AM&A’s… Of Course!

AM&A's

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about The Bon Ton. As a Buffalonian, I think it pained me to see AM&A’s close in 1994, and reopen under The Bon Ton banner. I have a good friend in New York, and we always jest that with our nasal upstate accent, it was a cruel joke to rename a store something that sounds so terrible, when uttered through the nose. In any regard, as long as I can remember, AM&A’s was a powerhouse of Buffalo retail. When sold to The Bon Ton, they certainly were in decent shape, and a major economic driver in the Western New York region. It seems to me that The Bon Ton has just mercilessly driven the company in to the ground.

In the early 90s, The Bon Ton was on an acquisitions spree — they took over a number of local chains, and consolidated them under The Bon Ton name. As I’ve said, it was painful at the time, but now in retrospect, it was — from a business standpoint — a stupid move. AM&As was a name engrained in the WNY consciousness. The Bon Ton bled that brand equity, and the hemmoraging continues to this day. Today, I read yet another “sales slip at Bon Ton” article in Business First

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Sales slip at Bon-Ton
Business First of Buffalo – 10:56 AM EDT Friday, July 13, 2007

Bon-Ton Stores Inc. saw sales fall below expectations in June, and executives blame a slowdown in store traffic.

Total sales fell 8.1 percent to $279.6 million, compared with $304.2 million in June last year.

Bon-Ton operates eight stores in Western New York — in Clarence, Hamburg, Jamestown, Lockport, Niagara Falls, Olean, Tonawanda and West Seneca.

Total same-store sales throughout the chain dropped 8 percent in June, and those sales include those of Bon-Ton and of Carson’s, a company Bon-Ton acquired in 2006. Bon-Ton same-store sales dropped 18.1 percent and Carson’s same-store sales dropped 1.7 percent compared with June last year.

The year-to-date trends are more promising. Total sales at Bon-Ton increased 14 percent to $1.25 billion, compared with $1.09 billion for the same period last year.

Merchandise that sold well in the period included intimate apparel, children’s, juniors, dresses and cosmetics. Home and furniture performed weakly, said Tony Buccina, vice chairman and president of Bon-Ton, in a press release.

“Despite the sales shortfall, inventory levels are well-positioned for the remainder of the second quarter, and we continue to provide our customers with fresh merchandise,” Buccina said.

Bon-Ton operates 279 stores, which includes eight furniture galleries, in 23 states under the Bon-Ton, Bergner’s, Boston Store, Carson Pirie Scott, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers nameplates. It also operates five Parisian stores.

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What’s important about the article is the last paragraph. In 2006, the company reversed it’s take over and conquer appraoch, and begin to recognize that long-standing local names were far more valuable than anything they could hope to sell under some other banner.

Aside from the fact that I quite literally dispise the name “The Bon Ton”, and aside from the fact that since the takeover in 1994, The Bon Ton has closed about half of the stores it acquired, and aside from the fact that the merchandise is dowdy, and the service is well, not service at all, and aside from the fact that advertising for the chain evaporated from the ubiquitious “AM&A’s… Of Course!” to… well, nothing at all, and aside from the fact that The Bon Ton has invested about $35 into capital improvements for former AM&A’s stores over the past 15 years, AND not to mention that The Bon Ton closed the flagship downtown AM&As after pledging not to do so… I still hope that by the grace of god, they succeed to some end.

So, as an olive branch, here’s what I propose to The Bon Ton CEO Mr. Byron Bergen, et. al. on the Board of Directors:

1. Recognize that it’s no longer 1956. Department stores are a dying breed, and The Bon Ton is about 5.5″ under.

2. Recognize that though it’s nearly dead, The Bon Ton is a gold mine just waiting to happen.

3. Dump the stupid name. Look at the same store sales for Carson Pirie Scott compared to the same store sales for the former AM&As chain. It isn’t about the consumer profile in the market, it’s about name and a customer connection to the name. I bet if The Bon Ton changed the name of the stores in WNY back to AM&As and launched an aggressive PR and advertising campaign (that solely emphasized the name change) that same store sales would jump by 10% (putting them at, well, at least at the break even point compared to last year).

4. Clean up the damn stores. They’re dank, packed full of crap, and disorganized. I’d rather see one of something masterfully merchandised than 100 of something dumped in a pile. And while you’re at it, clean up the graphics in the stores, red and white is old school and boring — it says “discount” and not “experience”.

5. Retrain your employees. Friendly, efficient, fun, and helpful. Those should be the four tenets, not old, bored, tired, and unmotivated.

6. How about someone under 55 on the board of directors? That might be a good place to start.

7. Why not emphasize house brands? I would be hard pressed to name one house brand that The Bon Ton features. I’m sure there are some, but who the hell knows what they are?

8. Fashion, fashion, fashion. Why not offer the customer a service in a manner that will make the store a community center (think kids’ story hour at Barnes & Noble). Maybe a plus-size fall fashion show, or an ongoing Thursday afternoon “Tea and Tips” makeup tip hour with catered snacks and tea (I’m sure the cosmetic companies would gladly subsidize and buy in). Home decor lessons, place setting displays, cooking demos, it all costs nearly nothing and goes a very long way.

9. Cut the coupons and the constant discounting No one cares. Everything is always on sale, and yet, strangely nothing is ever really a bargain. Price something fairly and then heavily discount. Or have a standard 10% off MSRP all the time. That would pull them in in packs.

10. Advertise. I would be hard pressed to tell you the last time I saw a Bon Ton ad (or heard one) outside of the newspaper. AM&As used to advertise non stop, Kaufmann’s advertised NON STOP. Macy’s advertises non stop. The Bon Ton? Full stop.

So, that’s the tip of the iceberg. Interested in more, call or e-mail me. I’m happy to offer more. Hell, it’s free, so what do you have to lose… oh, other than the 5 stores that remain in this area.