirie Scott, Elder-Beerman, Goody’s, Herberger’s, Peebles, Younkers — they’re all names that have wound up in the retail graveyard.
But Deepak Ramani doesn’t believe they’re dead and buried.
The chief executive officer of BrandX has quietly created a company and purchased the names of these and other regional department stores that have disappeared from the scene. And he intends to revive them.
Ramani, who also heads the Ramani Group, a real estate development and property management firm, along with a wholesale manufacturing company that creates private label for many major retailers, believes there is a void in B and C markets around the U.S. where these stores used to dominate.
Step one is to launch an online site under the Bon-Ton name this summer, followed by a brick-and-mortar store under the Carson’s name next spring.
Ramani has retained Tom Ott, the former longtime head of men’s wear for Saks Fifth Avenue, to help him with the relaunch and has a team of 40 people working on the project.
Bon-Ton and its affiliate companies — Carson’s, Bergner’s, Boston Store, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers — filed for bankruptcy in 2018 and liquidated their stores. The IP was purchased by CSC Generation, which had a similar plan: to relaunch Bon-Ton online and open Carson’s stores in the Midwest. But in early 2021, CSC sold the assets to Ramani’s newly formed BrandX business for an undisclosed sum.
Ramani also picked up Goody’s, Gordmans, Palais Royal, Peebles and Stage Stores, and today, BrandX owns the IP for 12 nameplates that had at one point operated 1,076 stores in 45 states. The purchase also includes 22 private brands including Breckenridge, Cuddle Bear, Ivy Crew, Valerie Stevens and Wishful Park, as well as data on 13.1 million customers.
“They all went out of business,” Ramani said, “which was very unfortunate. The business model was fairly good but the debt they had forced them into bankruptcy.”
Ott added: “They didn’t have a sales problem, they had a profitability problem. They were doing close to $4 billion in business.”
Ramani and Ott believe there is a need for these regional department stores, many of which had roots that date back to the mid-1800s. Shoppers in communities with B-, C- and D-level malls have fond memories of these stores, Ramani believes, “and our business model is to focus on that.” In fact, he showed a letter that had been sent to his Seventh Avenue office recently that contained a handwritten note and a $20 bill. The letter was from a former Herberger’s customer who was making amends for having shoplifted from the store more than 40 years earlier. That shows the viability of the stores, he said.
He opted to start with Bon-Ton online before opening the 125,000-square-foot, two-level store in Joliet, Illinois, followed by a Younkers in a yet-to-be-decided location. Eventually, he said, the plan is to restart them all.
He said he has hired a buying team along with Ott, who is serving as an adviser, but declined to name names at this point. Ditto for the brands that will be offered on the Bon-Ton site or the Carson’s store. But Ott said the mix will be moderate and similar to that previously carried at these units in the past. Most will be national names, with some of the brands targeted to the local market.
Ramani acknowledged that reviving these businesses will be an uphill battle as he goes up against Kohl’s Corp., J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and other midtier department stores. But his other businesses are profitable and he is working with White Oak Global Advisors, a factoring firm that had previously been part of Capital Factors, he said. “The project is extremely ambitious, but we do things differently.”