by MR Magazine Staff

Letter-to-Karen-Headline-2By 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 jiabelson@aol.com.

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  1. jack, once again you are right on!!!!!!! but as a passionate merchant who still offers service, fit alterations, gift wrapping , delivery and integrity in a boutique environment {which makes us a dinosaur} i believe we need a new business model. filling a wonderful space with all the above and beautiful merchandise has lost its urgency for even the live clients to buy. there is less traffic, due to many new factors the internet [ which takes the energy out of the buying experience and gives people more info than they need to make “got to have” purchases, the off price mania { now every person is looking to make a deal} which was spearheaded by the department stores who are now trying to own that business with their off price fakes, global collection stores, which are at an advantage as they can move money around the world, keep factories busy etc. I believe a single independent can only survive today being in hotels and resorts where people are in a different frame of mind with focused happy quality collections that are not over distributed. there are still live clients out there and i still intend to serve them.

  2. I love your stories because they are so true. I’ve been in the fashion business 38 years so I can testify to everything your saying is right about the world we are living in today as far as people’s shopping habits are concerned. I also live in NYC so I do remember when Bloomingdales was the trendy department store. Both Jack and Stuart seem to be great veterans of the fashion industry and I only hope the department stores are reading what is said because yes they are so boring these days and that is why they are closing up. The fashion flock is not shopping these stores but either cheap stores such as H & M or designer stores themselves. I know this from attending NY Fashion week and trade shows for over 20 years. As I attended the women’s trade shows this past week and talked to vendors I realized the independent stores were also gone due to big chains, department stores and the internet. This is very sad because this is how trade show vendors make business. I don’t know how to fix the situation but maybe the two men I mentioned above do. I think we need to bring back the boutiques and have less chain stores for fashion to flourish again. I’m saying this from being a former road rep who lost her job when the NY metro area independents closed up.

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