Woodies sale disappoints shoppers


Hell hath no fury like a shopper scorned.

The venerable Woodward & Lothrop department store chain found that out in a big way yesterday, as shoppers who showed up for what the chain billed in some advertisements as a "historic liquidation sale" left empty-handed -- and furious.

"We were teased and everybody fell for it," said Brian Groveman of Columbia, as he stormed out of Woodward & Lothrop's store at the Mall in Columbia.

"It's a huge joke," he said, referring to advertisements touting the sale as a final tip of the hat to loyal customers. "So much for saying thank you to the loyal customer."

The computer scientist, who was hoping to land a good deal on gourmet cookware, was among hundreds of shoppers who got up early yesterday and arrived well before the store's 8 a.m. opening for what he thought would be a sale characterized by deep discounts, as a liquidator tried to make speedy work of taking the 115-year-old chain to the grave.

He and other shoppers said they were led by television and newspaper advertisements to believe there would be hefty discounts. In the Baltimore area, the closing event was touted in ads as "our historic sale." In Washington media it was hawked as "our historic liquidation sale."

The 35-store chain, which includes 14 Wanamaker's stores in the Philadelphia region, is being broken up, and $200 million of its inventory sold by Gordon Brothers Partners Inc., a Boston-based liquidation company, to satisfy creditors as part of a bankruptcy agreement. Gordon Brothers is selling off merchandise at 24 of the chain's department and furniture stores.

Mark Stein, director of operations for Gordon Brothers, acknowledged that some shoppers have been disappointed by meager discounts, but said sales at many Washington and Baltimore area Woodies stores have been brisk. Prestigious lines, such as Waterford crystal, Coachman luggage, and new fall designer-brand clothing, have been moving "at well above the expected level of sales," he said, declining to be specific.

"We are always sorry if someone leaves disappointed that the price wasn't what they were hoping for," said Mr. Stein.

"If an item doesn't move at the 10 percent discount, we'll reduce it some more. It's our job to get the most money we can out of the sale," he said.

Mr. Groveman said he spent five minutes in Woodies' Columbia store, then left empty-handed -- and steamed -- after seeing that most items were discounted only 10 percent.

The slim discounts on items upset many customers who showed up yesterday at Woodies' three Baltimore area stores, in Annapolis, Columbia and White Marsh.

All merchandise, except for hand-woven Oriental rugs, was discounted 10 percent, though signs throughout the store said to look for savings of up to 30 percent. The rugs, some listed at more than $4,000, had markdowns of 60 percent.

Many shoppers said they expected to buy top-drawer merchandise at significant savings, even though ads announcing the liquidation sale did not specify how much shoppers could expect to save. Some said they expected discounts of at least 25 percent on all items.

But, said Mr. Stein, "The customers are the ones who ultimately decide what price an item will sell for. In a sale like this, once an item is sold out, that's it."

The liquidator is hoping to close all of the chain's Maryland stores in 60 days and the ones in Washington, Philadelphia and Northern Virginia in 90 days. Mr. Stein said based on the brisk pace of sales yesterday, he did not project larger discounts in the near future.

Shoppers who didn't find the bargains they expected searched elsewhere. At the Mall in Columbia yesterday, the Hecht's store was abuzz and customers were buying items marked down 20 percent to 50 percent for the store's annual Labor Day sale.

Merchants at White Marsh Mall said they enjoyed a boost in sales from the crowd Woodies attracted.

Paula Parker, of Laurel, said she hired a babysitter and took time off from work so she could make it to yesterday's 8 a.m. sale opening.

She had planned to spend "a couple of hundred dollars" on back-to-school clothing for her children and other family needs. Stunned by the slim discounts, she left the Columbia store without buying anything.

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