Century 21: Retail’s Beacon in Lower Manhattan

Discussion
Sep 09, 2011
Tom Ryan

Century 21, long viewed as a symbol of resilience for lower Manhattan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is looking to expand its downtown flagship. For the discount shopping fixture, that may solve what other retailers wish was their primary complaint: overcrowding.

According to a report in Crain’s NY, Century 21 currently occupies 120,000 square feet across the cellar and first three floors at 22 Cortlandt Street across from the World Trade Center, between Broadway and Church Street. The retailer wants to add floors four to six, currently vacant office space. The expansion was approved by city’s zoning subcommittee this week.

The store’s flagship will expand by 76,000 square feet to reach 196,500 square feet. Century 21 also has five other stores in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and New Jersey, and is opening an Upper West Side location. But its trophy location is the downtown flagship, drawing packs of locals and tourists on weekends looking for values, particularly on designer merchandise.

The expansion is not expected to add any new merchandise, but bring wider aisles, more dressing rooms, more bathrooms, and a cafe.

“What we want to do is make it a better shopping experience,” Betty Cohen, Century 21’s director of corporate relations, told DNAinfo back in June when the expansion was first revealed. “You walk through the aisles, trying to get to the merchandise, and you’re knocking things off the rack, [saying] ‘Excuse me, excuse me.'”

Expected to see even greater traffic with the opening of the 9/11 Memorial, the store’s expansion is widely cited as a positive sign for the area’s recovery. The store was evacuated after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. While avoiding structural damage, the store was caked in debris and many fixtures had to be replaced. Thousands of fans waited in line the morning on Feb. 28 2002 when it reopened.

What drives the crowds? Century 21 describes the flagship as a destination for value-oriented, high-end fashion consumers with “more than 15 departments of sensational quality and designer merchandise at 25 percent to 75 percent off retail prices.”

Many reviews circling around the internet likewise touted the bargains while often offering advice for handling the cramped aisles.

Fodor’s review states that Century 21 “remains the mother lode of discount shopping. Four floors are crammed with everything from Marc Jacobs shoes and half-price cashmere sweaters to Donna Karan sheets, though you’ll have to sift through racks and fight the crowds to find the gems. Best bets for men are shoes and designer briefs; the full floor of designer women’s wear can yield some dazzling finds, such as a Calvin Klein leather trench coat for less than $600. Don’t miss the children’s section, either, for brands like Lucky Jeans and Ed Hardy. Since lines for the communal dressing rooms can be prohibitively long, do what the locals do: wear leggings and change discreetly in the aisles.”

Writing for The New York Observer, Matt Chaban said the flagship may be the city’s “worst shopping experience” after Trader Joe’s in Union Square, which continues to draw long lines that often run out the door. Mr. Chaban added, “Still, when Century 21 is good, it’s really good. Dress shoes, bow ties, and some of the best clearance deals in town. If you can stand slapdash shelves and crammed clothes racks, the flood of tourists fighting for clothes and the woefully indifferent staff, the store can be a goldmine.”

Discussion Questions: What makes Century 21’s flagship in downtown Manhattan a shopping destination? How much are the crowded aisles and chaotic shopping experience part of its appeal?

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6 Comments on "Century 21: Retail’s Beacon in Lower Manhattan"


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Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Most people love a deal and New Yorkers love deals more than most people.

The trick is to keep it chic. That Calvin Klein trench for “under $600” is still probably a tad out of reach for the Marshalls’ customers.

As long as Century 21 keeps it fresh, keeps it hip and keeps it cheap(er), it should continue to draw crowds.

George Anderson
Guest
George Anderson
9 years 7 months ago

Most people I know who shop at Century 21 absolutely hate the experience. That doesn’t stop them from plunking down lots of dollars in the chaos found daily in its stores. I guess they can shop Century 21 online if they want the deals without the pushing and shoving.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
9 years 7 months ago

Crowded aisles and chaotic shopping are the experience. We have a store here in Toronto called Honest Ed’s right at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst and it is always a zoo and it is always messy. But that’s the appeal. Consumers parallel cheap prices with a messy and chaotic store.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

The cellar? Gee Tom, we’re not in Kansas anymore. The appeal, obviously, is that this an “outlet” in the sense that the word was always used (before it was watered down into meaninglessness). NYC has long had a tradition of such places — S. Klein-on-the-square, Ohrbachs, etc. — and in each case, it seems, gradual upgrading and eventually expansion destroyed the cachet (if that’s the right word). I wish them the best, but I see the four letter word “cafe” as ominous…let’s hope they just bring some of the sidewalk vendors inside and scatter a few folding chairs around.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

If it’s chaotic, it must be worth tolerating the stress for a good deal, right? Even if the bottom line purchase wasn’t all that unique nor compelling of a value, the experience makes it seem worthwhile.

Anne Bieler
Guest
Anne Bieler
9 years 7 months ago

The crowds and frenzy are part of the shopping experience — deal hunters expect to do a bit of “work” to get the very best price. But the value has to be authentic, there are way too many stories of places who didn’t stay true to the fashion quality expectations, adding more “stuff” to keep the volume high and eventually faded away. Or in trying to make it a bit more “comfortable” and organized, value perceptions may be diminished.

This is a “treasure hunt” — and will satisfy the target shoppers as long as it stays real.

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