Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Second Floor, Lingerie, Weather

Now, as promised: To relate the department store to the newspapers. But this requires a lot of exposition, or at least I think it does. Bear with me...

So let's go back to that department store of the 1960s that sold clothing and shoes and furniture and tulip bulbs and outdoor TV antennas. It was following the motto of Harrods Ltd. in London: "Omnia omnibus ubique." Everything for everyone, always. (ADDED: Whoops, lousy translation. See reader comment below.)

The department store sought everyone's business, time and attention. It wanted to meet all shopping needs -- some had groceries, many had pharmacies. There was no need for you to go anywhere else. Make a day of it! Have lunch in the Tea Room.

But there had been ominous signs. Downtown department stores in many big cities had begun to see their sales figures fall with the end of World War II, as people not only moved out to the far suburbs but used their autos more, now that there was no rationing. Fewer people were taking the bus downtown, so department stores, which specialized in delivery to your home of a finished product (an adjusted suit, a spiffed-up hat), were competing with "carry-it-home" business increasingly. And discounters were threatening the low- or popular-priced stores -- the "third store down," in industryspeak.

Business was going to stores that were closer to the new housing developments and had "acres of free parking." A lot of them were discount stores, but many were small retailers -- appliance stores, children's clothing stores, and the like awash in 1950s American prosperity.

Department stores fought back by opening suburban branches as well as expanding downtown. The J.L. Hudson Co. in Detroit created Northland and Eastland. Los Angeles had the Miracle Mile. In Philadelphia, free-standing stores opened throughout the Pennsylvania suburbs -- John Wanamaker in Wynnewood, Lit Bros. in the Northeast and S. Philadelphia, and Strawbridge & Clothier adding to its existing Ardmore and Jenkintown branches. Cain-Sloan Co. in Nashville and Foley Bros. in Houston built giant new downtown stores. In cities big and small, stores such as H. Gordon & Son in Gary or Frederick & Nelson in Seattle built downtown additions. All seemed well. By the 1960s, most of these stores were 60 to 70 years old. Some had reached the century mark.

And newspapers were chock-full of department store ads. Then came the mall boom of the 1960s, and malls with two or more anchor stores appeared in every large suburban area. All the branches were originally considered as twigs, though; some lines would only be carried downtown, and all of them would be carried there in greater depth.

Sales increased for the branch stores at the continuing cost of downtown. But the overall organization could still support its large advertising budget and existing warehouses and odd little curiosity departments that had been there forever. All things for all people.

Of course, departments, especially in the main store, were still in odd places, and sometimes the stores, because of their longevity, were not placed either downtown or in the suburbs to reflect changes in consumer traffic. But the 1960s were heady years for department stores, which opened tire centers and furniture stores and wine departments. And to cover their bets, they moved into discounting as well -- L.S. Ayres & Co. in Indianapolis opened Ayr-Way, The Dayton Co. in Minneapolis had Target. Omnibus omnes.

But massive, disruptional change lay ahead. More to come...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That motto translates "All things for everyone, everywhere," actually