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How Burlington Has Done Well During The Pandemic And Without A Website

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Just before coronavirus lockdowns began last March, one retailer made this announcement; no more online shopping. That would've been the end for many stores over the last year but not for Burlington, a discount retailer that has endured the pandemic surprisingly well. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Burlington has stopped calling itself the coat factory for years now, but a coat was exactly what brought Autumn Nevens to the store in December.

AUTUMN NEVENS: It was a Michael Kors jacket, and it was about $20 off the regular retail price.

SELYUKH: Nevens is a student at the University of Washington, drawn to Burlington for its promise of bargains, whether it's designer shoes, nice home decor or everyday clothes. It's the kind of store where you might walk in for pants and leave with a frying pan.

NEVENS: You never know what you're going to find there. You always have to dig a little deeper (laughter). It's like a treasure hunt because you know you're getting a deal regardless.

SELYUKH: Early in the pandemic, this type of business, counting on people bargain hunting indoors - it seemed doomed. Last spring, sales at clothing stores collapsed almost entirely. Yet discount stores - Burlington, T.J. Maxx, Ross - they got better far faster than others, even opening dozens of new stores. These retailers are still selling less than before the pandemic, but they're almost there.

LAURA CHAMPINE: Things are progressively getting better at Burlington.

SELYUKH: Laura Champine is a senior consumer analyst at Loop Capital Markets who says one key reason for Burlington's resilience is what they sell.

CHAMPINE: The retail island of misfit toys.

SELYUKH: Often, things wind up at these discounters after they get rejected at full-price retailers, like department stores. Maybe it's a weird color that didn't land or a less popular design. And that means when department stores struggle and scale back like they did in the pandemic, better stuff - more stuff - ends up at stores like Burlington. That also means they're very fast at changing what they sell, which, in the pandemic, meant fewer office clothes or jewelry and more pajamas and home goods.

CHAMPINE: Because they move in and out a product in weeks, not in months or seasons, it's easier for them to pivot.

SELYUKH: And this kind of constant pivoting is why Burlington shut down its website. It's hard to keep track of this random, ever-changing selection from store to store. Besides, brands are happy to have super-deep discounts only for people willing to bargain hunt in person. They don't want to advertise massive markdowns to anyone with access to Google.

Here's Burlington Stores' CEO, Michael O'Sullivan, on the earnings call in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL O'SULLIVAN: In the categories where we compete and at the low price points that we offer, e-commerce is much less effective or competitive in meeting the needs of value-oriented shoppers.

SELYUKH: Value-oriented shoppers, meaning people drawn to low prices - which, in a pandemic recession, could describe millions, especially parents like JaMeeka Holloway from North Carolina.

JAMEEKA HOLLOWAY: I have a 7-year-old kid always in need of something, and she loves the toy section.

SELYUKH: And so Burlington was where Holloway went for some of her Christmas shopping. She says she felt safe in the spacious store. She found "Frozen" and "Moana"-themed shirts, arts and crafts supplies - all for half the retail price. Then inevitably came a sweep through some cookware shelves and a peek at home goods and spices because you never know what you will find.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "THEME DE YOYO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.