Not so long ago, instead of facing a high-profile bankruptcy, national retail chain Bed Bath & Beyond dominated home goods sales and was even a pop-culture icon.
Known for its seemingly ubiquitous blue 20% off coupons at more than 1,000 stores in its heyday, the Union, New Jersey-based chain got mentions on TV shows such as “South Park,” “30 Rock,” “Broad City” and “Parks and Recreation,” and movies including Adam Sandler’s “Click” and Will Ferrell’s “The Other Guys.”
But now the chain could meet the same fate as once-venerable retailers such as Toys R Us and Lord & Taylor: extinction. Bed Bath & Beyond filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection April 23. Without a buyer stepping up, the chain said it will close its 360 remaining Bed Bath & Beyond and 120 Buy Buy Baby stores by June 30 in a liquidation expected to generate $718 million in sales. The deadline for bids on its assets is May 28, with an auction scheduled for June 2.
The dramatic downturn involves a series of missteps — described and acknowledged by one of its own top executives in a court filing — that were exacerbated by the pandemic and its fallout. Those actions have led the nearly half-century-old company, the self-described largest U.S. home goods retailer, to start dismantling some operations with the just-announced layoff of 1,000 workers at its Georgia distribution center.
From failing to capitalize on the promise of e-commerce, to turning its back on the original concept of selling well-known brands, the company’s history offers an example of how a well-known chain and major user of retail property around the country can end up facing the prospect of losing it all.
Bed, Bath & Beyond got its start with an idea from a couple of retail executives. Leonard Feinstein and Warren Eisenberg, veterans of now-defunct discount retailer Arlan’s, saw a looming department store shakeout as a big opportunity for specialty retailers to jump in, Holly Etlin, Bed Bath & Beyond’s chief financial officer and chief restructuring officer, said in a court document.
So in 1971, with an investment of $50,000 each, they opened two Bed ‘n Bath stores, in Springfield, New Jersey, and Cedarhurst, New York. “The philosophy was simple: offer name brands at a discount,” Etlin said.
Over the years Bed ‘n Bath expanded, in terms of its number of stores and their size. In 1985, the company debuted its first 20,000-square-foot superstore, “paving the road for other American big-box retailers to follow suit,” according to Etlin.
The new superstore offered wide-ranging inventory options and low prices. In this fashion, the company “pioneered ‘category killing’ retail — scalable specialty retail chains that surpassed competition through broad product offerings in a specific category at affordable prices,” Etlin said.
The retailer began offering more diverse offerings throughout the 1980s, so in 1987 it changed its name to Bed Bath & Beyond to reflect its wider array of merchandise.
Feinstein and Eisenberg took Bed Bath & Beyond public in June 1992. Finding favor on Wall Street, over the following year Bed Bath & Beyond’s stock rose over 100% as the company announced record sales for fiscal 1993, Etlin said. The company adopted integrated computer-based inventory management systems, giving it an edge on competitors. By 1999, sales passed $1 billion.
Bed Bath & Beyond also implemented a strategy for shoppers that retailers like T.J. Maxx use today: giving consumers a so-called treasure hunt experience. In Bed Bath & Beyond’s case, it stocked goods floor to ceiling at its stores, a strategy that amounted to “pile it high, let it fly,” so patrons would never know what they were going to find and enjoyed the adventure of the search.
Bed Bath & Beyond survived the 2008 recession, outlasting its main competitor at the time, Linens ‘n Things.
Beginning in the mid-2000s, online shopping was introduced to mainstream America, forever changing the retail industry, Etlin said. But Bed Bath & Beyond was slow to embrace and adopt to the e-commerce boom, which was pioneered by direct competitors Amazon, Target and Walmart.
“While Bed Bath & Beyond had been on the leading edge of many brick-and-mortar critical retail trends, the company’s reluctance to compete in the e-commerce space was one of the consequential, early decisions that ultimately led to this day,” Etlin said, referring to the bankruptcy filing.
Bed Bath & Beyond made a number of acquisitions, including its 2007 purchase of Buy Buy Baby, which was founded by two of Feinstein’s sons and is now the leading specialty baby retailer throughout North America.
In January 2014, Bed Bath & Beyond’s stock hit an all-time high of $80 a share. But that success was short-lived, and by 2018 the stock had dropped to $14 a share, erasing $15 billion in value, Etlin said, as the company fell behind rivals that had invested heavily in both stores and e-commerce capabilities.
“In early 2019, the retailer reported its seventh consecutive quarter of declining same-store sales and reported its first annual loss and sales decline in its nearly three decades as a public company,” according to Etlin.
In March 2019, a group of activist investors in a bitter battle rose up and claimed Bed Bath & Beyond had failed to change with the times — with its cluttered floors packed with goods — and that the company’s value was eroding. The dissidents also accused company management of nepotism for its Buy Buy Baby acquisition.
In response, Bed Bath & Beyond ended up overhauling its board, and CEO Steven Temares stepped down, putting an end to his 16-year tenure.
Bed Bath & Beyond later that year recruited veteran Target merchandising executive Mark Tritton as its new president and CEO. He sold off some of the company’s noncore businesses, including the Cost Plus World Market and Christmas Tree Shops chains, and entered into a $250 million sale-leaseback deal for a big chunk of the retailer’s brick-and-mortar property portfolio.
He also reduced Bed Bath & Beyond’s use of its trademark 20% off coupons, which for decades had driven foot traffic at its stores. And in what turned out to be an ill-advised move, in a strategy he successfully implemented at Target, Tritton’s had Bed Bath & Beyond create and focus on private-label brands rather than national names for its merchandise. The results were negative.
“Traffic, market share, and important customer programs such as loyalty and registry were impacted,” Etlin said. “Changes were ushered in faster than the company built systems to support them, and the transformation strategy proved too much for Bed Bath & Beyond’s supply chain to handle. Customers were confused as they visited Bed Bath & Beyond stores that looked nothing like the stores that had engendered their loyalty over decades, with well-known national brands like KitchenAid mixers and Calphalon cookware being replaced for private-label brands that customers did not want.”
The pandemic also exacerbated supply-chain snafus. “Bed Bath & Beyond’s massive shift toward private-label brands resulted in longer lead times to produce and ship to stores when compared to the more easily accessible national brands,” according to Etlin.
Tritton also slashed the retailer’s workforce and began to downsize its store fleet.
Billionaire Ryan Cohen, co-founder of online pet goods retailer Chewy and chairman of video game seller GameStop, disclosed in March last year that via his RC Ventures firm he had acquired a nearly 10% stake in Bed Bath & Beyond.
That move set up Bed Bath and Beyond as a so-called meme stock, which are companies with a cult-like social media following that can influence share prices.
“Cohen sought to turn Bed Bath & Beyond into another GameStop or AMC meme-stock beneficiary” according to Etlin. RC Ventures called for Bed Bath & Beyond to divest its Buy Buy Baby chain and even to explore selling the entire company. The retailer agreed to add three directors chosen by RC Ventures to its board to appease Cohen.
In August, about five months after taking a stake in the company, RC Ventures during a rally in Bed Bath & Beyond’s stock price announced it had sold 9.5 million shares, nearly 12% of the company’s outstanding stock.
At its August peak, the shares hit $30, up nearly 500% for the month. The shares finished at $18.55 after RC Ventures and Cohen’s proposal to sell their stake was revealed, before the stock fell another 35% in after-hours trading, Etlin said.
Cohen and a college student who had bought up the stock at about the same time made an estimated $180 million combined on their short-term investments.
Tritton was ousted in June after what Etlin described as “successive quarters of earnings misses and failing to meet targets, continuing share price decreases and spiraling expenses.” At the same time it announced Tritton’s departure, Bed Bath & Beyond reported that net sales in the fiscal first quarter fell by 25% year over year. Board member Sue Gove was named interim CEO and was subsequently given that post on a permanent basis.
Gove undertook a turnaround plan, trying to swiftly improve Bed Bath & Beyond’s inventory selection, including “adjusting merchandise allocations to lead with customer preference, bringing back popular national brands, and introducing new, emerging direct-to-consumer brands,” Etlin said.
But that was a problem because the retailer’s relationships with some of its vendors, particularly those that once supplied national brands, had deteriorated. “As the company’s financials worsened, tensions with its merchandise suppliers grew,” Etlin said.
During an unusual nonearnings-related update Aug. 31, Bed Bath & Beyond announced it would close 150 of its lower-producing stores and lay off 20% of its corporate and supply-chain workforce. The company also said it had secured more than $500 million in new financing, including a loan.
Just a few days after participating in that conference call, the retailer’s chief financial officer, Gustavo Arnal, 52, committed suicide.
“The entire Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. organization is profoundly saddened by this shocking loss,” the company said in a statement about Arnal’s death, also offering condolences to his family.
Bed Bath & Beyond hosted a supplier event in the fall last year as part of an effort to woo new vendors and strengthen its shaky ties to existing ones. But wary suppliers were still imposing stricter terms for credit. That made for a difficult 2022 holiday season.
Unlike the past, Bed Bath & Beyond “did not have the financial flexibility to sufficiently restock inventory levels due to persistently deteriorating liquidity and tightening vendor credit,” according to Etlin. By December, the company’s stores were nearly 35% out of stock.
“Following a holiday season in which sales fell nearly 50% from the same period a year before, Bed Bath & Beyond triggered multiple events of defaults under its financing facilities,” Etlin said.
Bed Bath & Beyond kicked off the new year by saying it might be forced to file for bankruptcy protection as it preliminarily reported its widening losses and sizable drops in sales. In late January, it said it was shuttering its entire Harmon beauty goods chain and nearly 100 of its namesake and Buy Buy Baby brick-and-mortar locations.
Roughly a week later, in early February, Bed Bath & Beyond said it was implementing incremental store closures as part of its effort to avert a bankruptcy filing. The goal then was to be left with about 360 namesake stores and 120 Buy Buy Baby stores across the United States. The company shortly after also exited the Canadian market.
When it unveiled the new round of U.S. store closures, Bed Bath & Beyond also said it had a deal for a $1 billion stock offering, with Hudson Bay Capital Management later identified as the anchor investor, to address its financial woes.
In another twist in the saga, at the end of March, Bed Bath & Beyond reported it had terminated its deal with Hudson Bay after raising only $360 million. Instead, the company said it would address its liquidity issues by raising $300 million in a stock sale. Bed Bath & Beyond also, for a second time, sounded the alarm it might have to file for Chapter 11 protection.
To help stay in business, the retailer also struck a $120 million deal to secure more inventory as part of what it described as its “relentless” effort to overcome its financial crunch.
But on April 23, Bed Bath & Beyond finally came to the point it had been trying to avoid: It filed for Chapter 11 protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey. To facilitate its store closures, the company is seeking court approval to exit 482 unexpired leases in the United States and Canada.
“Notwithstanding painstaking, creative and exhaustive efforts to right the ship along the way, Bed Bath & Beyond is simply unable to service its funded debt obligations while simultaneously supplying sufficient inventory to its store locations,” Etlin said in the court document.
Bed Bath & Beyond didn’t provide comment to CoStar News beyond the filing.
The retailer’s financial crisis was “not helped by the fact management had authorized billions in share buybacks” over the past few years, Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData, said in a note to clients.
As of now, Bed Bath & Beyond has filed notice with state labor officials of plans to lay off nearly 1,300 employees in the Garden State, 374 in Texas, and 1,000 in Georgia. The company has been blasted by at least one New Jersey official and other critics for not giving rank-and-file employees who are being let go severance pay. On top of facing liquidation, Bed Bath & Beyond is being sued by Tritton over its alleged failure to keep paying his severance package.
The company’s shares closed at 11 cents each on April 28.