I read the news this week that Boston Store and its parent company Bon-Ton are finally throwing in the towel, and my first two thoughts were:
That’s a sad end for a 160-year-old Milwaukee pillar.
How did it survive so long?
Even recently, when I found myself killing time at Boston Store in Bayshore or the Grand Avenue Mall, I wondered how this business model could work in this age of eCommerce, specialized boutiques and bigger box behemoths. Prices always seemed so arbitrary to me, and Boston Store felt sort of preppy while not really high-end – I never knew who their target demographic was. I just assumed it wasn’t me.
Over the years, I have bought plenty of products from Boston Store’s website, but their infrastructure was nowhere near as polished as Amazon, Target or Walmart. The last thing I bought at a physical store was a pair of overpriced gloves. It didn’t take a genius to predict their end was near, and I'm definitely not taking credit for thinking that, nor did I take any pleasure in seeing it happen.
Still, I remember four distinct experiences I had at Boston Store over the years, and each could’ve been a harbinger of things to come.
The day after Christmas in 1995, I remember getting to Boston Store bright and early to buy a Packers NFC Central Championship hat (which I still own). Back then, you couldn’t hop on NFL.com and order anything (because it didn’t exist), and I wanted to beat the rush of fans celebrating this now laughably meaningless milestone. They sold out quickly, but that was the place to go for commemorative Packers stuff – I also bought a really ugly NFC Champions sweatshirt there in early ’97.
Also in 1997, I bought my first grown-up piece of furniture, a sofa, at the Boston Store Furniture Gallery in Brookfield. It was overpriced for what it was, but I opened up a Boston Store credit card to make it more manageable. There weren’t a ton of modern furniture options in Milwaukee back then – and the sofa fell apart fairly quickly. But at the time, I had to choose between some very traditional stores or Rubin’s in the Third Ward – most of which are gone now. Milwaukee is in a much better place with furniture stores in 2018; the department store model for buying a sofa seems incredibly antiquated.
In 2004, I bought the dress shirt for my wedding at Boston Store in Southridge. I remember spending $80 on the shirt, which felt incredibly expensive at the time. But this is sort of where department stores shined. A sales associate in a suit measured me properly, and walked me through my options for French cuffs. In other words, it was nothing like the experience at Kohl’s or on Amazon. Years later, I tried out some online tailored shirts for around the same price – but Boston Store was always good for suits and dress clothes. I’ll definitely miss it if only for this.
One memory always sticks out to me, though. In 1999, a watch caught my eye at the Boston Store in Bayshore. It was a futuristic Seiko Kinetic, and even though the store was selling it for $475 – which was way out of my price range – I couldn’t stop thinking about it. For the first time ever, I researched a product online and ultimately found it, new, on eBay for $150. Even then I wondered how Boston Store could pull off selling a watch at three times its online price, but I figured it could because people just didn’t know how else to buy stuff.
That was almost 20 years ago, and our shopping habits have changed radically in that time. Places like Boston Store didn’t change enough with the times, and got left behind. It’s definitely sad for all the employees who will lose their jobs, and for malls like Grand Avenue that will lose another tenant.
Still, Amazon and Target didn’t put Boston Store out of business. It had a chance to evolve but just couldn’t differentiate itself. I hope other local and regional retailers can stay agile enough to do a better job competing in the changing marketplace.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.