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Century 21 2.0: What’s New and What Remains the Same

After a bankruptcy and insurance lawsuit, the Century 21 off-price train is restarting later this year, with the first stop scheduled for the South Korean city of Busan.

“International expansion, including but not limited to Asia, has always been a part of our long term strategic plans prior to the pandemic,” said Marc Benitez, president, Century 21 Stores, noting that the Busan store is slate to welcome shoppers this summer.

According to Benitez, the company evaluated several factors before deciding to plant its brick-and-mortar flag in South Korea. He said tourists have historically included a visit to Century 21 when travelling to New York City, and while the U.S. is still trying to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, “Korea remains far ahead of most countries when it comes to consumer confidence to shop safely.” Thirty percent of sales historically have been generated from tourists, Benitez added.

Across 100,000 square feet over nine floors, with seven dedicated to retail selling space, the new location will be “more vertical in nature and large in size,” similar to many stores in Korea and other Asian markets, he said, and will rub shoulders with nearby retailers like Lotte and Shinsegae.

The relaunch will retain a key component of the Century 21 brand: attractive designer brands discounted by 40 percent or more. Historically, the fashion assortment has included a higher mix of European brands, and a wider range of luxury offerings, in addition to a broad range of home goods. Benitez says the company is currently fine-tuning the assortment.

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“Century 21 has been built, and always will be, on relationships with key vendors and brands,” Benitez said, describing co-CEO I.G. Gindi as a key “conduit for maintaining those relationships.” “As we get closer to the launch of our first store and all other channels of business, additional details will be provided regarding the category mix. What I can say with certainty is that we will continue to be known for having desired designer brands available at amazing prices. Delivering this value is at the core of everything we do, who we are and will continue to be.”

Despite ongoing pandemic-driven supply-chain disruptions, Benitez is confident about the company’s ability to flow merchandise into the store, noting numerous avenues for obtaining product. “The pandemic has also changed the landscape and the number of sources that brands can turn to for these produced goods, but there is an opportunity here that is mutually beneficial for us, our partner brands and, of course, our customers. I.G. Gindi and the team at Century 21 [are] and always will be strategically clever in making sure that the right product is available for each targeted global audience,” Benitez said.

Century 21 will combine core values with some new thinking, as retail lessons from the pandemic will emphasize ways to make shopping easier.
Marc Benitez is president, Century 21 Stores. Courtesy Photo

Benitez declined to provide any other details regarding store strategy, such as curbside pickup or whether any store space would be allotted for online fulfillment, noting that the strategy is “currently being discussed and soon to be finalized.” One retail lesson learned from the pandemic has been the “importance of digital, as well as broadening our offering to wider spread audiences, especially internationally.” He did emphasize that the concept of “making shopping easier” will be a part of the new strategy. “From mobile and e-commerce to brick-and-mortar, we are evaluating any and all aspects of a new way of thinking,” he said.

Learnings from the Korea store will be applied to all future locations around the world, including the U.S. He didn’t say when the U.S. might see its first Century 21 relaunch, other than that it is a part of the company’s strategic plans.

Benitez, who was formerly vice president of business development at CAA-GBG before joining Century 21, said the company will have a social media presence on Instagram “as #C21 is back.”

Rebuilding the Century 21 department store brand first started with buying back the nameplate’s intellectual property assets by the Gindi family, where Raymond Gindi is also a co-CEO. Per an asset purchase agreement dated Nov. 20, 2020, Gindi C21 IP LLC acquired the assets following a bankruptcy court auction. The deal closed on Dec. 11, 2020, per Manhattan bankruptcy court records. Family members started the off-price retailer in 1961. The coronavirus pandemic and a dispute with insurers led to a September bankruptcy filing that, in turn, liquidated all existing stores. The insurance dispute over nonpayment by the insurer is still the subject of pending litigation.

Before the start of the pandemic and ahead of the Holiday 2019 shopping season, the off-price department store, which also operated a website, unveiled a newly rebranded logo showcased at a popup store on Manhattan’s 34th Street. At a preview event, co-owner Isaac Gindi reiterated that company believes in fashion and in its physical stores.

In deciding to open a store in South Korea, family members are also bucking a retail trend that’s been common among bankrupt nameplates. While recent bankrupt retailers such as Debenhams, Topshop and Topman—and ones from past years such as Dressbarn—have been acquired, the buyers are bypassing the stores and recasting the names to online-only operations.