Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bargain Basement

(For those keeping up, I've added some links to the last post. Particularly good was the link on Sattler's, so I'm repeating it here.)

So, where do we find department stores heading in the late 1980s?

Many of them were trying to find the customer base they wanted to have, because it would be most profitable for them, but it also would be people whose tastes they understood or shared. In doing so they were driving away some traditional customers. This would have been fine if they had been developing lots of new customers. But many of the customers they wanted didn't seem to want them, at the same time that they no longer wanted many of the customers they had.

They promised service, as opposed to the discounters; but many stores rarely had enough people, some of the people they did have were poorly trained, and service desks were hard to find. The discounters didn't promise personal service, so they couldn't be faulted for failing to deliver on it.

Because the stores relied on sales to move merchandise, you never knew what price you were going to have to pay, or if it was the best price, and indeed you often had no idea if they would have in stock what you were looking for. Discounters had less selection, but the price was low every day, and the same things tended to be in the same places.

By cutting back on what they offered, they gave people less reason to come in. It's hard to make money as a boutique with the fixed costs of a giant.

The little extras they had offered to solidify their relationships -- free boxes and wrapping, generous return policies, restaurants for ladies who lunched -- fell under the need to maintain profits with sagging business. The stores said they were reacting to the desires of today's shopper. But they offered little to replace them, other than simply having a wide selection of goods -- admittedly a very wide selection in many lines, and much of it well-made, fashionable, quality merchandise, but some of it indifferent or inferior.

And they had forgotten that when they first appeared, they had promised reasonable prices, merchandise attractive to a typical shopper, attentive service and a focus on the customer. As Marshall Field said: "Give the lady what she wants!" Now it was becoming, Give the lady what's in our interest to give her.

Now, anyone associated with a department store in the 1980s could quickly rebut this and offer an equally valid case. Time-pressed shoppers weren't willing to wander the store in search of tulip bulbs. Suburban shoppers weren't willing to go downtown. The discounters had shown that no one cared about boxes anymore. Ladies didn't lunch. Good help was hard to find. Investor demands were merciless, even if the investors were family members. And all of those things would be correct. Department stores weren't being run by idiots. Most of them were being run by sincere, hardworking people who were just trying to stay ahead of the ball that was rolling toward them. They were trying to deal with the crises they had.

Nearly all of them failed, of course. A secular crisis (the economic problems of the late 1980s) was followed by the Robert Campeau crisis, and the giants of the field began to crumble. Allied, Associated, City Stores...

So as we walk through the revolving doors of our downtown department store, heading out onto Main Street to visit the newspaper office, three questions:

1. Does an industry come to mind that often tells its customers what it believes they should want and whose employees often view them with contempt, sometimes publicly, if they do not; cuts back on lines its core customers want; offers poor or indifferent customer service; fails to put money into its core business; offers an inconsistent variety of goods from day to day and makes them hard to find, and cuts back on side efforts that have connected it with its community?

2. Thinking back to our department store of the 1960s -- the one with everything from soup to nuts -- what business today offers a large variety of general merchandise, from clothing to groceries to tulip bulbs, promises customer service and low prices, emphasizes a fashionable and current image, and does so through relying largely on the traditional bricks-and-mortar concept of a store rather than saying that because many people use the Internet for purchases, the only way to compete in the future will be to sell exclusively on the Internet?

3. Forget the Herbst, Falk's I.D. Store, or Paris of Montana that you grew up with and still mourn in your heart. Name four regional (non-national) U.S. department store chains -- i.e., not Macy's, Sears or Penney's -- that exist today.


Anonymous said...

Been enjoying the blog. #3 would have been Marshall Field's, I'd guess, until recently; I can't think of any others.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Dillard's, Belk, Kohls. Can't think of a fourth.

Gerri Berendzen said...

Bergner's, an Illinois department store (it reminds me of the old Famous-Barr in my hometown, which is now Macy's, of course.)
Also Carson, Pirie Scott, which closed its downtown Chicago store.
Of course, both nameplates are regional but they're really owned by Bon-Ton, so they probably don't count.