Jewish World Review March 4, 2005/ 23 Adar I, 5765

Greg Crosby

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Consumer Reports

Attention Wal-Mart Shoppers! | If you haven't heard, Federated Department Stores has acquired May Department stores for almost $11 billion. This deal will create a retail franchise with 1,000 locations and $30 billion in sales and is expected to cut Federated-May's costs by hundreds of millions of dollars. What all this means is, a) there will be thousands of layoffs, b) hundreds of store closures, and c) the end of the regional department store — an institution in American retailing for more than a century.

The name brand regional stores like Robinson-May, Lord & Taylor, Hecht's, and Marshall Fields have up until now been kept going by owner May Co. Federated plans to eliminate the old names in order to build a few mega-brands that can compete with Wal-Mart and Kmart-Sears.

Vendors are bracing for cutbacks in the number of lines stores carry and for thinner profit margins, according to The Wall Street Journal. And newspapers fear a considerable reduction in ad revenue since Federated will concentrate its advertising dollars on fewer brands with more of a national focus.

The bottom line is, there will be less choice for the consumer with the same merchandise being offered at all stores. It's the MacDonaldization of retailing. Where consistency trumps quality and selection, and low prices trumps service and a knowledgeable staff. There will be less variety in clothing since there will be fewer buyers making the choices.

Distinctive high-end department stores, with very few exceptions, will be a thing of the past. Any New Yorker older than thirty-five who appreciates the charm of the classy department store will fondly remember B. Altman, just as Los Angeles shoppers wistfully think of I. Magnin and Bullocks, or the Chicago granddame, Marshall Fields. The loss of these exciting, individually stylish stores is a loss to all who remember when shopping was more than running in, grabbing a pair of sweats or jeans, paying and running out.

As a kid, I can recall when going downtown to shop used to be a special outing, almost an entertainment event. People actually used to get all dressed up to go "to the stores," believe it or not. Well-dressed ladies would lunch in the Bullocks Wilshire "tea room" watching models showing the latest fashions. Mothers brought their daughters and everyone looked beautiful — dressed in their finest outfits.

Department stores had individual personalities. If you think of the stores in terms of classic actresses it will help demonstrate what I mean. The Broadway and the May Co. were June Allyson and Debbie Reynolds — the clean, neat, girls next door. Bullocks was Bette Davis, simple yet stylish. Robinsons was Grace Kelly, classy and understated. Bullocks Wilshire was Myrna Loy, elegant and expensive; and I. Magnin was Ethel Barrymore, the granddame.

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As a shopper you knew that you got one thing at the May Co and something very different when you shopped at Bullocks. Different stores, different styles, different merchandise, and different sales help. You had a choice and, to paraphrase Martha Stewart, choice is a good thing. Today the choice is which store has the lowest price on jeans.

It's impossible to apply the classic actress yardstick to today's mega-mart stores, but if we use television personalities we might have something like the following: Nordstrom is Oprah Winfrey, Bloomingdales is Kelly Ripa, Wal-Mart is Roseanne Barr, K-Mart is Roseanne Barr, Sears is Roseanne Barr, Macys is Roseanne Barr, Target is Roseanne Barr, Mervyns is Roseanne Barr, and Marshall's is Roseanne Barr.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2005 Greg Crosby