Friday, February 8, 2008

Department of Department Stores, II

"Family Business: A Century in the Life and Times of Strawbridge & Clothier," published in 1968, is the history of one of Philadelphia's great department stores. It shows the ups and downs of what most people viewed simply as a stalwart local institution. For example, earnings went from more than $2,500,000 in 1919 to $1,400,000 in 1921.

Sounds familiar.

Strawbridge went through many incarnations from its founding in 1868. For many years it billed itself as "the largest store in the United States devoted exclusively to dry goods." Within a few years of that ad, all sorts of non-dry-goods lines had been added -- furniture, toys, artworks.

Until the 1920s it manufactured its own clothing. For years it ran a large wholesale business. And though it grabbed onto new technologies -- taking orders by phone starting in the 1900s, when many, perhaps most, families did not have a phone at home -- it held onto the past as well, delivering packages by horse and buggy into the 1920s. The superintendent of the stables in the 19-teens questioned whether horses "would ever be entirely eliminated." Alfred Lief's book quotes him as saying:

"when the lines are dropped on the horse's back as he approaches a house, he slows down, but before coming to a halt the driver is on the doorstep with the package. The horse recognizes the driver's returning footsteps or the sound of jingling keys or change in his pocket and at once starts off. The driver steps into the wagon while it's in motion, and the run for the next stop is made with hardly any delay."

Sounds like our old friend the print newspaper, right? An obsolete technology being defended only by those who draw their employment from an obsolete technology, or shed a tear at its romanticism?

The stables and the wholesale division and the clothing shop were all appropriate at their time and not appropriate at another. The store, however, remained.

Was the store simply the transaction of merchandise -- the core competency, if you will, that they found things to sell and someone else bought them? If so, then the store need have no physical form. The store, for example, could be Famous Footwear or it could be Zappo's. If simply being able to buy the merchandise at the lowest "cost" -- not just price, but time invested away from doing other things (home, work, whatever) -- is the sole criterion, the bricks-and-mortar store wouldn't have a chance except with people too inept to use computers. Tons of empty retail spaces resulting.

We all remember that about a decade ago, there was little doubt that this would be the inevitable future, just as surely as there would be almost no bank branches, because all that mattered there was the efficient transaction of financial business which would all be done online.

A bank, it turned out, is more than an efficient financial transaction to many people. Not all, not nearly as many as before, but enough that banks began investing again in bricks-and-mortar branches. A bank is also the experience -- gestalt, not knowledge -- of a bank.

While Strawbridge's was swallowed up in the Great Macyization, department stores are still stores. Target -- the true iconic department store of our era -- sells on the Web and has a division doing commercial outfitting, but Target mainly sells through stores. To me, Target's core competency is selling an array of merchandise predominantly through stores.

Is a newspaper really just a daily budget of stories and information that were distributed on print and now can be distributed electronically with exactly the same impact on readers, community and society? If so, maybe we should stop the presses.

Or is a newspaper's meaning something else? Would Target without a store still be Target, or just one in a series of specialized retail Web sites? Would a newspaper without a news-paper still have the same meaning, influence, effect?

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