Four years ago Dayton Hudson purchased the Chicago institution of Marshall Field & Co. If ever there was a department store that was a merchant to the carriage trade, it was Marshall Field's.
It was a landmark; Chicagoans would take their out-of-town guests to see the wonders on display.
It wasn't fashionable and hip, but you could count on a wide selection of quality merchandise.
But in less than half a decade all that has changed. David Snyder, editor of our newspaper Crain's Chicago Business, wrote in his column recently: "Walking into Field's is like walking into a department store in any other city, same merchandise, same feel.
"Increasingly, I'm confused as to what Marshall Field stands for. On one hand, it wants to be Chicago's favorite purveyor of designer clothing. On the other, its stores recently were adorned with Wal-Martspeak slogans: `More low prices. Same high standards."'
CCB received a lot of letters reacting to Dave's column, but no one defended Marshall Field's. As one reader said: "Dayton Hudson has taken the unique Field's shopping experience and turned it into a McTarget experience." Another reader added: "The Chicago retail scene is poorer for the `dumbing down' of Field's."
Are New Yorkers in for the "dumbing down" of Macy's? And also the "dumbing down" of Bloomingdale's to accommodate centralized buying out of Federated's Cincinnati's headquarters? Dayton Hudson, when it bought Marshall Field's, closed down Field's Chicago buying operation. Today it has 13 Chicago-based buyers for 14 area stores. Nordstrom, with only one store so far in the Chicago area, has 45 local buyers.
As Crain publications reported last week, the specialty stores are licking their chops over the Federated-Macy's combination. Because its new owner will probably trim costs by consolidating operations, shoppers may be faced with a more homogeneous array of merchandise. "That in turn may send consumers to specialty shops that carry a good selection of private-label fashions and to off-price chains for labels that get squeezed out," we reported.
And the situation provides "a golden opportunity for Nordstrom's to expand more rapidly" intoNew York, says Greg David, our Crain's New York Business editor.
Department stores are not in the low-cost merchandise business. They are in the entertainment business, and a stroll down their aisles should be fun.
As Dave Snyder puts it: "Even the customer who can only afford to buy something on sale does so because of a retailer's mystique-not because the store is trying to mimic a lower-priced competitor, or worse, be like the old Sears and attempt to be all things to all people."
Alas, the mystery is about to go out of the New York department store business.