By Jack Abelson
It should come as no surprise that Macy’s is finally feeling the pinch of decades wherein price dominated their reason for being, to the exclusion of all else. Please recall the first 12-hour sale in November of 1982 (seems so long ago, does it not?), leading to the era of “Pile’em high and watch ‘em fly” and who needs selling and service. No, Macy’s and other department stores never said the last part of the phrase but that is effectively what they did. Working on their sales floor required two critical abilities: efficiently run the register and be a glorified security guard. Having enough staff with properly trained selling skills? Whatever!
All this focus on price promotion led to the squeezing of resources to make products cheaper but certainly not better and to the dumbing down of assortments to the most basic possible presentation of supposedly “safe” (read “boring”) merchandise, lest it not sell fast enough. Gee, bland goods with no selling led to a poor season; go figure! But, to be fair, Macy’s is not alone here with the entire department store segment falling under the spell of the sirens of reduced labor costs, guaranteed margins covered by the vendors and seemingly endless deals for the consumer. This party would never end, right?
There is no question that unseasonably warm weather hurt Macy’s as it hurt anyone selling cold weather items. But it must be recognized and acknowledged that they were vulnerable; when your entire sales pitch is price, there is literally nowhere to go. Once you cede the playing field to price, you lose all relevance and credibility on any other level. What has been lost is compelling merchandise presented in a compelling manner by knowledgeable salespeople.
What is needed is a return to a day when merchants ran things. For example, when Bloomingdale’s was THE store in America and it was de rigueur for every buyer to make the pilgrimage to 59th Street to see what Bloomie’s was doing because it was simply the best and most exciting. Imagine, if you can, a belt department with snakeskin belts in eight colors: heavily in black, brown and luggage (as we called it then) but also in white, green, blue, purple and red. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find luggage, much less the other non-basic colors. Areas were staffed with well-trained people who were made to feel like what they were, i.e., professionals. That is what will bring retail back, not crazy hours, Christmas beginning in July, opening on Thanksgiving and the other nonsense with which we have become all too accustomed.
Lest anyone think otherwise, I take no pleasure in pointing all this out and fervently wish it would change. But, how exactly will that happen? It could if, as an industry, we get back to what made us great: exciting fashion and great quality product sold by professionals whose efforts are recognized and rewarded. It is never too late to do the right thing, but time is against us. We already have a generation of consumers who have never experienced real service on a regular basis. In the immortal words of a former U.S. President, “If not us, who, and if not now, when?” Sorry, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.
Jack Abelson is an industry consultant with many years of experience in the apparel business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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