Since she found out about New York’s famed Century 21 store reopening a couple months ago — after a bankruptcy filing led the iconic retail destination to shut its entire 13-store fleet in late 2020 — Melody Whyte, 62, has been counting down the days.
On Tuesday, the New York native from Queens drove to lower Manhattan to make sure she would be first in line at 6 a.m., well before noon when the doors were scheduled to be unlocked. After all, this isn’t just any store to bargain hunters, it was the precursor to today’s national discount store chains.
“I was really upset and very emotional when they closed,” Whyte said Tuesday in an interview. Hundreds of eager shoppers stretched around Century 21’s building at 22 Cortlandt St. between Broadway and Church Street across from the World Trade Center. “I loved their stuff. The prices are great. … I’ve been shopping there forever. … Century 21 was my No. 1 store, and it will be again. … I’m glad it came back. It represents New York City. It gives us what we need, and we need it to come back.”
Whyte, who was shopping for her twin 8-year-old grandsons, was far from alone in that sentiment. The excitement was palpable for the reopening of Century 21, which debuted in 1961, a full decade before the real estate company with the same name, and the retailer was known for its offerings of high-end designer fashions at bargain prices. On Tuesday, shoppers entered to cheers and applause from Century 21 top executives and employees who welcomed them into the store.
In a measure of how big the occasion was in New York, Mayor Eric Adams made an appearance, and an array of local an even some foreign TV news crews showed up to cover the comeback of an institution that travel guidebook Lonely Planet once described as “dangerously addictive.”
“The last three years have been devastating to us,” Eddie Gindi, co-CEO of the family-run retailer founded by Gindi’s father Sonny and uncle Al, said in an interview. “I’m here since 1979. It’s the only job I’ve ever had. I was even working before that part time. … We love this company. We love this city. We love being here. We built up an unbelievable following when we went out of business. It was devastating to us all, but we knew that we had to reopen. It really wasn’t a question of whether we would reopen it. It was how and when will we reopen it. … It was very difficult. There were a lot of setbacks, but … my partners and I are very persevering. You don’t give up.”
Century 21 — billed as the “original off-price destination” with its first downtown Manhattan store open decades before the founding of current sector giant TJX, the parent of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and closed its 13 stores across New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in late 2020. That came after its insurance providers failed to pay about $175 million under business interruption policies to cover it against COVID-19-driven losses.
The retailer has filed a lawsuit against some of its insurance providers, with Gindi telling CoStar News on Tuesday that he feels Century 21 has “a good strong case,” which he expects will be resolved soon. Century 21 has said that when it had to shut down its badly damaged store for months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the only other time the store had been closed, the payout from insurance funds allowed it to rebuild and reopen.
“Century 21 is a special part of lower Manhattan’s history,” Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, told CoStar News in an email. “No one can overstate how important their decision to reopen after 9/11 was to our spirit and to the local economy. Now, and then, they are a magnetic draw for shoppers near and far. If the excitement around [Tuesday’s] reopening is any indication, Century  is back better than ever.”
Century 21’s reopening comes at a time when lower Manhattan, like the rest of New York, is still seeking to rebound from the wounds of the pandemic. The first-quarter retail availability rate in lower Manhattan declined to 17.3% from 22.9% a year earlier, according to a Cushman & Wakefield report. Fourteen retailers, including Whole Foods, opened in lower Manhattan in the early months of 2023, down from 19 that opened in the fourth quarter, according to the alliance, adding that 16 other retailers have also announced plans in the first quarter to open stores.
Half of the first quarter’s retail openings were food and beverage businesses, according to the alliance, in another sign of lower Manhattan and the Financial District becoming a 24/7 livable live, work and play domain. French department store Printemps’ spring 2024 debut of a 54,365-square-foot store at One Wall Street also ranks among some of the major openings to come after Century 21’s reemergence, according to the downtown business improvement district.
While retail leasing is showing slow improving signs, office leasing in lower Manhattan totaled just 500,000 square feet in the first quarter, 51% below its five-year average and the lowest quarterly total since the first quarter of 2021, according to a study by the alliance, citing CBRE data. In contrast, midtown Manhattan office leasing totaled 2.52 million square feet while Midtown South leased 832,000 square feet, with the volume about a third below their respective five-year averages. Lower Manhattan’s office vacancy rate of 22.6% in the first quarter also was the highest in Manhattan, according to the report, citing Cushman & Wakefield data.
Different from its prior flagship, the reopened Century 21 spans 100,000 square feet across four floors, less than half of the footprint of 250,000 square feet across seven floors it occupied previously, a company spokesperson told CoStar News. Century 21 has a long-term lease for the space.
Gindi said the new store will focus on clothing for both children and adults, accessories, and shoes without the previous flagship’s home goods collections and cosmetics beauty counters. The new store is made brighter with wider aisles and bigger fitting rooms. Cash registers are placed by escalators to make it easier for shoppers to find. In a sign of its changing merchandise focus, Century 21 also updated its logo with “NYC” replacing “Department Stores” after its name.
On the merchandise front, luxury design labels including Fendi, Chloe, Kenzo, Givenchy and Halston are back along with “a fresh spotlight on emerging and New York-based designers” including ALC, Lagence, Simkhai, LoveShackFancy, Sovere, Mon Renn, Century 21 said.
“We really do have a breadth of assortment that is unmatched from any other off-price retailer,” Gindi said in response to a CoStar question on competition from the likes of T.J. Maxx. “We have an amazing buying staff. We have an amazing relationship with our vendors. We know where to go, we know how to get the best deals, we know all the top designers. We’ve always differentiated ourselves.”
All of its fashions are either in-season or just one-season-old stock that designers also have made for luxury department stores, Teresa Rodriguez, vice president of marketing, told CoStar.
While the off-price sector has overall outperformed in the retail industry, Century 21’s reopening comes amid increased competition in the space that in Manhattan includes not only TJX but Nordstrom Rack and Burlington Stores. TJX has taken market share from department stores and other retailers by attracting bargain shoppers with a treasure-hunt like environment, analysts have said, adding some brands make goods specifically for the retailer with its buying clout.
TJX on Wednesday reported its fiscal first-quarter profit surged to $891 million from $587 million a year earlier, after sales at its U.S. T.J.Maxx and Marshalls stores, which totaled more than 2,400 at the end of the quarter, jumped 7% to $7.4 billion. Total global sales rose 3% to $11.8 billion with higher margin that signaled TJX’s ability to drive sales without profit-eroding discounts.
Century 21 has a new partner with Legends, which oversees retail and hospitality operations at landmark establishments including Yankee Stadium, One World Observatory and the MLB Flagship Store.
Legends will manage and operate the Cortlandt Street store and do the “day to day work” while Century 21 will focus on merchandising with its buying staff, Gindi told CoStar News, adding Century 21 is paying Legends a management fee.
“When you go bankrupt, you lose everything,” Gindi said. “You have nothing, so it’s very difficult to start up from scratch. It’s really almost an impossible feat to do on a store like this. We needed a partner, and Legends came to us. We clicked right away. There was a synergy between us. … It’s a partnership that we hope to grow with.”
A third of the company’s some 300 store employees, despite already having found some other jobs since the 2020 store closings, applied to return to the retailer instead, Kierra Edmunds, assistant human resources manager, told CoStar News, adding that percentage was even higher among corporate employees.
“Everybody has a Century 21 story,” Gindi said before a crowd of some 200 hundred guests at the store’s ribbon-cutting event Tuesday, visibly overcome with emotion. “We had no choice but to open up. … We are here to continue the legacy started by our fathers. … Once again persevering … and being a beacon of hope. … New York is coming back.”