Filene's to shut 3 stores in Md.

The Baltimore Sun

Retailer Filene's Basement, known for its discounted brand names and annual bridal gown sale, is preparing to close three stores in Columbia, Hunt Valley and Towson, leaving the Inner Harbor location as its only spot in the Baltimore region.

The three Baltimore-area stores are among 11 locations nationwide that are expected to be shut down by the end of next month unless the retailer is able to negotiate lower rents with their respective landlords, Filene's general counsel, Julie Davis, said in a brief interview yesterday.

The retailer, whose president said this month that he had hoped to renegotiate two leases in the Baltimore area, has 36 stores.

Retailers are working to cut costs after facing the worst holiday shopping season in more than four decades. Consumers, facing job insecurity, steep stock market losses and declining home values, have pulled back on spending. That has forced retailers to cut jobs, close stores or find other ways to trim costs.

Workers at the Towson Filene's began posting "store closing" signs Thursday, said manager Bill Randall. A Hunt Valley store manager said that location would close at the end of next month.

And Snowden Square Shopping Center in Columbia was told last month that Filene's would close, said Richard "Dicky" Darrell, a broker with the commercial real estate firm Manekin LLC, the center's property manager.

"This is a very tough environment," said Mark Millman, a retail consultant and chief executive officer of Millman Search Group in Owings Mills, who is helping several local Filene's employees find other job opportunities. "You would think with [Filene's] pricing and selection, they would be doing well or faring better than most."

This month, Filene's President Mark Shulman said the retailer was trying to renegotiate leases and maintenance fees with the landlords of its Towson and Hunt Valley stores to cut costs amid a worsening retail environment.

Shulman had said then that the retailer, which moved to the Baltimore area in 2004, was not at the point of closing. But the retailer was discounting everything in stock at those two stores and not taking returns on new purchases, and Shulman acknowledged that such moves sometimes are "a precursor" to closing.

Greenberg Gibbons Commercial, which handles leasing for Hunt Valley Towne Centre, did not respond to questions. A manager at Towson Place Shopping Center said he had no information on Filene's closing.

Other Filene's stores preparing to close include those in Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and the Tysons Corner store in Virginia, according to Davis.

Filene's troubles are the latest worries for a retail industry in a deepening recession.

Circuit City Stores announced last week that it is going out of business and will close 567 stores in the United States, including 15 in Maryland.

Linens & Things, Mervyn's LLC, KB Toys and Tweeter have filed for bankruptcy protection during the past year, and many of those have liquidated their stores.

Millman expects the retail environment to get worse in the coming months.

"People have stopped shopping," he said.

Boston merchant Edward A. Filene founded Filene's Basement in 1908 as a way to sell excess merchandise from his father's store, Filene's. It became widely known as a place where people could buy high-priced clothes inexpensively. The company's annual bridal sale, during which women rush the store for steeply discounted gowns, is one of its hallmark events.

The retail chain's flagship store in downtown Boston has been closed for two years because of a redevelopment project.

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