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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Macy's Letters Go Up, A Legacy Comes Down

Yesterday, crews arrived to downtown's Railway Exchange Building to begin installation of the giant Macy's sign that will replace the already-removed Famous-Barr sign atop the building. (Famous-Barr's midtown warehouse already sports new lighted Macy's signs, although at night the old signs show behind them and read "M--Y's and "MA---S" instead of a confident "MACY'S.") This passage of signage is the fulfillment of a year-long transition that ends the lifespan of St. Louis' last local department store chain. Famous-Barr was an original tenant of the Railway Exchange, built in 1913.

While the May Company had long allowed the downtown flagship to diminish in quality and allure, the store was a reminder that St. Louis was once a vibrant metropolitan city that had developed fine examples of the modern downtown department store. After the other downtown department stores -- notable Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney in 1967 and Stix, Baer and Fuller in 1984 -- closed, the downtown Famous-Barr remained open and seemed like it would be open forever. Its hours cut back over the years, and its patrons were a small group toward the end. Yet the cultural value of its presence showed that downtown St. Louis still kept one tradition alive, and not in a second-rate fashion but in a particularly local way.

Now the downtown space will be occupied by one of the hundreds of Macy's stores, a fact that insults both St. Louis and New York. Both cities have lost the uniqueness of the brand identity, albeit slowly: the stores had long become chains, changed ownership and standardized merchandise long before Federated bought both Macy's and Famous-Barr. Now, the slump hastens and only the most culturally deprived shoppers will be enthusiastic to shop at Macy's, a name that now denotes only a department store rather than a certain sort of store.

Of course, the downtown department store itself is an endangered species, and has been close to extinction since the late 1960's. Now that downtown St. Louis real estate is highly valued again, perhaps the downtown store here is about to go extinct. The value of the Railway Exchange Building to Federated Department Stores exceeds the value of the store inside. With their move to cut jobs downtown, there will be empty office floors to remodel. The company is also planning to consolidate the store on the five lower levels of the building, vacating two floors used by Famous-Barr. Could it be only a matter of time before the store is liquidated and the building converted to condominiums? The crews working on converting the store have not been remodeling the space as much as putting a new coat of paint on surfaces. The work looks tentative, as does Federated's commitment to downtown.

Whatever happens to the downtown Macy's store, the period of the urban department store is effectively over in St. Louis. We have lost our last downtown department store, a passing that even forty years ago would have attracted more attention than it does today. With the combined factors of population dispersal, market dominance by discount and specialty retailers, the retail downtown centered on the Galleria shopping mall and the May Company's own treatment of the store, the downtown Famous-Barr is mourned by few. Contrast that with Chicago, where Federated is stamping the meaningless Macy's brand on the meaningful and loved downtown Marshall Field's store. This move provoked anger and a petition campaign, neither of which prevented the destruction there because neither caused any economic consequence to Federated's decision.

The cultural consequences of the loss of downtown department stores and of downtown commercial culture are pretty big, though. Still, as long as few people recognize those consequences (and people have had fifty years to recognize them), what difference does closing the the last local downtown department store make to all but a handful of people?

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is an unusually negative posting from you.

On the same facts:

While most downtowns lost their department stores, May Co. kept the downtown Famous -- expensively outdated floor plans, systems, and all. The couple million dollars to repair the innards of the escalators in the old downtown store would have had a much more dramatic impact on a newer Famous in a suburban shopping mall.

Had May closed the downtown store, it would never have re-opened.

Federated did not have to keep a downtown store, but did -- and seems poised to update the systems and freshen the selection of merchandise.

Insult to St. Louis and New York? You're way too quick to take offense.

PE

Claire Nowak-Boyd said...

Richard Callow, you're absolutely right--Michael was too negative.

In the spirit of positivity, rather than criticizing him, I will suggest alternate statements that he could have made. Here goes:

It sure is great of Macy's and Federated not to shutter our city's last urban department store, which they should not do anyway! It's so wonderful of them to give us a golden, gleaming charity handout by not taking away something that we already have. Why, it is as if they made a brand new thing, the way that they are boldly opting not to totally destroy our store! (Don't give me credit for this brilliant paragraph, though--I'm basically paraphrasing from the P-D and mayorslay.com material from the past year.)

Their respect for St. Louis is also evident in other ways. For example, they could have cut ALL of the jobs, rather than just destroying the thousands of lives that they did. They could have NEVER answered any "So will I have a job next month?" questions at all, when instead they graciously chose to shrug or lie to employees--how grand of them to acknowledge that a question had even been asked. And hey, we should all relax, it's not as if my friends who work at Macy's/Federated were depending on those jobs for food or livelihood or anything like that! No sweat, Federated! We should all be happy that our Great Corporation and Great Mayor saved us from a big one!

And hey, while we're thinking positive, let's remember that it's a-ok that Federated will "clothe" St. Louis stores in conservative clothes much plainer than the ones they sell in New York. You have to think from the corporation's perspective, people--we're not the hometown of their brand, we're just one more podunk town, and those big smarties out there know what's best for us. But don't worry, even if you can't wear the same clothes that New York shoppers can, the same bland logo is still on the bag, and that counts for a lot! It's just like being in NYC! I bet in NYC they also have to bow down whenever some great philanthropist gives them a gift by not taking away something they already have!

Yay! I'm so happy I might just go on a shopping spree right at this very moment!

www.tobyweiss.com said...

I worked in the advertising department of the downtown Famous-Barr for almost 14 years. While I often disliked the job, I loved the building and all the undisturbed remains of its glorious, retail past.

Over the years, I watched it shrink from 11 floors to 9 floors to 7 floors. The bargin basement became offices and photo studios, the area that was Santa Land became an employee lounge, and the 3 restaurants somehow survived while remaining frozen in time.

I get a tad choked up every time I see the FB logo being usurped by Macy's. And I want to trust Federated when they insist the dowtown store is important to them. Now would be a fiscally silly time to pull out of that space. And if they do stay, they will surely remove the vaccuum mailtube system from the ancient walls, revamp the Ladies Who Lunch vibe of the 6th floor dining room and throw out the ancient Christmas decorations stashed in hidden corners of the backrooms.

Tom Duda said...

I felt the change acutely, as I needed to pick someone up on Olive Street (adjacent to Metropolitan Square yesterday) and could not find an alternative route. After finding Olive closed, I drove to Sixth Street only to find the same—another downtown street closed during rush hour with no warning and no detour! Perhaps I could spin my observations into a metaphor of sorts, juxtaposing the slow death of May Company with the sudden frenzy that accompanied Federated’s installation of the new sign.

Or I could state the obvious: any St. Louisan who chooses to conflate critical analysis with negativity deserves to wear nothing more than the campy “Midwest” fashions Macy’s will stock at the invigorated downtown store.

Last time I checked, change was something different than progress.

Claire Nowak-Boyd said...

Tom, here is what they will force me to wear for my previous comments:

high style

...it doesn't just say Macy's, it says this is the capital of Macy's Midwest!

To get an idea of the fashions available for men, click here!

Anonymous said...

Wow. I've never been in a city where some residents have such an inferiority complex! Why is anyone talking about NYC? Is Federated based there? No. If you were in NYC I can just hear you know deriding the "hipster gear" that those men behind the curtain in Cincinnati must think city people should wear.

Anonymous said...

^

LOL! I think that "some people" associate Macy's with NYC. At least, that's what I've heard. And I've been there, and it sucks since Federated took over.

Michael Allen said...

Anonymous:

Yes, the inferiority complex of some St. Louisans is always disappointing. I'm dismayed that more people are not mad that Federated doesn't even think St. Louis is superior enough to warrant retaining its own historical department store name.

As for targeting St. Louis and Chicago for frumpier clothing than NYC, it's no joke. The Chicago Tribune ran an article over the summer that quoted a Federated executive who stated that the company was going to give the Midwest a "conservative" clothing line, even in cities. How's that for fostering an inferiority complex?

For the record, I don't know what's wrong with the way the men on the Red Green show dress...looks fine to me.

PE:

I'm not trying to be negative. I'm just criticizing a major cultural change that results in a loss for the city.

I'm glad that Federated will keep the downtown store open for now, but given their history, one cannnot discount the idea that they are doing so because they wanted to buy the Railway Exchange Building itself for its own value.

Anonymous said...

I can't see Macy's offering a more conservative selection than Famous-Barr did/does. Oh, I will miss the Famous-Barr name just as I miss the Stix, Bear, and Fuller name. Though in all honesty that name doesn't mean too much anymore. Isn't it interesting going to the thrift store and finding clothes with the department store name on them? You can't find those names in the department store anymore. This is not a giant cultural leap we are taking, after all May Co had stores nation wide. Maybe in 15 years there will be only three national brand names for anything you buy, then we will go into a depression and they will be wiped out. After we can start all over with true local brands. In the mean time I am glad I can still shop in the Railway Exchange Building.

Tom Duda said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tom Duda said...

Claire:

I think those fashions are dazzling, but they do seem a little risqué for our market… I’m afraid Federated is pushing the envelope a bit too far.

Perhaps something along this! line would be more fitting, since our political system is so medieval.


I wonder if PE would agree…

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I read the Tribune article and what you say is true, but why be angry? The midwest is more conservative - please tell me that this isn't news to you? I'm assuming that you're wearing something today that you like - not something that a corporate monster dressed you in this morning.

Well said re: "great cultural change" - I can see if FB offered really cool, hip, faux-worn, variety of seasonal clothes - they didn't.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I read the Tribune article and what you say is true, but why be angry? The midwest is more conservative - please tell me that this isn't news to you? I'm assuming that you're wearing something today that you like - not something that a corporate monster dressed you in this morning.

Well said re: "great cultural change" - I can see if FB offered really cool, hip, faux-worn, variety of seasonal clothes - they didn't.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Tom. Don't come to me for timely fashion advice.

I've been wearing the same styles -- three button suits and bow ties -- for 30 years.

Maybe you could get Claire to pick something out for you. Michael always looks dapper.

PE

PS Are you back at school yet?

Anonymous said...

Poop

Anonymous said...

You've been wearing the same styles for 30 years? Congratulations. I now understand. Macy's midwest will only be 10 years behind fashion on the coasts!

Sorry for the negativity - I'll take a self-imposed break now.

I'm excited for the new Macy's - just got a couple three-button suits at a store in Cincinnati. Good help, good prices, nice suits. Can't wait to go downtown to shop instead of leaving town!!!

Tom Duda said...

I'm still here in burgeoning STL, as we're on trimesters. Thank you for your interest, PE.

Although we don't agree on this issue, I appreciate being part of a vibrant discussion.

Claire Nowak-Boyd said...

Yeah, who knew some PMS-induced (at least on my part) bad jokes would spur such vibrant debate?

Time to go to bed.... the robot likes to wake me up early to dress me.....

Before I retire, though, I must request that PE not assume that the dynamics of our relationship are just like the dynamics of the one in which he's involved. THNX.

No Name said...

Macy's is pretty much the same wherever you go... the one in NYC on 34th Street is not that great. It is just big, confusing to navigate, and has all the same brands and lines you would find at a Macy's in California or Pennsylvania, just a lot more of it.

I think that many people on here are confusing Macy's with it's higher-end sister chain that Federated also owns: Bloomingdale's... and I can guarantee you that a Bloomie's in St. Louis is WAY FAR OFF in the plans considering Nordstrom has been only somewhat successful in the St. Louis market... and the city already has both a Saks and a Niemann's that both appear to struggle along at Plaza Frontenac.

Macy's has also made the Railway Exchange Building the home of their Midwestern division... which they didn't have to do but did.

As a former May Merchandising Company employee, I was sad to see so many people in Buying, Product Development, and Design loose their jobs and have to be dispersed across the country to find new jobs, but almost anyone who worked for May Company will tell you that the company had a horrible corporate culture with practices that were outdated and systems that were just as outdated to match. It is good that the old, outdated "May Way or the highway" culture has been abolished because it was an ugly way to work and live.

Macy's did St. Louis a GREAT service by putting the Midwest headquarters there and yes, keeping the money-losing downtown store open should be looked at as a favor right now. But with the great renaissance St. Louis' downtown is experiencing, it is only going to benefit them later.

If anybody wants to know who the REAL villain in all of this department store drama is, I would like to point my finger at pompous, slovenly, fat f**k Gene Khan (former May Co. President) for putting this all into motion.

St. Louis also has one more thing to be glad about in all of this: in most places where Macy's and May operated in the same mall, one store had to close due to Federal Trade Commission regulations. So in markets where the two competed, there are now abandonded anchor stores. One can probably expect a whole new genreation of dead malls across the American landscape. Luckily, St. Louis never had Macy's until now so it has been given a reprieve from this outcome of the Macy's-May merger.

Claire Nowak-Boyd said...

Thanks for the interesting feedback, No Name.

I'm at least glad to hear that your job has improved in a lot of ways. The folks I know who work for May/Federated or who have very recently worked there (during the merger process) have had some pretty bad things to say about their work life, but I'm glad that things are at least good in your department.