retail watch | Sep 16, 2021 |
Will ABC Carpet & Home be able to reinvent itself after bankruptcy?

The news this past week that New York’s fabled ABC Carpet & Home had filed Chapter 11 and was about to be dragged through bankruptcy court was indeed very sad. A plan is in place for the retailer to come out on the other side of all of this, but history suggests it’s never easy and often a lot can get lost in translation as it emerges back into the land of the living.

The turn is particularly upsetting, as it wasn’t all that long ago that ABC was, without a doubt, the most admired home furnishings retailer in the country. It was creative, it was innovative, it did things nobody else was doing, and it had a social conscience unlike virtually any other business—much less a retailer—in the industry. To see how it has fallen is crushing.

For those who may not know all of the backstory, ABC began life in 1897 on Broadway, just north of Union Square, as a rug merchant, selling all kinds of floor coverings—from the best of the best down to, well, not the best. It passed through several generations of the Weinrib family until Jerry Weinrib’s daughter, Paulette Cole, and her then-husband, Evan Cole, had an idea to expand the business into the broader home furnishings category in the early 1980s.

This expansion would not just be a bunch of frying pans, couches and sheet sets. Instead, they had a vision for a wonderland marketplace where special products were sold in special ways. The store also used the shop-in-shop model—departments that were often leased out or consigned to keep initial investment costs down—which became the footprint of the home side of the store even as rugs continued to pick up a disproportionate share of the overhead costs. Back then, no trip to New York was complete for anybody in the home furnishings business without a stop at ABC. There, they found amazing product presentations, lines they had never seen before, and an atmosphere that could only be created in a 100-year-old multistory urban building. Just as Bloomingdale’s, the late great Conran’s and Macy’s Herald Square were all must-sees, so was ABC—but it was the first stop.

When Paulette and Evan went their separate ways (he to eventually start a variation on the ABC theme called HD Buttercup in Los Angeles), she took the business up a notch, adding a cause-marketing layer that has been unprecedented in any retailing business of this scale. Working with artisans around the world and backing social movements in human rights, ecology and health, ABC took on a spiritual role that went far beyond the simple act of selling merchandise.

That’s not to say that ABC didn’t take some big hits over the years. The 9/11 terrorist attacks paralyzed lower Manhattan for years, and it was only beginning to return when the 2008 Great Recession rocked the upscale customers who frequented stores like ABC. Those Wall Street bonuses bought a lot of living rooms … until they didn’t. The pandemic was the final straw. Even as the brand downsized its space, sold real estate, finally began selling online, and generally retrenched its non-local operations, it wasn’t enough. The store went from being a must-see to a gee-I-forgot-about-them for a generation that was shopping online, visiting tiny Williamsburg stores and forsaking the complex decorating looks that defined ABC.

And now it’s in the hands of the attorneys and the judges. Cole says she intends to carry on, buying the retailer out of bankruptcy and perhaps doing things a little differently without the weight of a bad balance sheet. And she just might. I’ve known her for 30 years and she is one of the brightest, most dedicated and genuine people you’d ever meet. That said, we all know how difficult it is to reincarnate retailers. Certainly, the track record suggests more fail than succeed.

Still, you shouldn’t bet against ABC—or Paulette Cole. She created one of the most amazing retailers the industry has ever seen, and she could do it again. But it won’t be as easy as A-B-C.

Homepage photo: A vignette from ABC Carpet & Home | Courtesy of ABC Carpet & Home

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