Shoppers hurry around Filene's (center right) on Washington Street in Boston.
The precursor of the main company was a store opened in 1881 by William Filene. William Filene was a German Jewish immigrant from Posen, Prussia, who immigrated to Boston in 1848. Although William Filene is credited with creating Filene’s, it was his sons, Edward Filene and Abraham Lincoln Filene, who expanded the business greatly. Edward and Lincoln were two of the best known businessmen in America and were responsible for converting their father’s clothing store into one of the largest department stores in the country. The two sons assumed management of the store in 1891 and inherited the store upon their father’s death in 1901; by that the company was known as William Filene's Sons & Company.
In 1908 Edward Filene opened the automatic bargain annex or Filene's Basement as a way to sell excess merchandise from the upstairs department store. He also developed an automatic mark-down schedule to reduce the price of merchandise, used thereafter for decades. Edward's influence gave Filene’s an early reputation as a customer oriented store with slogans like “money back if not satisfied.”
A new main store, Filene's Department Store, was completed in 1912 in Boston on the corner of Washington and Summer streets, by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham as his last major project. By 1929 Filene’s expanded the main building, converting the block around Washington, Summer, Hawley and Franklin streets into one department store.
1929–1987: Ownership by Federated
Filene's advertisement on back of Red Sox baseball ticket.
Also during 1929, Filene’s joined Abraham & Straus and Lazarus as the founding members of Federated Department Stores. From the 1930s through 1990s Filene’s continued expanding beyond New England with the country growing and adapting to new shopping malls. Filene’s main rival company during this period was Jordan Marsh, whose main store, like Filene's, was located in Downtown Crossing in Boston, and was also making the transition, expanding into shopping malls. In 1947, the Filene’s Basement trade-name was first applied to an annual bridal gown sale. Lines extending around the store made it famous.
1988–2004: Ownership by May
In 1988, after the leveraged buyout of Federated Department Stores by Campeau Corp. of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the division was sold to May Department Stores Co. along with Foley's of Houston. It was then that the Filene's and Filene's Basement trade-names were disassociated. In 1992, Filene's absorbed G. Fox & Co. of Hartford, Connecticut, and Steiger's in 1994, two other divisions of May Company. During the 1990s there was a doubling of the Filene's organization as May invested in new stores and variegated Filene's price and product assortments. In 2002 Filene's assumed operational control of the Kaufmann's stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and western New York state.
2005–2006: Federated–May merger and closing
Boston's own variation of the saying "meet me under the clock" with the Filene's clock on Washington Street (2008)
Speculated since the early 2000s, Federated announced its planned acquisition of May in February 2005. The likelihood that the May nameplates would be replaced by the Federated-owned Macy's was acknowledged, citing the "considerable success in re-branding [Federated's] regional stores as Macy's" and that "operating regional stores primarily under one brand means [they] can advertise nationally, unlike regional retailers, which is more cost-effective;" the changes were unlikely to occur before 2006. Indeed, the company-wide conversion to Macy's was confirmed in July, and the merger was completed in August.
Federated continued to divest "duplicate" properties in shopping malls where Filene's and Macy's were both present; prior to consolidation, Filene's operated 47 locations across Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. In regards to Downtown Crossing, however, the company remained uncertain whether the Filene's Department Store or the neighboring former Jordan Marsh flagship store (that became Macy's in the mid-1990s) would be retained. Then-Boston Mayor Thomas Menino expressed his preference for "marrying Macy's to the Filene's building." Ultimately, the existing Macy's location was left intact and the Filene's store was closed in 2006.
The last remaining Filene's stores closed on September 9, 2006, with the conversion of the May-owned nameplates, Macy's had become a national retailer with over 800 stores. Upon receiving approval from shareholders that Federated itself be renamed Macy's, Inc. in 2007, then-CEO Terry Lundgren admitted that business was struggling from "[having thrown] a lot of change on the May company stores very quickly."