Tony Walker & Co. abruptly closed its stores in its namesake Amherst plaza, leaving 37 employees without jobs, although executives vowed to find work for all of them elsewhere in the company.
The closing comes 2½ months after its parent, the Advantage Company, shut down its Stereo Advantage retail store on Wehrle Drive in Amherst.
Officials said the latest move was a response to the ongoing decline of retail and is part of a long-planned pivot to a company focusing on international clothing and accessory sales conducted online.
"While it is unfortunate that a retail-only environment in the fashion industry is no longer viable, the new Fashion Lab Showroom & International Sales Center will continue to offer the absolute finest in premium fashion and beauty brands," Advantage Co. CEO Katherine Ragusa said in an email.
But Tony Walker & Co. workers apparently were caught off guard when they learned of the closing Saturday.
Advantage Co. founder and owner Tony Ragusa on Sunday sent a message to employees, obtained by The Buffalo News, apologizing for letting his frustration with the flagging Tony Walker & Co. business spill out one day earlier.
"I have been properly chastised by (daughters) Katherine and Juliana over my insensitivity and abruptness in the closing of TW&Co and the termination of the entire staff," Tony Ragusa wrote. "I handled it poorly, and in retrospect, I am embarrassed by my rashness."
Tony Ragusa founded Stereo Advantage in 1978 and over the years the company expanded into a number of other fields under the Advantage Co. umbrella, including recruiting and finance.
The company opened the Walker Center plaza in Amherst, just west of the Village of Williamsville on Main Street, in 1994. It includes the main Tony Walker & Co. retail store as well as related storefronts specializing in jewelry, shoes, men's wear and beauty products.
Both Katherine and Tony Ragusa said retail sales had struggled in recent years. The Advantage Co. in December closed the Stereo Advantage store but kept open its Lifetime Service & Solutions Co. arm, which had expanded nationally.
The Ragusas say they made significant investments in Tony Walker & Co. even as it began losing millions of dollars recently. They said the staff there was among the best compensated of any retail employees in the area and, as the transition to the online fashion lab became more likely, Advantage Co. offered new positions to the workers.
"He presented these opportunities time and again to the entire staff," Katherine Ragusa said in an email.
But, she said, the workers declined to act on this offer, something her father recounted with frustration in his apology note.
"What doesn't change in all of this emotion is the fact that retail is dead," Tony Ragusa wrote. "Whether I let everyone go at once or pretended we were closing because of the coronavirus pandemic, the fact remains that the TW&Co retail story – much like the Stereo Advantage retail story – had come to an end."
Advantage Co. did not file a notice of the layoffs with the state Labor Department nor, according to Katherine Ragusa, was the company required to do so.
The Ragusas both said, however, that they are excited about how far the fashion lab experiment and other new corporate ventures, focused on e-commerce sales in this country and internationally, can go.
They again encouraged former Tony Walker & Co. employees to apply for new positions in the company.
"This new concept, the Fashion Lab, will provide even more jobs and more opportunity in Western New York than TW&Co ever did, just as our remarkable transition from Stereo Advantage to Lifetime Service did," Katherine Ragusa told The News.
She said Tuesday that the company is moving up the launch of its international sales program to next week and, as a result, expects to be able to offer jobs to all recently terminated or laid off employees.
Once the fashion lab showroom renovations are completed, that space will be open to the public, she said.
The company has roughly 1,000 employees worldwide. About 400 are based in this area, including the 37 Tony Walker & Co. employees who recently lost their jobs, 186 Lifetime Service workers and 144 employees at Giancarlo's Sicilian Steakhouse in the Walker Center.
The company initially had hoped to turn to takeout and delivery model of service in response to the COVID-19 outbreak but on Monday decided it would close Giancarlo's for the foreseeable future, Katherine Ragusa said.
The company promised it will continue until further notice to provide health care coverage for employees who lost their jobs this month and it announced it would set up a $100,000 emergency fund for any of those employees who have families.
Also, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, employees with families who lost their jobs will be able to stop by Giancarlo's to pick up free pasta and sauce.
"We are doing all we can," Katherine Ragusa said.
She said the company would honor previously purchased Tony Walker & Co. gift cards at TonyWalker.com, beginning Friday, at the fashion lab once it gets up and running and at Giancarlo's.
News Business Reporter Jonathan D. Epstein contributed to this report.