Friday, February 22, 2008

Fourth Floor, Carpets, Rugs, Sports

Never promise to post "tomorrow" if you fear you will have to shovel the walk for the first time all winter.

Anyhow, department stores were in a tizzy. How to compete in a vastly different landscape? They tried everything they knew. In the late 1960s, "boutiques" such as The Gap were the rage; L.S. Ayres, for one, opened a chain of boutiques called Sycamore Shops. The book department at Dayton's in Minneapolis morphed into what became B. Dalton, Bookseller. As fewer people shopped downtown, downtown stores closed off floors and cut back lines. In some cities with vast suburban growth, such as Phoenix and Raleigh, stores simply closed downtown as early as the late 1950s; in the 1970s, it became a flood.

The mall stores seemed to be the answer, but the malls carried their own problems that were just becoming apparent. For one thing, once under one roof, the mall itself was kind of a department store. What was the point of a fur salon in the department store if there was a fur salon out in the mall with a bigger selection, and you didn't have to put on your coat or cross the street to get to it? So the department store was just another department in the mall. For another, universal credit cards had taken command.

At one time systems such as Charga-Plate had made it possible for department stores to carry credit accounts much more easily than the small retailer. A Charga-Plate was a metal tag with your name and address on it. It had notches cut out of the side that fit each store's Charga-Plate machine, which was basically an ink roller. If you didn't have an account at Wasson's, the Charga-Plate wouldn't go in their machine, although the same plate would work at Ayres if you had one there. Department stores were large enough to be able to pay people to hand-process and ledger all these accounts. Smaller stores weren't. In the 1960s, with business computers, stores came out with their own plastic credit cards, as did local banks (Older Indianapolesians can remember the introduction of the "AFNB Charge Card").

But the computer makes local business almost the same as international, and so those city-by-city bank cards became tied up by the 1970s into Master Charge and BankAmericard. and all of a sudden you could charge anything anywhere on one card (except the department stores, which found them too hoi polloi and didn't want to undercut their own charge accounts).

The 1970s also saw the first emergence of what we now would call "big box" retailers. Levitz Furniture came out of Pottstown, Pa., to become a nationwide chain. Appliance stores in particular hit the department store business hard. Refrigerators, stoves, air conditioners, TVs now came in bewildering variety. In Flint, Mich., a store called, if memory serves, Greenlee's had begun as your typical neighborhood appliance store, in a small space in an urban neighborhood on South Saginaw Street. Suddenly it opened suburban branches with lots of space. Department stores couldn't devote the same amount of space to compete, because the sales per square foot were lower than for clothing, jewelry, perfume -- and so they had to charge a higher price to meet their overhead, as they were paying more for their pricey location. Smaller selection at higher price ... not a ticket to success. So they began to leave the appliance business and the furniture business. But that, of course, gave people one or two more reasons not to go into the department store -- somewhat like stocks and TV listings drew people into newspapers even though they occupied space with somewhat noncompetitive features.

(Stores still advertised like gangbusters in newspapers, though.)

And then along came ... Bloomingdale's. But alas, the snow (all three inches of it!) means the return to newspapers must wait.

1 comment:

Mae Travels said...

Inspired by your series on department stores, I put together some thoughts that I've had on this subject: