Bon-Ton’s end will leave a huge hole

Commentary

Boston Store, which has been part of the Milwaukee-area retail landscape since 1897, will soon be gone.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention. The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., the Milwaukee and York, Pennsylvania-based parent company of Boston Store, has been struggling for years. It has not turned an annual profit since 2010.

After sustaining persistent heavy losses, the company finally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this year. Unable to work out a deal with a buyer that would continue operating Bon-Ton as a going concern, the company was sold in a bankruptcy court auction to a group that will liquidate it, shutting down all of its operations and putting more than 22,000 employees, including about 2,250 employees in Wisconsin, out of work.

Bon-Ton is just the latest in a growing list of national retail chains that have been unable to adapt to the dramatic shifts taking place in that industry. Online shopping, led by Amazon, has created a huge challenge for brick-and-mortar retailers. Consumers that actually are shopping in person are increasingly choosing either discount stores, like Walmart or Kohl’s, or high-end stores, like Nordstrom. That’s been a difficult trend for mid-level retailers like Boston Store to handle. Simply put, they have struggled in recent years to differentiate themselves from their competitors, compete with discount chains and make their stores appealing enough to convince consumers to come in the doors.

So now what? Going-out-of-business sales will be held at the area’s Boston Stores through the summer. After that, a huge vacancy will be left in the region. According to CoStar data, there are nine Bon-Ton stores in southeastern Wisconsin occupying a total of 1.17 million square feet. The largest store is at Southridge Mall, at 217,434 square feet, followed by the 215,450-square-foot Brookfield Square store.

Some of those vacant store spaces will be easier to fill than others. Mayfair Mall is the strongest in the region and is best positioned to attract a replacement for its Boston Store. The other malls may have to get more creative. Brookfield Square has already been working on plans for a Marcus Theatres BistroPlex and a Whirlyball entertainment establishment to replace its former Sears store space. Now, it has to come up with a replacement for its Boston Store on the other end of the mall. For Southridge, Boston Store will be the third anchor store it has lost since last year.

But the biggest hit of all is in downtown Milwaukee, where the Boston Store at The Shops of Grand Avenue will close and the Bon-Ton corporate office, and its 700 jobs, will be lost.

It won’t be easy to fill the region’s vacant retail space, but it will be much harder to make up for the loss of another major corporate headquarters.

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Andrew Weiland
Andrew Weiland is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Weiland is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, and son, Zachary. He is an avid sports fan and enjoys coaching his son’s youth baseball and basketball teams.