|Chicago Tribune 27 February 2018|
I am a department store girl. Have been since ... well, I think that it all began when I was young and my grandfather would take my sisters, brother, and I to Marshall Field's on State Street in Chicago on Christmas Eve. We would visit Santa, walk through the toy department, and have lunch under the big tree in the Walnut Room. I can just taste the Frango mint pie ice cream pie. At that time, the store was big, old and dusty. The floor boards creaked as you walked from counter to counter looking in wonder at all of the lovely things that could be purchased.
When I left college, I didn't really have a good idea of what I wanted to do with myself. I had to get some kind of job, so I went over to the suburban branch of Marshall Field's near my parents' home where I was living. I started out as a part-time sales associate in the accessory department. I was very familiar with handbags and didn't really care for them much. But I loved the scarves and of all things- sunglasses. The scarves were beautiful, and the store carried a wonderful assortment of vendors. They were slippery devils to lay out in the case, but I never tired of straightening the colors and silk. Sunglasses were a mathematics problem to me. I had so many towers that held them on top of the cases, and the cases themselves to fill. In the early eighties, many of the glasses were very large. One of the best selling vendors was Liz Claiborne, and hers were particularly big. As you can imagine, customers would come through and in trying on many pairs, would upset the apple carts. I loved the challenge of getting them all back in their place. Better yet, I would love when a big shipment would come in of new styles, and I would have to make room for them along with the existing pairs. I think that I would do it now, just one time, for free just to have the satisfaction of perfectly merchandise sunglasses cases.
As you can see, I sort of was a natural at merchandising and was soon transferred to the County Shop, which was a private label that mirrored a Ralph Lauren collection. The buyer, Beverly Miller, was an icon, and the merchandise in the shop was beautifully designed with rich fabrications. I would argue that it was a better fit and as fine as Ralph Lauren product. I would examine the catalog that would be sent to Field's customers for each season for the shop and merchandise it on the floor exactly as shown on the pages. Our sales went up for the department and though I didn't quite see eye to eye with my manager, who was more suburban and I was still trying to crawl out of my college new wave phase, I was noticed by the downtown management and was offered a position at the State Store, the flagship. When I arrived on December day at the height of the Christmas season, I thought that I had died and gone to retail heaven. The floors creaked, the scent of Paris perfume, which was released that year, wafted through the floors, and the people there were fashionable. I was in Juniors clothing, which was like a barn of clothes that I had a hard time keeping on the rounders and 4-squares, but it was exciting.
I worked in two other departments in my tenure as what would become a management position over ten years, and I happily was a part of a large-scale renovation of the flagship store. I left retail to become a teacher, but I never left behind what is the allure of a department store- beauty, bustle, and assortment. But the department store model is dying, and I am so sad for it. Field's is long gone. Macy's may have been something in New York, but as a national chain, it is horrid. When I walk into Macy's and am greeted by that ugly red that they use for everything including their name, I want to ... go somewhere else. They've killed the beauty of great stores. And their assortment is pedestrian. The best department store that I have been in recently has been Bloomingdale's in New York. Oh, they still have it. I didn't get off of the first floor for time, but it was enough to feel satisfied. That store is spectacularly beautiful.
And now, I read that Lord & Taylor is closing two more locations in Chicago. What is a girl to do? Do you know how much I have come to depend on them. Nordstrom's is okay, but their assortment isn't always my desire, and their sales never reach a truly sweet spot for a department store savvy shopper like myself. Granted, if I need a dress for an occasion, I usually go there first. Online. Nordstrom's has an excellent web site. Bloomingdale's seems to be heading the way of Lord & Taylor in Chicago. I haven't spent nearly the time, in store or online, as I have in the past. But Lord & Taylor? Oh, the coupons. Oh, the POS (point of sale ... like 'take an extra 30% off ... oh, that is music to my ears) and a coupon. Oh, I just bought a cashmere sweater there for less than $30. Of course, I know a sales cycle and know when to shop for what at the best price (and with a coupon). And of course, I know that I may have contributed to the demise of the store because I seldom shopped without a sale (and a coupon). I can remember at Field's the first time that offered coupons to customers, I thought ... ooh, this could become a problem. And it seems that it has.
Give the lady what she wants ... we ladies do have more choice in how to spend our time. I must be some kind of spirit ghost for a lady from the past who liked to be dropped off at 111 North State street to be free of her obligations and live, if only for an hour, admiring fine things in a beautiful setting. I wonder if they had a good sales rack then? Or a coupon?