Century 21: Expanding beyond its retail comfort zone

Spring and summer fashions on are display on mannequins in the Century 21 department store in Manhattan on April 28, 2014. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )
Spring and summer fashions on are display on mannequins in the Century 21 department store in Manhattan on April 28, 2014. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )
Posted: April 30, 2014

Come October, when discount designer-apparel chain Century 21 opens an outpost at the Gallery at Market East, Philadelphia will gain a part of a New York City retail institution known for both its business acumen and its community engagement.

The department-store company last week signed a lease with mall owner Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust to fill 100,000 square feet, mostly on the second floor of the old Strawbridge & Clothier store at 801 Market St.

In announcing the agreement, Joseph Coradino, PREIT's chief executive officer, called Century 21 an "iconic" retailer that "meets or exceeds the sales of any luxury department store in most malls in this country."

The family-owned chain is privately held, so it does not release its financial figures. But business-services company Manta estimated its annual revenue at $160 million, a figure based on eight stores, all in the New York metropolitan area.

The retailer touts itself as "New York's Best Kept Secret" - for decades, it never advertised. Three years ago, however, it hired the Concept Firm in New York to help build its brand as it embarked on an expansion.

Century 21 Department Stores L.L.C. was founded in 1961 by cousins Sonny and Al Gindi, from a family prominent in New York's Sephardic Jewish community. Sonny Gindi died in 2012 at age 88. The company is currently run by Al Gindi's son, Raymond, who did not respond to a request for an interview for this article.

The chain's flagship store is across the street from the site of the World Trade Center. It was damaged but not destroyed during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Barry Berman, a retail expert and marketing professor at Hofstra University, called Century 21 an "extreme value retailer" that relies on "opportunistic buying."

"They really do not have a marketing plan per se," Berman said. "What they love to do is to find a designer who is cleaning out their warehouse or, if Bloomingdale's decides to cancel an order, they will pick up the stock from the manufacturer. They will buy things at a fraction of wholesale and sell them at extreme value."

The lack of advertising is a matter of discretion, he said: Beyond "opportunistic" buys, Century 21 will special-order with designers for labeled items that can be retailed at discount.

"They will never advertise the brand name," Berman said, at the request of designers who don't want to alienate other luxury retailers with whom they do business. "The real buys are the Italian designer stuff."

As a neighbor, the chain receives high marks.

"They are just a committed organization," said Andrew Breslau, senior vice president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, praising Century 21 for "having an engaged workforce development sensibility, being a worldwide tourist destination, and being mindful of their unique and special place in the geography down here."

The retailers' owners are active on civic boards, Breslau said, and raised money for families who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks.

"They do a good job training their employees," he said. "They are put through serious service-industry training and develop a set of skills, so that once they are hired, they seldom leave the company."

Until now, the chain has been reluctant to leave the New York area. Coradino said last week that PREIT had been courting Century 21 for five years.

The move into Philadelphia comes as Century 21 has been expanding generally and upgrading its current locations.

"We are eight stores. I could see getting to 12 or 15," Gindi told Women's Wear Daily last year. "We don't want to be 100 stores. We are a family-run, value-oriented retailer, but we have been talking about what our future should be, what's our next step. We are trying all of these experiments, but we don't want to change our DNA."


>Inquirer.com

For more photographs of the Century 21 store in New York, visit www.inquirer.com


chepp@phillynews.com

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