Daffy's, last of the Chestnut Street discount designer stores, to close

Joyce Herstein of Center City: "It's my favorite store. You always found unusual things here that you wouldn't see elsewhere."
Joyce Herstein of Center City: "It's my favorite store. You always found unusual things here that you wouldn't see elsewhere."
Posted: July 26, 2012

Once, not so very long ago, Chestnut Street was a mecca for the well-dressed skinflint.

Filene's Basement. Loehmann's. Daffy's. The holy triumvirate of discount designer shopping. All made their home, for a time, within a lunch break's expedition from most Center City offices.

No more.

The first to depart was Filene's, which ceded its hallowed ground to the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2001. Then, in 2008, Loehmann's, a Philadelphia short-timer with only three years' residence, gave way to Modell's. Now, the death knell has sounded for the last redoubt of 80 percent off the good stuff.

"No!" Gudrun Dauner cried when she learned of Daffy's impending demise. "Most of my clothes I buy here!" Dauner, 46, a freelance translator and art historian, had just finished scouring the children's section with her 1-year-old son, William, who looked up in blue-eyed alarm from his stroller, apparently, picking up on his mother's distress.

"For him," Dauner said, "they have a lot of French and Italian clothes in natural fibers. And I like the European stuff for myself." The store is also one of the few places she can find shoes to fit her size-5 feet, she said. "It's a pity."

'Tis.

But the city's shoppers are not to blame.

"This is not a Philadelphia problem, it's a storewide problem," said Larry Steinberg, director of the Center City real estate firm Fameco Co. "Daffy's took on some very expensive real estate in New York."

The chain, which had 19 stores, including eight in Manhattan and six in New Jersey, has been beaten by the competition, behemoths like TJX Cos., which operates T.J.Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods, and Ross Stores Inc.

Daffy's announced last week that it would liquidate all 19 stores over the next several months. It was not immediately clear when the Center City store would close.

"The whole retail landscape has been drastically transformed since 2008," said Ken Perkins, a retail analyst based in Boston. "There have been thousands and thousands of store closures."

Logically, in stressful economic times, a store like Daffy's should do well. (Although, honestly, is there really another store like Daffy's?) But, Perkins explained, the game of retail thrones has grown cutthroat.

"More stores are more willing to be promotional and put their goods on sale," he said, citing the phenomenal growth of stores like Ross, where sales are rising 6 percent a month, and T.J.Maxx, gaining 7 percent.

"Those numbers are amazing," Perkins said.

And depressing, for those who harvest discount-retail racks with the meticulous attention of vintners tending Chateau Margaux vines.

Ross? T.J.'s? They suit their purpose. But as the cognoscenti will attest, those stores are 50 Shades of Grey compared with Pride and Prejudice. In its prime, Daffy's - then known as Daffy Dan's - was teeming with finely made, exclusive designer clothes. The kind of deals that made the sales tickets - slashed from $500 to $50 - worth framing.

During the last few years, there was no denying, the pickings had grown slimmer and the goods schlockier. And yet, the dig almost always yielded treasure.

"It's my favorite store," said Joyce Herstein, 60, of Center City, spending a weekday afternoon hunting for blouses on the fifth floor. "You always found unusual things here that you wouldn't see elsewhere." Men, too, grew to love the place. Joe Wolff, retail director for the Comcast Center, is so distraught he will be sporting black - only now, it will probably come from the outlet mall in Oaks.

"I stop in to Daffy's three or four times a week," he said. "I have fun getting dressed. I'm in kind of a high-profile position." The pieces of his wardrobe he has scored at Daffy's invariably win him praise. "I'm stopped in the street by guys who ask, 'Who's your custom tailor?' And here I am wearing a $90 suit."

Although he has noticed that the store has grown shabbier, Wolff said its departure would still be sad for the city. Steinberg, however, sees the loss as a gain.

Daffy's home in the former Bonwit Teller & Co. store, at 17th and Chestnut Streets, was one of the few spaces the company owned. It bought the place for $4.8 million in 1992, said Steinberg, who estimated that it was probably worth four times as much today.

"It's probably the busiest corner in the city. Highly visible and highly trafficked. It will get a lot of attention from retailers when it hits the market," he said.

Furthermore, he said, Daffy's did not occupy all 106,000 square feet. So a new owner could lease the property to multiple businesses, generating more taxes and more jobs.

"In my opinion," he said, "it's good news."


Contact Melissa Dribben

at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

 

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