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Will Bed Bath & Beyond sink like Sears or rise like Best Buy?

The company has been on a rollercoaster of crises, including a meme-stock rise and crash. Its latest financial report comes Thursday.

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Bed Bath & Beyond is working on yet another turnaround after a series of crises and missteps.
Bed Bath & Beyond is working on yet another turnaround after a series of crises and missteps. Bruce Bennett | Getty Images

It's hard to overstate the bumpiness of the rollercoaster ride that Bed Bath & Beyond has been on this year: its rise and crash as a meme stock, a leadership shakeup, trouble with suppliers, a turnaround to trump a previous turnaround, store closures, job cuts, and the shocking news of its financial chief's death.

The home-goods giant faces persistent speculation of a protracted but looming demise as it prepares to report its latest financial results on Thursday morning.

"It sort of looks like a decision tree from where it is now," Morningstar analyst Jaime Katz said: Will Bed Bath & Beyond reimagine itself and pull away from the brink, like Best Buy? Or will it continue to patch holes only to keep sinking, like Sears?

"You know, our best guess is that it comes in somewhere in between," Katz said.

How did this once-vaunted retail behemoth get here?

As recently as 2018, Bed Bath & Beyond had over 1,500 stores. It had hoovered up rivals, BuyBuy Baby and World Market. Even during the Great Recession, when many retailers folded, Bed Bath seemed to only grow.

Its stores had secret powers that shoppers loved

Yes, there was the iconic blue 20% off coupon that's so ever-present that even mobster Whitey Bulger had one in his kitchen drawer.

But the chain had another secret sauce behind the scenes: Unlike most retailers, Bed Bath & Beyond let local managers choose what to sell in each store, catering to local tastes.

"I remember seeing it very distinctively when I visited a Miami store," said Amy Laskin, a former Bed Bath content marketing executive. "Right when you walk in the doors was this wild, brightly colored, Disney-themed stuff — it was so Miami. And I thought, this will never sell anywhere else."

But the stores eventually became part of the problem

As online and mobile shopping exploded, Amazon, Target, Wayfair and others put up formidable competition. Bed Bath & Beyond spent years seeking — and never really finding — its online identity.

"I would go into one meeting and it would be, 'We need to be ... the destination for home, more upscale, home decor, more furniture,' " said Laskin, who left Bed Bath in 2017 and is now with consultancy Prophet.

"The next conversation would be, 'We need to be more competitive with Amazon. We need to be the destination with everything.' ... The next thing you know, we were carrying diamond jewelry like Costco does."

A store manager packs cookware at Bed Bath & Beyond in Los Angeles in April 2013.
A store manager packs cookware at Bed Bath & Beyond in Los Angeles in April 2013. Kevork Djansezian | Getty Images

Bed Bath & Beyond whipped up a dizzying website. But its heart remained in its stores, with their stacks of cookware, walls of trashcans and piles of pillows. In the late 2010s, sales started dropping and a series of turnarounds began.

A high-profile new CEO pursued a big idea: Bed Bath would launch its own brands

In 2019, Mark Tritton arrived from Target. As Bed Bath CEO, he pushed to declutter stores and close 200 underperforming ones, to weed out national brands and launch Bed Bath's own labels, like Everhome and Nestwell.

This strategy had worked like a charm at Target, perfected over years. Bed Bath & Beyond rushed to replicate that success in months — right as the pandemic began.

Shoppers were already wary of visiting stores, so many never got to check out the new labels; some found them lacking and began complaining that they missed familiar brands.

The pandemic was a boon for home goods, but Bed Bath & Beyond missed out

The new-brands turnaround strategy exacerbated the industry-wide supply chain crisis, leaving top products like KitchenAid mixers missing from Bed Bath's shelves. The retailer played catch up, racing to roll out pandemic necessities like curbside pickup.

Earlier this year, activist investor Ryan Cohen of Chewy and GameStop fame bought a stake in the company, prompting his followers on Reddit and YouTube to pump up Bed Bath's stock. CEO Tritton and other leaders were ousted.

Then, just as suddenly, Cohen sold his entire stake. What ensued was what's become a familiar timeline of a rudderless retailer: The company announced closures of another 150 stores and job cuts for a fifth of its corporate and logistics staff. Suppliers began hesitating about sending more stuff to Bed Bath, worried they won't get paid.

Interim CEO Sue Gove is touting "a straightforward, back-to-basics philosophy," while the company scrambles to bring back national brands and shoppers are pulling back.

Now, the store has inflation to deal with; plus, shoppers are over their crazed pandemic-era clamor for furniture, bedding, kitchen appliances and home decor.

"We remain concerned by the magnitude of the sales declines," Telsey Group analyst Cristina Fernandez wrote, "and believe it will be challenging to win consumers back in a softer economic climate."

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Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Will Bed Bath & Beyond sink like Sears or coast like Best Buy? The company that's been on a roller coaster of crises will present its latest financial update tomorrow. NPR's Alina Selyukh takes a look at how a once-celebrated home goods retailer lost its way.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: It's hard to overstate the wild ride of Bed Bath & Beyond on Wall Street.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Value spiked by nearly 300%.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: A more than 40% drop in one day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Absolutely plunging as it shuts 150 stores, slashes its workforce.

SELYUKH: The rise and crash of a meme stock - people on Reddit and YouTube pumped money into Bed Bath this summer after their idol, activist investor Ryan Cohen, bought a stake in the company until suddenly he sold it, got out. Cue legal turmoil, then more shocking news - the death of the chain's chief financial officer days after he announced store closures, job cuts and financing for a turnaround. So what's next?

JAIME KATZ: There are a lot more questions than answers now.

SELYUKH: Jaime Katz is an analyst at Morningstar.

KATZ: You have an interim CEO. You have an interim CFO. The COO has been relieved of his duties.

SELYUKH: Chaos is a fairly recent state of being for Bed Bath & Beyond. Until recent years, the company seemed relatively steady, hoovering up competitors. In 2018, it had over 1,500 stores with a secret weapon that shoppers loved - and no, not the 20% off coupon. Unlike most retailers, Bed Bath let local managers choose what to sell in each store. Former exec Amy Laskin remembers one Miami visit.

AMY LASKIN: Right in the front, when you walk in the doors, there's this wild, brightly colored, Disney-themed stuff. It was so Miami. And I thought, this will never sell anywhere else.

SELYUKH: Laskin was a content marketing executive in the 2010s. This was a time of existential change. Mobile shopping was exploding. Amazon, Target, Wayfair put up formidable competition. Bed Bath & Beyond still searched for its online identity.

LASKIN: I would go into one meeting, and it would be, we need to be about home, more furniture. The next conversation would be, we need to be more competitive with Amazon. We need to be the destination with everything. And that's where those crazy new categories of merchandise came in.

SELYUKH: Like diamond jewelry for the wedding registry. Bed Bath & Beyond whipped up a dizzying website, but it kept running ads promoting physical stores.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Oh, this is called offline shopping. It's like online shopping, but in real life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Wait, so I can touch anything before I buy?

SELYUKH: This ad is from 2019, a year before the pandemic. Sales were dropping. A series of turnarounds began. A new CEO had a big idea. Bed Bath would declutter and try a strategy that worked like a charm at Target - introduce its own brands. What took Target years Bed Bath was trying to do in months during the pandemic. Shoppers weren't sold on the unfamiliar labels, says analyst Katz.

KATZ: This might have been a different story had people gone into the stores and seen the new brands.

SELYUKH: But this was time to rake in online sales. In fact, it was a boon for home goods - kitchen gadgets, air fryers, cozy blankets. Bed Bath & Beyond missed out. Its turnaround rush made the supply chain problems worse, leaving shelves empty. It was a bit slow on the curbside pickup, its website still a clunker. Now the new new leadership is racing to bring back the national brands, hoping for a holiday season miracle.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.