There’s something distinctively different about Century 21 department stores. For almost six decades, the New York City retailer has consistently offered true designer merchandise at steep discounts. It’s beloved by its loyal customers but COVID-19 has complicated its successful business formula.
Century 21 is a retail theatre. Shoppers are willing to spend hours digging for bargains of high-end goods at up to 65% off. Vogue magazine has called Century 21 a place “where fashion’s hoi polloi and fashion’s intelligentsia search obsessively side by side.”
Unlike other retailers that have come and gone in the Big Apple, Century 21 remains a shopping destination. Trip Advisor recommends a visit to Century 21 as one of the “Top Things To Do in New York City.” Travel + Leisure has simply stated, “For the fashion-conscious, Century 21 is a shrine.”
Century 21 operates 11 locations throughout the New York City metropolitan area and its large Downtown Manhattan flagship store is almost as much a tourist attraction as it is a department store. But COVID-19 has dramatically curbed shopping excursions and tourist visits to the region.
Heather Feinmel, director of marketing and public relations for Century 21, acknowledges the challenges of doing business in New York City during COVID-19. “Our flagship store in Downtown Manhattan has been very challenged due to the decline in tourist traffic as well as local office workers in the area.”
In mid-March, all Century 21 stores were closed due to quarantine restrictions. However, over the past month, all locations have reopened as loyal customers cautiously return to in-store shopping. “We are optimistic about business, even though traffic remains tough, but we are extremely humbled by how many loyal customers did return to shop when we opened our doors, and continue to visit us now,” Feinmel says.
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, Century 21 has recently made some difficult decisions. In early June, the company permanently laid off over 1,000 employees, from corporate-level positions to the sales force.
“There’s no question that they’ve been successful up until COVID-19,” says retail consultant Jan Rogers Kniffen. “What we don’t know is can they get through the ditch? It’s not like they did anything wrong. I’m sure they’re just conserving cash.”
Kniffen feels that the current crisis might be especially hard felt at Century 21. As a company heavily invested in a ravaged COVID-19 area, “there’s just no business going on in New York City right now.” Century 21 also operates a Center City Philadelphia store, located within the former Strawbridge & Clothier flagship, and a store at South Florida’s massive Sawgrass Mills outlet centre. Both locations are in hard-hit areas and are extremely reliant on tourist dollars.
But Century 21 is no stranger to tragedy. The company’s flagship is located just opposite the World Trade Center on Cortlandt Street, located within the former East River Savings Bank building. On September 11, 2001, over 500 employees and customers were inside the store when the first plane hit the North Tower. All were quickly and safely evacuated and accounted for.
Though it was structurally sound, Century 21 spent $10 million to quickly repair the heavily damaged structure. The gutting and rebuilding the department store’s interior took less than six months. As the World Trade Center ruins remained visible just opposite of its main entrance, Century 21 reopened on February 28, 2002.
It took several years to rebuild the volume at its Downtown Manhattan flagship. Devoid of workers, buildings throughout the Financial District and many streets remained off-limits to pedestrians. Feinmel says, “The last time Century 21 Stores closed its doors was during 9/11 when our downtown store was severely damaged, and just like then, we know we will get through this period and come out even stronger.”
In 1961, Sonny and Al Gindi opened the first Century 21 department store in a modest 5,000-square-foot storefront and members of Gindi families remain in control of the business today. The name referenced the upcoming 1962 “Century 21 Exposition” to be held in downtown Seattle. The fair was intended to predict how humans would likely live, work and eat in the year 2000.
Century 21’s reputation as a reliable source for discounted one-of-a-kind fashionable merchandise might help it secure its future during this critical time. “Century 21 is the ‘Real Deal,’” says Kniffen. “It never changed its character. It’s been selling designer clothing at 65% off since 1961.”
Feinmel lists some changes and innovations that Century 21 is enacting to ensure customer safety in the new COVID-19 world. “The impact of COVID-19 has fast-tracked the need for a reimagined guest experience in-store. We are testing new programs, such as an in-store live stream. In addition, we will be hosting private shopping events, to help consumers feel at ease.”
Despite the challenges, Century 21 is cautiously optimistic about its future. “We are committed to doing the best we can during this challenging time to keep our business alive,” Feinmel says.
Kniffen may provide the best reason why Century 21 has a strong chance for future success. “New Yorkers know that shopping at Century 21 is not only cheap, but it’s also still cool.”