Bon-Ton Stores Inc., seeking to reverse its string of losses and declining sales, is intensifying its localization strategy this year, hoping to benefit as competitors close stores.
It is also adding a handful of high-profile brands to its assortment in the back half of the year.
“Our localization strategy remains a key differentator,” said Kathy Bufano, Bon-Ton’s outgoing president and chief executive officer.
The strategy is called “Close to Home” and it involves selling products from small local makers. “We will continue to grow Close to Home with expansion to 100 doors by fall and 175 by year-end,” Bufano said during a conference call Thursday with investors, after the company reported a disappointing first quarter.
Bon-Ton, like other department and specialty stores, has been hurt by declining mall traffic, consumers deciding to spend less money on fashion and Internet companies, particularly Amazon, stealing market share from traditional retailers.
Bon-Ton’s issues are compounded by having many stores situated in midtier, secondary markets where the economy is tough and consumers are struggling to make ends meet.
Bon-Ton’s net loss in the first quarter ended April 29 grew to $57.3 million, or $2.86 a diluted share, from a net loss of $37.8 million, or $1.91 in the year-ago period. Net sales fell 9.3 percent to $536.1 million from $591 million and comparable-store sales fell 8.8 percent.
For Bufano, it’s been a challenging three years at the helm, though the company was losing money before she arrived from Belk, where she served as president. Bon-Ton has been in the red for six years.
Earlier this month the ceo said she will resign on Aug. 25 and turn the reins over to William Tracy, chief operating officer. During Thursday’s call, Bufano said it was her decision not to renew her contract and that she believes she “laid the foundation for future progress” including introducing new brands and expanding existing vendor relationships.
The Close to Home shops feature locally sourced and themed products and are open year-round in stores and online. From September through December, Close to Home sales more than doubled projections and the company expects continued growth in 2017.
Furthering localization efforts, Bon-Ton has been fashioning more targeted customer outreach and marketing programs and will be hosting a greater number of local events inside stores such as fashion shows and beauty events “to further solidify position as the hometown store,” Bufano said.
Bufano also said in markets where competitors closed stores, Bon-Ton units trended above the overall store base.
Bon-Ton operates 261 stores including nine furniture galleries and four clearance centers, in 25 states in the Northeast, Midwest and upper Great Plains under the Bon-Ton, Bergner’s, Boston Store, Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers nameplates.
The company is trimming its fleet, but not to the degree as competitors such as Macy’s and J.C. Penney. Bon-Ton last year closed 16 stores and this year is closing four to six doors including two that already shuttered. Bufano said the company only has 13 doors that are not cash flow positive.
Still, in the first quarter, “results fell short of expectations,” Bufano said. Revenue was $2.67 billion over the trailing 12 months.
Most categories did not fare well, though young contemporary, plus sizes, young men’s, denim, fine jewelry, mattresses and e-commerce did well. E-commerce represents about 10 percent of the total business and Bon-Ton’s goal is to bring it up to 20 percent.
Among the upcoming assortment enhancements, FAO Schwarz shops will be in 100 stores for holiday, Champion activewear will be added this fall and will be in all doors by the holiday; the Ruff Hewn brand is being expanded with additional categories, and there will be seven new, exclusive contemporary labels on the selling floors.
In addition, home decor will feature more lifestyle merchandise, Vera Bradley bedding will be launched, as will Ellen DeGeneres dinnerware and Laura Ashley home.
Bufano also said the company is working to simplify its coupon strategy and “will manage the number of exclusions that apply to our coupons.”
Bon-Ton reduced its full-year comp sales expectations to negative 3 percent to 4 percent, based on the first-quarter performance, but maintained its full-year adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization guidance to $115 million to $125 million, and a loss per share of between $2.08 to $2.59. Bon-Ton also expects its profit improvement plan to yield more savings.
Bufano said the business trend so far in May is definitely better than prior months this year. “We have energy across the store in terms of new things to entice the customer.”