So it's over for Bed Bath & Beyond. The company is finding eternal sleep. It has pulled the stopper from the tub. It has gone to the Great Beyond.
Bed Bath & Beyond recently declared bankruptcy and is shutting down all of its stores, including its Buy Buy Baby stores. Final sales are underway at all remaining locations.
I mourn, if in a fairly minor way, because Bed Bath & Beyond was my favorite of all the Big Box stores. And while I won't go so far as to say it was the only one I could stand, it was pretty much the only one I could stand.
In all the years I shopped there, I bought relatively little for the bedroom and possibly nothing for the bathroom. It was the beyond part that drew me. At Bed Bath & Beyond, "beyond" meant "kitchen." I suppose they preferred the alliteration to the name of the actual room in the house.
The stores had a kitchen section that nicely covered all the bases, from cast-iron skillets to serving bowls, from small appliances to silverware, from cocktail shakers to panini presses. The prices were good, and the quality was good enough.
You could buy what you needed there. It seemed like they knew what they were doing. But in the end, it was a bad business decision that sent the company swirling down the drain.
In 2004, corporate executives thought it was a good time to buy back some of the company's stock. Corporations do this occasionally as a way to increase the value of the stock to the remaining shareholders. The fewer shares there are, the more each one is worth.
The people who actually own the company, the stockholders, immediately see an increase of the return on their investment. But the action does nothing to actually help the operation of the company itself. For that reason, companies usually buy back stock when they are flush with cash.
Bed Bath & Beyond was not flush with cash, or at least not for the entire run of the buybacks. Beginning in 2014, it started borrowing money to buy the stock. It borrowed $2 billion that year alone, and it kept on borrowing.
And borrowing. And borrowing.
Debt has its place in business. It can be necessary to borrow money to upgrade machinery or software, to build new plants, to buy property for expansion or to acquire other businesses. In each case, the company benefits and, if done right, the changes that are made eventually pay back the cost of the loan, and then some.
But Bed Bath & Beyond borrowed billions and billions of dollars and simply gave that money to the company's owners. The company itself got nothing of value for it, nothing that could help it do business. All it got was debt.
As of last November, the date of its most recent financial report, the company owed $5.2 billion and only had assets of $4.4 billion.
I understand that most stock is owned by pension funds and 401(k)s, and they need to make as much money as they can to assure their investors a long and comfortable retirement. But surely it defeats the purpose of an investment to kill the goose that keeps laying golden eggs.
In 2014, when it first began borrowing for the buy backs, Bed Bath & Beyond had no long-term debt on its books at all. Activist investors were pressuring the company for greater returns, and maybe the financial wizards there thought they could easily absorb the $2 billion hit, plus interest.
But then they kept taking on debt when the company and the economy started to wobble. And when the company was in a calamitous free-fall a year ago, it took on even more debt.
Inventory was low, the shelves were empty, stores were closing, some of their most popular suppliers were refusing to do business with them — and the folks in charge borrowed another $230 million just to buy more shares of stock.
If I were cynical, I would suggest that one motivation for these actions was self-interest — the majority of compensation for the executives, and a sizable portion for the board, comes in the form of stock. But maybe they're just stupid.
Perhaps "stupid" overstates the case. Rather, I should say that maybe they started making a whole lot of bad decisions all at once, and then kept making them.
The first clue for me that things were going sideways came five years ago when the store I visited most, in Brentwood, moved from a great location to a larger store nearby in a shopping center that is much harder to reach. And then it devoted a whole section to food sold at World Market, a chain owned by the same parent company.
It was a terrible idea. Not only was there already a World Market nearby (in that same shopping center where the Bed Bath & Beyond had previously been), but international gourmet-ish food simply does not fit the Bed Bath & Beyond brand.
It's as if a pet store also sold blenders, or a women's clothing boutique had a table for spark plugs. Only once did I ever see anyone even browsing in the area, and she didn't buy anything from there. The section was soon allowed to wither and die of neglect.
Two years ago, the stores announced they were going to stop carrying MyPillow products, claiming they were not selling well. That reason may or may not be true, but the decision came just as company founder Mike Lindell was loudly claiming that the 2020 election had been stolen through the use of voting machines made by Dominion Voting Services and software created by Smartmatic.
Both of those companies are now suing Lindell and MyPillow for defamation.
Many people who believed that the election had been stolen have participated in an informal boycott of Bed Bath & Beyond ever since. Many have expressed online glee at its demise and have taken online credit for it.
But the underlying cause for the company's extinction began years before that. In all, it spent more than $11.7 billion to buy back stocks.
All that money could have come in handy right about now. Bed Bath & Beyond would not only be solvent, it would be thriving.
(Daniel Neman is a retail business writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
©2023 STLtoday.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.