Sharper Image, Lillian Vernon file for bankruptcy

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two catalog retailers, Sharper Image Corp SHRP.O and Lillian Vernon Corp, have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, hurt by falling sales and worsening credit market conditions.

Sharper Image, who shares lost more than 70 percent of their value on Wednesday, filed for protection on Tuesday with the U.S. bankruptcy court in Wilmington, Delaware after three years of losses and litigation involving its Ionic Breeze air purifiers. The company plans to shut 90 of its 184 stores after clearing out inventories.

The San Francisco-based company said it had $251.5 million in assets and $199 million in debt as of January 31, but just $700,000 of cash on hand, according to court records.

Lillian Vernon, whose products include giftware, housewares and children’s products, filed for protection on Wednesday in the same court.

The closely-held, Virginia Beach, Virginia-based company said it had between $1 million and $100 million of both assets and debts, court records show.

“We do expect a significant increase in business bankruptcies,” said Richard Hastings, an economic adviser specializing in retailing for the Federation of Credit and Financial Professionals in South Plainfield, New Jersey. “A hit to consumer expenditures is exacerbating weakness in many consumer and retailing businesses. We expect this cycle to persist, easily, for 18 months.”

Retailers reported dismal sales in January as consumers trimmed spending, fearful the U.S. economy could tip into recession as food and fuel costs rise and the U.S. housing downturn accelerates.

Sharper Image said it has suffered from increased competition, narrowing margins, lower consumer and market confidence, tighter credit from suppliers and poorly performing stores.

It also reported “negative publicity” from lawsuits over its Ionic Breeze air purifiers. The company is seeking a $60 million loan arranged by Wells Fargo Retail Finance LLC.

“Sharper Image is in a severe liquidity crisis ... compounded by the ever-tightening and volatile credit and financing markets,” Chief Financial Officer Rebecca Roedell said in a court filing.

On February 14, Sharper Image said it replaced Chief Executive Steven Lightman with Robert Conway, a turnaround specialist at Conway, Del Genio, Gries & Co.

Lillian Vernon Chief Financial Officer Robert Eveleigh said in a court filing his company suffered steady sales declines and rising costs over the last decade.

“During the past holiday season expected sales growth did not occur, which resulted in lower profitability and significant unsold inventory,” he said. “These factors combined to significantly impair the debtors’ ability to find additional financing.”

Lillian Vernon said it hired Gruppo Levey & Co as its investment banker to explore asset sales, including a possible sale of the whole company.

Sharper Image shares closed down $1.02 at 42 cents on the Nasdaq.

Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe/Andre Grenon