Hundreds of Baltimore-area shoppers packed into the newly reopened Boscov's on Friday morning, welcoming back the department store as if they were greeting an old friend.
"We're so glad you're back," customer after customer told store employees and Boscov family members on hand for the retailer's reopening at White Marsh Mall. The nearly 200,000-square-foot store opened in the same anchor spot the chain vacated four years ago amid the recession.
The newly remodeled and restocked Boscov's drew hordes of shoppers Friday, all of whom had bought $5 tickets for the preview day. Proceeds went to local causes. Customers lined up not only for the many free gifts but to buy — luggage and linens, scarves and purses, shoes and grill pans.
Marie Jones of Baltimore waited outside the store with about two dozen people at one of several entrances before the 10 a.m. opening.
When she heard Boscov's was returning to White Marsh, "I was ecstatic," Jones said. "I used to love it here. I love the prices. I love their selection of items. I used to buy all my curtains and tablecloths" at the department store.
Customers were greeted by sales and, in some cases, by Albert R. Boscov, the 83-year-old owner of the regional department store chain.
The company chairman and CEO was clearly in his element, joking with store employees and customers, straightening sweaters, inspecting signs above racks, directing lost shoppers and occasionally breaking out into an impromptu tap dance as he glided from department to department.
"Nice to have you here today," he said over and over.
He stressed that Boscov's, the nation's largest privately owned department store chain but a relatively small retailer, has taken a different path from others in its category. Boscov's still runs department stores in the traditional sense, offering not just apparel but furniture and even candy. But that doesn't mean neglecting youth fashion, Boscov said, noting the skinny jeans for juniors displayed at one of the store's entrances.
"I don't know what we don't have," Boscov said. "We're a survivor. We know there's other competition, but as long as quality is good and the selection is good and the prices are good, people seem to like us. The idea is to have more styles and have them at a better price."
Near the shoe department, shopper Barbara Mullen of Pikesville chatted with Boscov, telling him her mother had grown up, as he had, in Reading, Pa., where the retailer is headquartered. She said she was surprised to run into the department store's owner.
"I've never seen the owner of a store" greet shoppers, she said.
Mary Dorsch, decked out in Orioles orange, stopped Boscov to request an autograph for a co-worker who could not make it to the opening.
"I'm so glad you've reopened," Joanne Lang of Parkville told Boscov before picking out a scarf for a Christmas gift and heading off to the jewelry counter.
Since coming out of retirement in December 2008 to buy the chain back at a bankruptcy auction, Boscov has been hands-on in shepherding the company back to profitability. He said he works "every day, all the time, morning to night." He travels with a buyer to the New York markets every Wednesday to keep up with trends. And he has a hand in everything from merchandising to advertising to operations.
Retailing has been in his blood since he got his first "job" at age 6, swatting the flies that got in through the screen door of his father's general store, which sold overalls to railroad workers in Reading. If he killed enough flies, he said, he earned a dime.
Boscov retired in 2005 at age 75, selling what had become a regional department store chain. Under new ownership, Boscov's launched a 10-store expansion in 2006, including the move into the Baltimore market.
At the peak of the recession in 2008, the company filed for bankruptcy protection and closed 10 stores, including those in White Marsh Mall, Owings Mills Mall and Marley Station just two years after taking over the spaces from Macy's.
Boscov bought the company back, he said, to save it from going out of business and putting 8,000 employees out of work, including many he had hired personally. The company emerged from Chapter 11 in late 2009.
"We bought it in December [more than] three years ago and had a decent year, and the next three years were terrific," with annual sales at more than $1 billion, he said. Besides the White Marsh store, the chain also opened a new store last year in Monmouth, N.J.
"For a company like this to survive a bankruptcy is miraculous," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm in New York City. "Boscov's is part of a breed that disappeared."
Boscov's is thriving, he said, because, unlike other regional department store chains, it never tried to go upscale or eliminate departments.
"They stuck to a lot of the old traditions," he said. "And Boscov's maintained a sensitivity to price."
Albert Boscov has had a knack for knowing his customers and knowing where his stores will be embraced, Davidowitz said. The store should do well in White Marsh, helping the other mall retailers, because "Boscov's draws traffic," he said. "They're promoters. It's a win-win for everybody."
Boscov said the company plans to stay focused on a strategy he calls "honest pricing," rather than the strategy of inflating prices on the selling floor to make it appear the sales prices is a greater discount.
"Pricing on merchandise today is not honest," he said.
He was heartened by the turnout Friday, when he estimated the store did about $300,000 worth of business. He said he expects about $600,000 worth of business Sunday, the day of the official grand opening.
Jim Boscov, a Boscov's vice chairman and Albert Boscov's nephew, said the two most common responses he heard from customers Friday were how glad they were to see the store return and how much lighter and brighter it appeared.
Indeed, the company invested about $6 million in renovations, updating some features that hadn't been changed since Bamberger's filled the space years ago, Albert Boscov said.
"It was the best of the three Baltimore stores," he said of the former White Marsh Boscov's. "With more merchandise and a better-looking store, we're back to what I've believed in for 50 years. This is what a Boscov's should look like."
Alfie Schrodt of Essex bought one of Friday's preview tickets through her church, with the proceeds benefiting Harford Community College. Schrodt said she's glad to have a Boscov's about 10 minutes from her house; now she won't have to drive farther to the Westminster store.
"I was just so anxious to get to Boscov's," she said as she prepared to shop on Friday. "They have great quality."
Pat McGowan came just to look but walked out Friday with a good buy on a piece of luggage.
"Everything seems to be organized very well," McGowan said. "The sizes were easy to find and everything was well displayed. I would shop here again."