Deb Shops, Inc. History
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19114
Telephone: (215) 676-6000
Fax: (215) 969-2830
Sales: $178.4 million (1995)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
SICs: 5621 Women's Clothing Stores; 5632 Women's Accessory & Specialty Stores; 5611 Men's and Boy's Clothing Stores; 5942 Book Stores
Our basic merchandising philosophy is to provide our customers with the latest, updated, fashionable merchandise at the most competitive prices possible.
Deb Shops, Inc. is a diversified company operating three chains of retail stores, with sales of $178.4 million in 1995. The largest chain, DEB, serves primarily junior-sized women between the ages of 13 and 40, offering coordinated sportswear, dresses, coats, shoes, lingerie, and accessories. As part of the company's 1996 reorganization, it added plus sizes to DEB's merchandise selection. At the beginning of 1996, the chain operated in 38 states, with most stores in the East and Midwest, and consisted of 292 DEB stores, one JOY store, and five CSO (Chain Store Outlet) stores.
The company also has two wholly owned subsidiaries. The Tops 'N Bottoms chain carries moderately priced apparel for both young men and women, much of it unisex. In January 1996, there were 10 Tops 'N Bottoms stores in four states. Atlantic Book Shops sells used books, publishers' overstocks, and hard-to-find titles at steep discounts. The chain, which Deb Shops purchased in 1995, consists of three book warehouses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware and 11 retail stores in resort areas in Delaware and New Jersey. Members of the company's founding families control about 75 percent of Deb Shops stock.
In 1932, Philip Rounick and Aaron Weiner opened their first store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. JOY Hosiery offered customers a wide variety of hosiery and foundations at reasonable prices. In 1939, nylon stockings came on the market and JOY Hosiery added them to its stock.
The 1940s saw the regulation of nylon use, as it was required for parachutes and other equipment for World War II. The government also regulated how much fabric could be used in clothing and banned the use of zippers and other metal fasteners. Despite nylon's limited availability, JOY Hosiery was able to obtain enough product to continue to stay in operation.
After the war and into the 1950s, JOY grew steadily, opening new stores in various Philadelphia neighborhoods. As restrictions were lifted on clothing manufacturing, a much wider selection became available. JOY reduced its offerings of lingerie and began selling moderately priced sportswear. The merchandise mix rapidly became 50/50, and remained so through the 1950s.
1960s and 70s: A New Focus
Marvin Rounick, Philip's son, joined the company in 1961. In 1965 Warren Weiner, Aaron's son, came on board. During the 1960s the suburbs around Philadelphia grew rapidly as families moved out of the core city. To serve their shopping needs, developers built malls and shopping centers. JOY tested those waters by opening suburban stores in shopping malls; their new concept provided a bigger store and a larger selection of merchandise. The 60s also saw the introduction of pantyhose, which eliminated the need for garter belts. With the growth of the women's movement, many young women stopped wearing girdles or bras. As a result, hose and lingerie became a smaller part of JOY's merchandise mix. It was also during this period that young people became a larger part of the consumer base, and the unisex look began to develop.
One thing that occurred during this time greatly influenced the company's financial strategy. "We had some financial problems," President and CEO Marvin Rounick recalled in a 1986 article in Chain Store Age Executive. "And the banker who handled us retired and a new banker came in to replace him. We went to him for money and he told us we weren't a good credit risk." When the company nearly folded after their bank dropped them, Rounick vowed to keep the company debt free. That policy never changed.
In the early 1970s the younger Rounick and Weiner took a more active role in the company's management and made three decisions that changed the company completely. First, they closed most of the original neighborhood stores and quickly opened larger units in shopping malls. Second, they concentrated on sportswear and dresses for the junior customer and eliminated merchandise in other sizes. Finally, to reflect the company's new emphasis, they changed the name of their stores to DEB. Merchandise ranged from peasant tops and skirts in the early 70s to the "Annie Hall" look of men's suits and ties. By 1975, the company had sales of $9.5 million and earnings of $400,000. In 1979, Marvin Rounick was named president and chief executive officer.
Deb Shops began the 1980s with 59 stores. Within two years, it had 121 stores, sales were more than $70 million, and earnings were up to $5.5 million. Warren Weiner rejoined the company in 1982, having left in 1975, and was named executive vice president and treasurer. The following year the company went public, raising nearly $27 million. According to a 1983 Forbes article, the funds went for spending money for Rounick, his brother Jack, and Weiner, the major shareholders in the company. "We were wealthy before," Rounick said in the article. "It's just that now we can spend it." Deb Shops had no debt and expansion continued to be paid for from its working capital.
The company's target was primarily young women, 13 to 21 years old, with a small number of customers in their 20s and 30s. Rounick was successful because of his pricing strategy and tight inventory. He sold his dresses and other apparel at low-to-mid prices, below those of more upscale, designer clothing, and cut the prices immediately if an item was not selling after two weeks. If the sale prices didn't move the item, he shipped it to one of the company's CSO (Chain Store Outlet) stores where it was sold at a steep discount. The fast movement of the stock meant customers could expect up-to-date, trendy merchandise. That freshness, combined with inexpensive prices, attracted young shoppers.
Despite the company's success, Rounick realized he had to make some adjustments to his marketing strategy in response to changing demographics: predictions forecast that by 1990, there would be 14 to 15 percent fewer women aged 14 to 24. Unlike many of its competitors, Deb did not abandon its specialization in junior customers looking for moderately priced clothes. Rounick's answer was to market junior as a size, not an age group. Under this strategy, the company would follow customers as they grew up, serving both teens and their mothers. Accordingly, in 1983 the company started selling basic as well as trendy junior clothing.
In addition to offering a wider variety of styles, the company made some decorating changes to attract older shoppers: its green, white, and purple color combination became purple, raspberry, and white; and lower pile purple carpeting replaced the stores' purple shag. Gone, too, were the enclosed storefronts. Instead windows were installed to show the merchandise and draw customers in.
Another part of Rounick's marketing strategy was to encourage add-on shopping by selecting merchandise that was coordinated with something else in the store. DEB displayed its merchandise in coordinated, layered groupings, complete with accessories. As Willard Brown, an analyst with First Albany, told Chain Store Age Executive in a 1986 article, "Every top is coordinated with every pair of pants; and if you buy the top and pants, then they have a handbag that goes with them, too. So every time Rounick sells one piece of merchandise, he's put himself into the position to sell another piece."
The marketing changes worked. Within two years, customers at DEB stores, while still concentrated in a 13 to 25 age group, ranged in age up to 40, and sales in 1985 increased to $147.1 million.
The company was opening between 30 and 40 new stores a year, with most in regional shopping centers in major metropolitan areas. As these malls increased their rents, however, Deb began looking to mid-size markets and secondary markets adjacent to a major town. The company also started opening stores in less expensive strip shopping centers. "They [strip center stores] are not doing the same business as the malls," Rounick explained in the Chain Store Age Executive article, "but because of the reduced costs we found we can make money in the first year." By 1989 the company had stores in 67 strip centers. Stores ranged in size from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet, with the average store occupying 6,000 square feet.
The movement into strip centers was only one cost cutting effort the company initiated during the last part of the 1980s. The women's clothing business in general softened, and sales dropped. The reason appeared to be customer dissatisfaction with what the designers offered them. In 1987, Deb's profit margin dropped as customers waited for markdowns and sales before buying.
Rounick's response was to improve inventory control in order to cut costs and to sell more clothes at full price. In 1988, Deb expanded its warehouse space to 280,000 square feet and installed a computer-controlled sorting and distribution system. The new distribution system and the company's point of sale merchandise data system helped managers analyze and respond to what customers were buying. Inventories arrived at the stores twice a week and store displays were changed each week. While the company continued to mark down slow-moving merchandise, there was less of it. As a result of cost-cutting, although sales for 1988 were down 2 percent to $194 million, earnings increased 15 percent to $13.7 million. During 1988, Deb expanded beyond the Midwest, opening stores in Washington, Oregon, and California, and ended the year with 316 stores in operation.
In 1989, the company continued to expand, using its own capital to open 31 new stores. It also began increasing its private-label business in order to improve its profit margins. Its profitability and $71 million in equity was very attractive. According to an August 14, 1989 article in Barron's, there were rumors that Milton Petrie, who owned the competing Petrie Stores, Inc. and more than 15 percent of Deb stock, might attempt a hostile takeover of Deb. Nothing came of it. For the year, the company set record net sales of $202 million and reached its peak earnings of $17.6 million.
The 1990s and Beyond
During the early part of the decade, Deb continued to expand, opening DEB stores in Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. The company also acquired Tops N' Bottoms, a New York chain selling name-brand clothing for young men and women at moderate prices. In addition to the smaller (2,300 to 3,400 square feet) stand-alone stores in the chain, the company opened Tops N' Bottom departments in several DEB stores. The number of stores operated by the company peaked in fiscal year 1992, with 373 open as of January 31, 1993. That year also saw the company's highest sales, $229.5 million. But earnings fell by 18 percent.
In 1993, Deb introduced its private label credit card, which also served as a mechanism to contact customers by direct mail. The company opened 11 new stores, but saw sales decline by four percent. Sales continued to decline, even with reduced costs as underperforming stores were closed. In 1994 the company opened eight new stores and had a net loss for the first time. In April that year, management spent $16.8 million in cash to buy back the block of stock owned by Petrie Stores Corporation. With that acquisition, insiders, including Martin and Jack Rounick and Warren Weiner, owned 75 percent of the company stock.
Sales continued to drop in 1995 and the company opened only one new store while closing 33 DEB units and one Tops N' Bottoms store. Rounick introduced shoes into 200 DEB stores to generate new business and stimulate sales. That move added approximately $4.6 million to sales for the year, but continued customer resistance to offerings in women's clothing resulted in total sales of only $176.7 million and an earnings loss of $4.2 million.
On October 20, 1995, the company bought Atlantic Book Stores for $4.47 million. "The apparel industry has seen a downturn in the last three to five years, and one of the strategies to stem the tide of our decline is to diversify," Deb's chief financial officer Lewis Lyon told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Martin Simon, who was 72 when he sold his company to Deb, began his book business by selling used books to department stores. At the time of the sale, the Atlantic Books chain consisted of 14 stores. Three were full-service warehouse stores, between 12,000 and 26,000 square feet large. These specialized in remainder books at greatly discounted prices while also offering bestsellers, new titles, and magazines. The Atlantic Book Warehouse stores were located in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania; Cherry Hill, New Jersey; and Dover, Delaware. The other 11 stores were located in resort towns along the coasts of New Jersey and Delaware. These units were much smaller, between 1,000 and 2,000 square feet, and sold primarily remainder books and some new titles.
Deb indicated it planned to expand the chain by adding warehouse stores in high traffic areas. Because of the warehouse concept, the company did not anticipate any direct competition with other discount chains such as Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.
In its apparel business, Deb announced it was shifting from its all-junior concentration. By April 1996, the company expected to introduce plus sizes into one-third of their stores. Up to 19 DEB stores were to be converted to plus size stores called DEB PLUS and about half of the Tops N' Bottoms departments in DEB stores would become plus size departments.
Deb Shops' diversification efforts appeared to build on the company's responsiveness to demographic changes and its retail operations and distribution expertise. The fact that the company was debt-free and had over $51 million in cash at the beginning of 1996 gave it some measure of flexibility and staying power as it made its changes.
Principal Subsidiaries: Atlantic Book Shops, Inc.; Tops 'N Bottoms, Inc.
- Angrist, Stanley W. "So Far, So Good," Forbes, October 24, 1983, p. 144.
- Brammer, Rhonda, "Sizing Up Small Caps: Down, But Not Out," Barron's, January 30, 1995, p. 19.
- "Bubble Gum By Night, Apple Pie By Day," Chain Store Age Executive, May 1986, pp. 35-39.
- Byrd, Jerry W., "Philadelphia's Deb Shops to Buy Atlantic Book Shops, Inc.," The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 23, 1995.
- Slovak, Julianne, "Companies to Watch," Fortune, January 1, 1990, p. 89.
- Wyatt, Edward A., "Looking Good: Deb Shop Fashions a Neat Gain in Earnings," Barron's, August 14, 1989, pp. 15, 17.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 16. St. James Press, 1997.