In yet another example of a beloved Northwest retailer trying to turn itself around, Eddie Bauer will shutter a call center near Columbus, Ohio, and eliminate 111 jobs there in October.
The closure, disclosed last week by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, comes a little over a year after the Bellevue-based outdoor retailer was merged with a California surf-wear company, Pacific Sunwear, as part of a cost-saving move by the companies’ corporate parent.
But according to workers at the call center, the way those savings are being achieved — by not only cutting jobs, but outsourcing them to The Philippines — isn’t something the original Eddie Bauer would have supported when he founded the retailer in Seattle nearly a century ago.
“We don’t think Eddie Bauer would let such a thing happen to his loyal American work force were he here today,” one call-center employee who is involved with an effort to stop the closure said in an email to The Seattle Times. “He would not want his legacy to be one of sending American jobs overseas as the company nears its 100th anniversary.”
The Times is withholding the employee’s name to avoid work-related repercussions. Neither Eddie Bauer nor its corporate parent, Golden Gate Capital, would comment on the closure.
The closure of the Groveport, Ohio, call center is the latest twist in a decades-long struggle by Eddie Bauer.
Started in 1920 by a local outdoorsman of the same name, Eddie Bauer prospered with a line of outdoor clothing and equipment, a mail-order business and, eventually, partnerships with scientific expeditions, the U.S. military and Ford Motor Co.
But after Bauer and his partners sold out, in 1971, Eddie Bauer entered what has seemed to be a perpetual search for a new product mix and brand identity.
Over the decades, that search would see the company grow to hundreds of stores — including a 32,000-square foot Seattle flagship store at Fifth Avenue and Union — and experiment with a product line that has ranged from down jackets to home furnishings to a branding deal with Ford that produced the Eddie Bauer edition Explorer.
By the early 2000s, however, Eddie Bauer was withering under competition not only from well-established outdoor rivals such as North Face and Seattle-based REI, but also from discounters such as Walmart and online retailers such as Amazon.
“You can buy a fleece jacket from Target and at Eddie Bauer and at Patagonia, and at Amazon,” said Timothy Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. In such a crowded marketplace, Calkins said, “how do you get people to go for Eddie Bauer?”
In 2009, after two bankruptcies, drooping sales, mass layoffs and store closures — including its downtown Seattle location — Eddie Bauer was bought at auction by Golden Gate Capital, a San Francisco-based private equity firm that planned to overhaul the retailer and resell it.
But Golden Gate Capital couldn’t unload the retailer, and by 2017, some industry experts considered Eddie Bauer a serious bankruptcy risk.
Last year, Golden Gate Capital switched to what one trade journal dubbed “an efficiency play” — merging Eddie Bauer with another struggling outdoor retailer, California-based Pacific Sunwear, in order to cut costs by eliminating redundant operations.
Early results have been promising. According a 2018 statement from Golden Gate, Eddie Bauer’s same-store sales were up 6% through early 2018. Golden Gate declined to offer more recent data or to comment on the new round of layoffs.
Northwestern’s Calkins warns that “simply cutting costs alone is not going to lead to long-term success.” He notes that many retailers have cut costs so deeply they ultimately couldn’t serve their customers and closed.