For Bon-Ton, founded in 19th century, an uncertain future

NEW YORK (AP) — The future of Bon-Ton Stores, saddled with debt and faltering sales, looks tenuous after the department store chain filed for bankruptcy protection Sunday.

Even as it plans to reduce it store foot print, jazz up its store label assortments and reduce its debt load, it still struggles with making itself stand out in a fiercely competitive market place.

The filing makes Bon-Ton the largest retailer to file for bankruptcy so far this year. It joins several dozen others that filed for Chapter 11 last year, including Toys R Us, Payless ShoeSource and Gymboree Corp. More are expected to follow as many retailers are struggling with similar challenges, including big debt loads.

The U.S. retail and apparel industry had 11 defaults last year, compared with seven in 2009 as a result of the Great Recession, according to Moody’s. In the meantime, Moody’s has about two dozen distressed retailers on its watch list so far this year, which includes Nine West Holdings Inc. and Claire’s Stores Inc. That means stores with poor credit ratings or liquidity, weak credit and what the agency calls challenged competitive positions. That surpasses the 19 from last year and during the Great Recession.

“In the current environment of pricing transparency, cutthroat pricing and more-demanding consumers, retailers must have strong balance sheets if they’re to remain competitive,” Moody’s Christina Boni notes.

In a note published Monday, Neil Saunders, says that the Bon-Ton brand — and all of its banners that include Elder-Beerman and Carson’s — are far from healthy.

“Even with breathing space, the future of Bon-Ton is uncertain. In our view, there are many stores and locations, which are in terminal decline and where closure is the only sensible option,” Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail wrote. “They are undifferentiated, unclear and have become increasingly irrelevant to consumers. Even if the debt load was cut and unprofitable divisions culled, Bon-Ton would still be running up a down escalator to survive.”

Bon-Ton has survived a score of severe economic downturns, including the Great Depression, but finds itself in uncharted territory today.

While has revolutionized the way people shop, the behavior of Americans had already been diverging radically both in terms of what they buy and where they buy it. The changes have been so sweeping they’ve left many stores, particularly department stores, fighting for customers.

However, some of Bon-Ton’s peers like Macy’s and J.C. Penney and plenty of other retailers saw sales rebound this past holiday shopping season, lifted by the tail winds of an improving economy.

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