NEWPORT BEACH — The neatly lettered signs at the entrances to the Buffums in Fashion Island here Thursday were blunt and to the point: "All Sales Final. No Returns. No Exchanges."
For Buffums, there also is no future. The chain announced Wednesday that it will close its 16 Southern California department stores in late May, after 87 years in business.
Buffums began losing its luster as a retailer a decade or more ago, and its demise was widely rumored in recent days, but the actual news came as a blow to many people. In communities such as Long Beach and Pomona, Buffums' shutdown will pull badly needed stores out of already faltering shopping centers.
But the impact is minimized in Orange County, because Buffums stores are in three fairly healthy malls: Westminster, Laguna Hills and Fashion Island.
For many of Buffums' 1,100 full-time and 300 part-time workers--about one-fourth of them in the chain's Orange County stores--it could mean a tough search for a new job amid a weak economy.
And among Buffums' longtime customers, many of them elderly, the closings are being regarded much like the loss of an old, dependable friend.
"I will thoroughly miss it," said Betty Hazan of Irvine, a weekly Buffums shopper in Newport Beach for two decades. "This has been a different kind of store."
In an age of pitched battles around bargain tables, Buffums has had a quiet elegance that made it a pleasure to stroll through, Hazan said.
She clutched a bag containing stockings she had just bought and said she usually browses the racks and catches a bite in the Buffums restaurant.
"It's a delightful place to have lunch," she said.
A few customers went to the Newport Beach store, apparently in the mistaken belief that a liquidation sale had started. The scene was more sedate at the Westminster store, where customers were few and the atmosphere more relaxed.
Donna Wilson of Temecula, who came with her sister to shop in Westminster, said she is particularly sorry because she is a former Buffums saleswoman.
"It's real comfortable when I come in," she said. "Everyone is real friendly."
She said she liked the merchandise selection because "Buffums had more original things."
Dwight and Mary Wadsworth of Huntington Beach came by the Westminster store to pay off their credit card balance because of the pending closure. "I used to buy all my clothes here for the last 30 years," Mary Wadsworth said. "We come up here all the time, and I'm shocked."
Employees said they loved the store because they were treated well. Unlike other retail chains, they said, management allowed them to adjust their weekly schedules and stressed high degrees of customer service.
"I always felt the super thing about Buffums was we were treated like family," said Sonnia Denney, a cosmetics saleswoman in Westminster and 22-year employee of the chain. "It's been a real rough year. We didn't think that (the company) was doing this bad."
The top-selling saleswoman in the chain, Gloria Loder of the Westminster store, said Buffums was more than a job to her in the past eight years: "This is my social life, not just a job."
Still, even many of the nostalgic customers who headed to Buffums stores Thursday recognized that the chain's demise was a long time coming.
"In the men's department, there's been nothing to buy for at least five years," said Mabel Rowland, a shopper from Chino who visited the Pomona store. She said the store used to be "very classy."
Faced with growing losses and its aging clientele, Buffums' Australian owner--Adelaide Steamship Co.--made sporadic efforts in recent years to try to turn around the chain. Stores were remodeled in Westminster, Laguna Hills and San Diego. A new president and chief executive, John H. Duncan, was named in August. In the following months, new merchandising managers were hired.
Adelaide Steamship also considered a revitalization plan of $30 million to $50 million that called for remodeling stores, bringing in new lines of merchandise and launching a major ad campaign. Ultimately, however, the company decided that the Southern California recession and the damage already done to Buffums were too much to overcome.
Dixie Towers, who joined Buffums in September as senior vice president in charge of merchandising, noted that many of the chain's stores didn't even have signs for their "junior" departments. "It was like we didn't want anyone to know that anyone young would shop here," Towers said.
The chain has continued over the years to sell a lot china and glassware. In addition, sales in December at Buffums stores open more than one year climbed 3.5%, despite the generally weak Christmas season for retailers.
But Buffums' apparel business--a mainstay for most department store chains--appeared to have gotten as run down as many of its stores.