There were rumblings for more than a year, and then, early last spring, they grew to a fever pitch. Finally, in late April, the announcement came: Philly was getting a Century 21, the fabled New York bastion of off-price designer merchandise. It was almost too good to be true. After all, only six months earlier, Nordstrom Rack — that department store’s off-price sister — had announced it, too, was planting Center City roots, in the old Daffy’s building at 17th and Chestnut.
Excitement among Philly shoppers was palpable, if a tad surprising. Far chicer stores — Vince, Theory — had opened to much less fanfare. The unabashed enthusiasm begged the question: Could these stores make bargain-hunting brag-worthy?
Of course, there’s always been consumer affinity for off-price merchandise. Stores like Marshalls and HomeGoods are underground haunts of the toniest Main Liners; the T.J.Maxx in Radnor is legendary. But the key word here is “underground.” In many circles, an off-price score is only revealed post-compliment, in hushed, conspiratorial tones: “I found it at Marshalls. It was $24.99.” Pause. “I was there for wrapping paper.”
There is a discount store hierarchy, however. At the top are Off 5th and Last Call. Ross and Kohl’s linger at the bottom; Century 21 and Nordstrom Rack are solidly in the upper middle of the pack. Perhaps this explains the giddy fervor accompanying the recent openings: This rung of stores, in particular, seems to have mastered the art of the upscale discount experience, with high-fashion labels and splashier storefronts.
The Century 21 opening party certainly felt chic. After a two-hour cocktail party, the registers dinged to life, the velvet ropes leading to the apparel section parted, and a sea of guests on a champagne high ascended the escalators, eyes heavenward as though Jesus himself was at the top. Then they pounced, plucking voraciously through racks of last season’s Lanvin and Giambattista Valli. Salespeople were attentive; racks were organized with military precision; everything seemed bathed in a glow of luxury.
But will the luster last? There are more rumblings now. Jaded Philly shoppers grumble that buyers only brought in top-notch stuff for the opening, wooing us with Miu Miu only to slam us back to reality with irregular MICHAEL Michael Kors and pilled cashmere.
“I feel like the store lost a lot of its polish from the first time I went,” said one stylish guy who attended the Century 21 opening fete and then returned to shop a few weeks later. “The lines to check out were amusement-park long and the men’s clothing selection was uninspiring.” Then, the ultimate ding: “I felt like I was at Marshalls.”
As for Nordstrom Rack, it already feels picked-over — racks are either too crowded or too sparse; the shoe section is disheveled and sad-looking.
In both cases, the sheen of luxury has started to peel away, making the stores feel anything but chic. To capitalize on that early enthusiasm and truly destigmatize off-price shopping, our new discount stores will need to maintain a high level of merchandise, an air of curation. At least, that is, if they want shoppers to tell the truth about where they found those Saint Laurent boots.
Originally published as “The Price Is Right” in the January 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.