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Bon-Ton Stores Becomes Latest Retailer to March Into Bankruptcy Protection

February 5, 2018, 12:23 PM UTC

The first big retail bankruptcy of 2018 has arrived.

Bon-Ton Stores (BONT) said late Sunday it had voluntarily sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in federal court in Delaware and may sell itself as the chain looks to become viable again in a tough environment for department stores.

The Milwaukee-based retailer, whose chains include namesake stores as well as Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers, has been struggling for years with declining sales amid challenged traffic at the malls it occupies, an assortment redundant with what rivals sell, and difficulty adapting to the emergence of e-commerce.

The debt-laden Bon-Ton not only has had to contend with (AMZN), but with big digital strides by rivals such as J.C. Penney (JCP) and Macy’s (M), both of which are also struggling.

Bon-Ton had recently announced it was closing 40 stores out of the 260 across its different nameplates and in a regulatory filing last week had said it could have file for Chapter 11 by Sunday if it didn’t reach a deal with creditors. Bankruptcy protection also makes it easier for a retailer to break leases and more quickly shrink store count.

The move continues a wave of bankruptcy filings that has roiled retail. In 2017, several large store chains also sought court protection to fix their finances, including Toys ‘R’ Us and Hhgregg. Bon-Ton said it had lined up $725 million in debtor-in-possession financing to keep its operations going while its case wends its way through bankruptcy court.

“During this court-supervised process, we plan to continue operating in the normal course and executing on our key initiatives to drive improved performance,” Bon-Ton CEO Bill Tracy said in a press release.

At the same time, the company said it will explore “strategic alternatives,” which could include selling off the company in its entirety or breaking it into smaller parts. To get its core retail business back on track, Bon-Ton will try to beef up its own brands (much like Penney, Macy’s and Kohl’s (KSS) are), update the look of stores, improve inventory management so as to have less extra merchandise that ends up in clearance bins, and improve its e-commerce.

Though all department stores are facing challenges, Bon-Ton’s problems are deeper than those of its peers, save for Sears Holdings (SHLD): Bon-Ton’s comparable fell 2.9% during the holiday season despite a strong performance by retail as a whole, a decline that followed a 6.6% drop in the third quarter for the company.

The challenges the chain now faces are how cluttered its stores have become, how much overlap there is with other retailers, and how discount-driven its business is. As GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders put it in a research note, Bon-Ton must fix its problem that its offerings are “undifferentiated, unclear and have become increasingly irrelevant to consumers.”