But today the retailer that sells everything from housewares to clothing to home decor is challenged by changing consumer habits and a more fragmented marketplace that has hurt department stores.
- Types of jobs offered: Sales associate, department head, assistant store manager, store manager and human resources.
- How many in the Lehigh Valley: 900
- Average pay: Bon-Ton does not disclose this information.
- Education and experience needed:Depends upon position.
- Chance of advancement: Yes
- Little known fact about the job: From sales associate, you can work your way up to the top of the corporate structure. A sales associate's enthusiasm, merchandise knowledge, and first and foremost, customer service, does not go unnoticed.
"The most recent acquisition was the Northern Department Store Group, or Carson's, from Saks Inc. that was completed on March 6, 2006," said Mary Kerr, vice president of public and investor relations for Bon-Ton.
Still, some experts believes midlevel department stores such as Bon-Ton are a vanishing breed.
Michael Tesler, retailing professor at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., and the owner of a retail consulting firm, says department stores are having a tough time competing with the lower prices offered by deep-discount stores such as Wal-Mart or Target.
"Midrange department stores are dying," he said.
He rattled off the equivalent of a department store obit page: Marshall Fields, Strawbridge's,
Woodward & Lothrop, Hecht's, Gimbel's, Abraham & Straus, Stern's, Filene's, Jordan Marsh, Foley's, Lazarus, Dayton Hudson, Robinson's and Burdines.
Tesler said that of the remaining department stores, "There is no middle, but that is where they are trying to be. ... Consumers buy either quality or price. ... They carry neither."
The remaining department stores, he said, all carry many of the same brands, many of which are available at lower prices from outlet stores.
That doesn't mean the stores aren't fighting to stay relevant.
Kerr pointed to employee training as one way Bon-Ton draws customers.
"We continually train our associates on product knowledge, customer service through our corporate training programs," Kerr said. "If we differ at all from 10 years ago in the training of our associates, it is that we communicate more frequently with them. Our point-of-sale equipment is PC-based and therefore we use this as a tool to train our associates. They can access product knowledge, the latest selling techniques and a great deal of information concerning the promotions we are running. This enables our associates to offer better customer service -- exactly what our customers are looking for."
Bon-Ton blames a recent downward turn on bad weather and a poor spending climate, but officials are seeing a few rays of sunshine.
"We had a shortfall in sales, lower gross margin, consequently lower earnings per share," Kerr said. "We had three months in 2007 which negatively impacted sales by weather: April was exceedingly cold and rainy; therefore, we did not do well that month in sales. September and October, when the vast majority of our inventory is cold-weather related merchandise temperatures exceeded the norm by as much as 20 degrees across the markets in which we operate. Therefore, fall selling got off to a poor start."
At the same time, she said, larger economic forces began to affect the consumer -- gas prices, housing costs and the credit crunch.
However, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Keith Plowman said that while fiscal 2007 was "an extremely difficult year for the retail sector and our company we anticipate generating positive free cash flow for the year."
The much-touted Christmas season was both good and bad.
Tony Buccina, vice chairman and president of Merchandising, said in a Jan. 10 news release that December sales were more challenging than expected.