Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Disappearing Department Store

 In a recent article in the WSJ (Wed. Aug. 5, 2020) Suzanne Kapner described the downward spiral of the iconic American department store.  The list of stores filing for bankruptcy includes, J C Penney, Neiman Marcus and the latest is Lord and Taylor.  Perhaps the reason for this business  debacle is not so apparent, it began in the 1980's says Kapner.  Long before the big-box stores, before Amazon and online shopping and way, way before the Covid-19 crises, corporate executives somehow lost sight of what the typical American consumer expected from the retail establishments. What consumers do not want, apparently, is the same stores in every mall in every city.  They do not want the same merchandise in every store in every city.  Why drive, attempt to find a reasonably close parking place if it will not be a pleasurable and unique experience.

I grew up in a very small town.  Our one room (there was also a loft)  "department store" had burned down when I was quite young but  I remember the town was quite devastated  by this event.  It meant having to go to the next town (somewhat bigger) to buy the most basic of household items.  Of course, a drive of about one hour brought one to a bigger city with a real three story department store.  It even had a restaurant , of sorts, more like a tea room.  The attendants wore gloves, and a type of uniform.  Best of all, their windows on the street level were gloriously decorated for holidays.  Now this was a true shopping experience.

Which brings me to the beginnings of the  era of big city shopping.  Paris was the birthplace of Bon Marche, which opened in 1852.  The growth of prosperous, urban populations who  were aware of the possibility of a pleasurable , rather than  a merely functional chore embraced the idea. The late 18th and early 19th century saw stores like Liberty's, Selfridges and Harrods of London become retail innovators.  Clientele was almost exclusively women and they were catered to with amenities such a ladies restrooms and salons.  Tea rooms enabled customers to spend an entire day. Harrods and Selfridges offered large food emporiums.  Emile Zola called department stores"cathedrals of commerce". 

America, especially NY City, had their share of grand-designed department stores: Lord and Taylor (Est. 1826 , in 2016 had 50 locations), Macy's (Est. 1858, with now nearly 730 stores), B. Altman          (Est.1865, closed 1989),  Bonwit Teller (Est. 1895,closed 1990), Saks Fifth Avenue (Est. 1902, sold to Hudson Bay Company), Gimbel's (Est 1910, closed 1986).

B. Altman
Bonwit Teller



Kapner's article quotes Rachael Shechtman, once a Macy's officer "Two things that made stores great were amazing customer service and great merchandise that you couldn't find elsewhere.  It's almost impossible to name a store that does that today."

It is obvious that CEO's and other executives  have to have a major rethink.  Fairly paid staff must know their customers and their merchandise. Perhaps there may come a backward shift in shopping habits, this remains to be seen.

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