Bed Bath & Beyond came out of the 2008 downturn a winner. While competitors like Sharper Image and Linens ’n Things filed for bankruptcy, Bed Bath & Beyond actually expanded its business by acquiring other retailers. Its home-goods emporiums full of towels and kitchen aids — all available at a reduced price with that Big Blue coupon — were beacons that kept shoppers coming back.
Now, as the U.S. economy experiences another period of uncertainty, Bed Bath & Beyond is no longer on top, the result of an increasingly unwieldy corporate structure and its failure to fully reckon with the ascendance of online shopping.
On Sunday, the 52-year-old retailer said it was filing for bankruptcy protection in United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey. It said it would start the process of closing the company’s 360 Bed Bath & Beyond stores and 120 Buy Buy Baby locations on Wednesday and seek to sell parts of its business. In its Chapter 11 filing, the company said it expected all stores to close by June 30.
It will stop accepting its coupons on Wednesday, when its store closing sales begin. Customers will have until May 8 to use Bed Bath & Beyond gift cards. The company did not specify when its store apps would shut down, saying only that customers could continue using them “at this time.”
“Thank you to all of our loyal customers,” the company said on its website. “We have made the difficult decision to begin winding down our operations.”
To help fund its operations in bankruptcy, Bed Bath & Beyond has raised $240 million from the investment firm Sixth Street Specialty Lending.
The company’s decline offers a glimpse into the forces shaping the post-pandemic retail landscape. For companies like Bed Bath & Beyond, whose financial problems were masked as consumers rushed to spend their stimulus money, the economic concerns of the past few months are exposing those weaknesses. It will become even more crucial for retailers to adapt as shoppers cut back on discretionary spending.
“We are going to see the Darwinism of retail” play out in 2023, said Michael Lasser, a retail analyst at UBS who has covered Bed Bath & Beyond for 16 years.
The past several years have been tumultuous for retailers. In 2020, J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and J. Crew all filed for bankruptcy. But in the past two years, retailers have benefited from U.S. consumers’ willingness to spend. Now, as shoppers are being more discerning about their purchases, more companies will be at risk.
The retail landscape looked much different when Bed Bath & Beyond was started in 1971 as a way to compete with the home goods sections of department stores. The company’s founders, Warren Eisenberg and Leonard Feinstein, opened the chain’s first stores in New York and New Jersey. The venture was originally called Bed ’n Bath, a nod to their narrow line of merchandise.
Compared with a store like Macy’s, the upstart retailer promised a larger selection of bedsheets, towels, shower curtains and other home necessities. As their merchandise assortment and store base expanded, the retailer was renamed Bed Bath & Beyond in 1987. It went public in 1992.
It embraced innovation, former executives and employees said. Instead of TV ads, Bed Bath & Beyond relied on word-of-mouth advertising and the large coupons it delivered to millions of Americans mailboxes. Countless shoppers would keep those 20 percent off cards in their cars or junk drawers, a reminder to head to the retailer if they were considering, say, a new toaster.
Bed Bath & Beyond also had a decentralized warehouse strategy that allowed store managers to be more flexible in ordering the merchandise that would appeal most to shoppers at their location.
It was also early to use integrated digital technology within its stores. Instructional videos would play in front of displays for items like SodaStreams or juicers, so shoppers would get a sense of how they could be used at home. It started its website in 1999.
In 2000, Bed Bath & Beyond had 311 stores. A decade later, it had 1,100. From 2002 until 2012, the company acquired Harmon Stores, Christmas Tree Shops, Buy Buy Baby and Cost Plus World Market. The brands helped diversify the company from a retail perspective, but the moves also diverted management’s focus away from other crucial investments, like its e-commerce business, according to Richard McMahon, who held various executive titles at the company, including chief strategy officer, over 17 years before leaving in 2015.
“There wasn’t as much focus put on the organic business — Bed Bath & Beyond — and evolving that business to consumer behavior,” Mr. McMahon said. “The internet started to become real, and consumer behavior was changing through that process.”
Competitors like Amazon, Target and Walmart were investing in making the online experience better for shoppers, and Bed Bath & Beyond saw its market share dip. Google searches also worked against it because the 20 percent discounts were not factored in online, leading shoppers to believe that retailers like Amazon offered better deals.
“Looking back on it,” Mr. McMahon said, “we could have been investing better in evolving the core business than some of these other acquisitions.”
In 2014, Bed Bath & Beyond got into the debt market for the first time by selling $1.5 billion in bonds to buy back stock. Many retailers avoid taking on debt, well aware of the industry volatility that can quickly turn a reasonable debt load into a serious financial burden. Mr. Lasser, the UBS analyst, described the move as a “seminal event” and wondered if it was an attempt to raise the company’s stock price to fend off activist investors.