A 194-Year Era Ends As Lord & Taylor Begins Closing Sales At All Remaining Locations

Unsurprisingly, Lord & Taylor has announced that it is officially going out of business. America’s oldest department store has limped along severely wounded for most of the year. But today’s press release still comes with a certain level of sadness. 

This morning, Lord & Taylor initiated final liquidation sales at all of its 38 remaining stores and on its website. This final closing includes some of its most popular locations such as Manhasset, Eastchester, Stamford, Westfield, and Chevy Chase.

Lord & Taylor and its parent Le Tote, a startup clothing rental business, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on August 2. Le Tote has been the owner of the storied department store only since last November, after purchasing Lord & Taylor from Canadian firm Hudson’s Bay Company for $77 million. 

In spite of HBC’s profitable $850 million sale of the beloved Lord & Taylor Fifth Avenue store in 2017, and several attempts to revive the brand, HBC simply wanted to dispose of the entire retail operation. HBC acquired Saks Fifth Avenue in September 2013 and wanted to concentrate more of its energy on the Saks brand.

Several business analysts doubted that Le Tote could make a go of Lord & Taylor. Reports surfaced that Le Tote scrambled up until the last minute to find enough cash to complete the purchase transaction with HBC. 

Le Tote struggled to meet several important deadlines. A Le Tote rental boutique within the Yonkers Lord & Taylor store was barely completed in time for its official grand opening. 

Le Tote even scrambled to get its much-hyped SoHo Christmas pop-up store ready for the 2019 Christmas holiday.

Institutional and logistical chaos is not a good recipe in today’s retail environment. Le Tote ran out of cash before it could install any of the technology necessary to successfully combine a clothing rental business with a long-established department store. And then COVID-19 came along.

By the end of March, reports surfaced that most of Lord & Taylor’s recently-installed senior management had been fired in an emotional and heated meeting. Without an organizational staff in place, Lord & Taylor seemed to have little to no chance at a future. One retail analyst referred to the department store’s condition as “Dead Man Walking.”

Earlier this month, Lord & Taylor insisted it still had a chance at a future. Leadership wanted “to keep the heritage of the brand alive for years to come.” Unfortunately, its early August bankruptcy filing included the announcement that 19 of its 38 stores would close. Last Thursday, five more stores were added to that closing list.

In this morning’s statement, Lord & Taylor reported,”While we are still entertaining various opportunities, we believe it is prudent to simultaneously put the remainder of the stores into liquidation to maximize value of inventory for the estate while pursuing options for the Company’s brands.” Liquidation sales at its 14 remaining stores begin this morning.

When reached for comment this morning, a Lord & Taylor spokesperson stated, “At this time we really do not have a further update [regarding the bankruptcy].”

In 1826, Samuel Lord and George Washington Taylor joined together and opened a small Catherine Street outpost that grew to become one of New York’s iconic Fifth Avenue department stores. Even when the Fifth Avenue location debuted in 1914, Lord & Taylor was billed as “America’s First Store.” No holiday trip to New York was complete without a visit to Lord & Taylor. A 1938 holiday window display, mimicking a blizzard by using fan-blown painted cornflakes, is credited for being the industry’s first animated Christmas window.

After joining the store’s staff in 1921, Dorothy Shaver worked her way up the company ranks and was installed as Lord & Taylor’s president in 1945. Her appointment as president was reported to be “the first woman to head a department store of such size.” Shaver championed American fashion designers, introduced the American Beauty Rose as the company’s symbol, and revolutionized its advertising. Shaver also helped establish locations throughout the New York metropolitan area, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and Washington.

The store found its niche with upper-income customers looking for more conservative designs. Its signature Bird Cage restaurants encouraged customers to spend the day at the department store. A trip to Lord & Taylor could be an all-day shopping and social event.

By the 1990s, Lord & Taylor lost its competitive fashion edge. As a division of the May Department Stores company, Lord & Taylor leadership decided to eliminate its higher-end labels in order to increase customer traffic. Under May’s ownership, its store count swelled to 76 locations. The plan worked for several years as profits grew but its fashion reputation diminished. 

It was an impossible challenge for Lord & Taylor to reinvent and rebuild, especially without a full operational staff in place, or the great unknown beyond COVID-19. Its recent bankruptcy court appearance sounded more like a liquidation than a reorganization.

Yes, Lord & Taylor has been on hospice. Its end seemed all but certain. But there is hard reality and sadness when the news becomes official. It’s so final.

After 194 years, Lord & Taylor deserves a proper funeral.

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