Cut Prices Draw Avid Buyers to Boston Basement

<i> Merin is a New York City free-lance writer. </i>

One of Boston’s most popular attractions has nothing to do with the Freedom Trail or baked beans. It’s Filene’s Basement, Boston’s bargain mecca, at 426 Washington St. in the downtown business and shopping district.

Since the shop was founded in 1908 by Edward A. Filene, the Basement has been leading the way in off-price retailing, offering shoppers discounted goods by providing an outlet for manufacturers’ overruns and department stores’ end-of-season clearance merchandise.

The store has been so successful that Women’s Wear Daily, a clothing trade newspaper, called it the Ninth Wonder of the World. And an annual $80-million turnover reflects its popularity with local shoppers and tourists alike.

Merchandise Everywhere


Forget about ambiance--you leave it behind on the first floor. To get to the Basement, you walk down some dingy, dusty stairs or ride down a no-frills escalator. The overhead lights are harsh. The walls are drab. No soft carpeting cushions your steps.

All around are bins filled with blouses, blankets, bags and shoes. Counters are stacked high with bed linens and sweaters. Racks are crammed with coats and dresses.

Although there are signs with numbers and prices over the bins, racks and tables, everything is a hodgepodge of sizes and colors. And avid shoppers tear through all of the merchandise.

You may find a beautiful silk blouse--right size, right color and in perfect, if rumpled, condition--for $8. Don’t be surprised if there is another set of hands clutching it just as tightly as yours are. Don’t let go. The Basement has a policy of arbitration: It flips a coin to settle such disputes.


It’s a good idea to keep your personal belongings in hand lest some other shopper fancies your coat and scarf and tries to buy it; or worse yet, you become prey to a pickpocket.

No Dressing Rooms

The Basement has no dressing rooms. If shoppers want to try on a dress, and it’s not the kind that can fit over a pair of jeans, they’ll simply strip right there, in the middle of the selling floor, in front of a mirror. Some shoppers are prepared in leotards; others are uninhibited about being seen in their underwear. Nobody seems to give much thought to the lack of privacy.

The Basement prices can’t be beat. Overall, discounts on brand names and designer labels are tremendous. There are also frequent special sale days, featuring $24-$50 blouses for $8, or $100 and up dresses for $68, or $200 and up women’s suits and coats for $68, or $200 and up men’s suits for $70.


Big Markdowns

Annual sales of Neiman-Marcus post-clearance merchandise attract stylish shoppers who arrive in private jets from around the country. At the Basement’s recent Neiman-Marcus sale, a dressy Dior silk suit (label still in) sold for $89. There were dozens of pairs of Charles Jourdan shoes for $29 each. Designer-label tailored wool skirts sold for $12-$30.

At a recent sale of remaindered dresses from Rich’s Regency Room, a Chanel strapless black evening gown with a chain belt sold for $199. The original price tag, still attached, read $3,690. Joan and David boots originally tagged $300 were being sold for $88.

On sale days, shoppers line up outside the store hours before opening time.


The Basement stocks cosmetics, bath towels, furs and luggage, china, toys and carpets. Some merchandise is irregular; buyers say they must take the bad to get the good, but they do not sell inferior merchandise. The store’s refund policy allows money back if you return purchases within several days and have your sales slip.

The Basement’s pricing policy guarantees periodic reductions on merchandise. Each item has a tag that shows the price and the date it originally was offered for sale. If it is still on the selling floor 12 days later, the price is cut 25%. Six days later, the price is reduced 50%; and six days later, 75%. After 30 days the item is given to charity.

Regular Basement shoppers try to guarantee themselves the lower prices for forthcoming sales by hiding merchandise around the store. This explains why, while you are looking at bed linens, you might come upon some delightful lingerie. Salespeople are constantly on the lookout for hidden goods, to be restored to their rightful racks.

The Basement has outlets in some East Coast shopping malls that have some serious off-price sales, but really are designed to compete with higher-scale department stores. The original Filene’s Basement is the granddaddy of off-price shopping, and one of Boston’s continuing legends.