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Despite the End of Barneys Itself, a Happy Holidays for Its Retail Workers

Some of the bankrupt store’s still-employed sales associates are determined to stick it out until the end of liquidation, thanks to high commissions and market demand for their skill set.
Source: Getty
By
  • Cathaleen Chen

NEW YORK, United States — It may be Barneys' last holiday season, but it might end up as one of its busiest. On a rainy weekday afternoon, the store on Madison Avenue was abuzz with Upper East Side ladies trying on coats, Chinese tourists combing through the last of the luxury sneaker offerings and businessmen buying presents for their girlfriends and wives.

"Do you think the eight will fit her?" one asked a clerk standing near the Yohji Yamamoto racks.

Barneys’ remaining sales associates have worked on borrowed time ever since their employer filed for bankruptcy in August. The department store mini-chain was acquired in October by Authentic Brands Group, which plans to liquidate most Barneys assets and license the name.

This has been the best two months of my life as far as sales and number figures are concerned.

But though Barneys staff will likely soon be out of a job, they’ll reap a windfall first. The liquidation sale, and the promise of markdowns of up to 40 percent on rarely discounted brands, has drawn hordes of customers into stores. Clerks, many of whom work on commission, say they’re earning their fattest paychecks ever.

“This has been the best two months of my life as far as sales and number figures are concerned,” said Nicky Reyes, who has worked in the men’s accessories department of the San Francisco Barneys for three years. “And everything is final sale so that means our commission is locked in — no one can return anything.”

ABG and its liquidation partner, B. Riley Financial, Inc., declined to comment.

The liquidation sale is expected to last through February. In the meantime, Reyes and his coworkers have been busy interviewing for other jobs between their shifts. Plenty of retailers are in dire need of employees: the unemployment rate for retail workers in the US was 3.5 percent in November — the lowest it has been since the Labor Department began tracking the number in 2000. Additionally, the number of retail job openings the past several months has exceeded the number of people hired, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Compared even to other luxury department stores, Barneys nonetheless offered an attractive compensation package, often more than $20 per hour in wages plus commission rates of up to 5 percent. But as stores compete with one another for talent, now is a better time than ever to be in the market for a retail job.

“It’s an especially tight labour market that we’ve been seeing this now for retail and other industries as well,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation. “Companies are attempting to not only attract but also retain talent in this market, through different incentives like compensation, benefits ... some are offering tuition assistance.”

Reyes, who has been a sales associate for six years, told BoF that leaving Barneys could be the start of a career on the corporate side of retail.

“I’ve been offered retail jobs already, but I’ve had to turn them down because I know my worth,” he said. “That’s where I can be choosy — I’m one of the top performers at Barneys.”

In New York, Evan, a Barneys sales associate who declined to give his last name, said most of his colleagues have been able to find jobs at competing retailers such as Nordstrom and Saks.

It seems like everybody is finding their way and other retailers in New York have been very welcoming.

“It seems like everybody is finding their way and other retailers in New York have been very welcoming,” he said. “All in all, it’s kind of a cool opportunity for most people because retail can be stifling and you can get stuck in the everyday, so people can now look at jobs maybe more creatively.”

All New York Barneys associates are part of a labour union, the New York / New Jersey Regional Joint Board of Workers. They are still in negotiation to receive severance and payouts for any remaining vacation days, according to Victor Lamattina, a Barneys sales associate in the women’s shoe department at the Chelsea location in New York.

The New York / New Jersey Regional Joint Board of Workers did not respond to requests for comment.

Bloomies, Saks, there are always options.

Lamattina, who has worked for Barneys since the opening of the downtown location four years ago, said he has a job lined up at a boutique in the Meatpacking District.

“A lot of us had multiple offers and I know a lot of managers that have received offers and already left,” he said. “Bloomies, Saks, there are always options.”

“But we all really got along [at Barneys],” Lamattina said. “That’s what hurts about this. It’s tough to walk away.”

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