Lost in Younkers

Twelve days ago, Bon-Ton Stores took a devastating turn when it was bought by liquidators who almost instantly announced that all of the chain’s brick-and-mortar stores and their online presence were officially in shutdown mode.

That meant every Bergner’s, Boston Store, Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers would soon be history.

Gone were the coupons and those black Rewards Cards that were doled out in $20 increments. Gone, too, was the buying power; now that its stores were heading towards extinction, anyone with a store credit card was advised to cut it up because the credit was dried up.

As I took the scissors to mine, I thought about my late mother, who liked to shop, and me, who also likes to shop. Even though we didn’t always see eye to eye, we could always find something to agree on at Younkers.

Mom had a designer’s eye and a wickedly demanding opinion of a garment’s detail. She had, by the time she entered her 70s, whittled her preferences to a few acceptable brands and those brands, fortunately, could be found at Younkers. A trip there was always on the radar when I visited. Inevitably, we would walk out with something for each of us.

Those were good times.

But then my mother passed away and I made my first trip to Younkers with one of my best friends and her mother. I remember the loss I felt, watching those two put their heads together to discuss a sweater, because those two bonded over fine wool.

The next time I was in Younkers there were three of us: me, my best friend and my best friend’s daughter, who is my goddaughter. My goddaughter and I tried on sunglasses and I recall being appalled when she put on a pair that resembled the glossy gaze of a stinging wasp. We filtered our choices through elimination in those days. First, we gigglingly established the stuff we absolutely wouldn’t buy, those sunglasses included. Always, we walked out with something.

On Thursday, again with my best friend, we left Iowa City after the funeral of another friend and headed to Younkers. More powerful than the garish Going Out of Business banners was the funereal pall that permeated the place. We are so sorry, my friend and I said repeatedly when encountering a clerk. One of them responded, saying more than 50,000 people nationwide were about to lose their jobs.

We spent hundreds that day, though not completely out of need. Was it guilt? Had we not been faithful enough to keep it from going under?

We got in the car and drove north to Waterloo where we encountered a slightly less cavernous store that was, nonetheless, in shutdown shock. “I don’t know where I’ll be going,” the clerk said as I bought a Lancome lipstick that turned out to be identical to the one I was carrying in my purse.

“Some of these people, these are their full-time jobs,” an especially friendly clerk had said in Iowa City. “I’m just part time,” she added, in an apparent attempt to communicate that she would be OK.

Long before the death knell, when you could hear the faint sucking sound of failure pulling these stores down the drain, the finger pointing began.

Of course we could have shopped more locally. But the pattern that took Bon-Ton down was rooted in its decision 13 years ago to buy another department store group for more than a billion dollars, according to Forbes. It was a purchase inevitably as lethal to the chain as an iceberg was to the Titanic. Ultimately, it just couldn’t maneuver the unforgiving waters of today’s buying trends with a conglomerate that was weighted down by debt.

Yes, Bon-Ton sold online too, but online shopping has an Achilles heel: it makes it easy to return things, and if you were a good enough customer, all that shipping to and from a Bon-Ton store was free.

Then there were the brands and the gradual dwindling of good names that would have made my mother shake her head in disgust. Increasingly, you could walk in to Younkers and walk out empty-handed. Every trip that ended in no sale helped to end the store’s life.

Shall I mention those Rewards Cards? I once let $100 in them expire because I couldn’t apply them to anything I wanted to buy. I know I’m not the only one who experienced that.

Still, the reality is painful. I don’t want Younkers to close. I don’t think anyone, with the exception of the liquidators, does.

But could we, the shoppers, have prevented it?

I doubt it.

Jane Curtis is the editor of The Messenger.

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