Posted by: nickgerlich | November 9, 2007

Field of Dreams

When my younger brother and I were growing up in Chicagoland back in the 1960s, our family had a tradition of going downtown during the Christmas season. We would ride the Illinois Central commuter train from our south suburban hometown, and then spend the day walking up and down State Street and Michigan Avenue. We would look at all the incredible holiday displays the department stores had in their windows, the crowds of shoppers creating warmth to fend off the Chicago chill. And the end of our day was always dinner at The Berghoff, a legendary Chicago institution known for its German food.

But the true highlight of the day was visiting Marshall Field’s flagship store on State Street. This retailing behemoth housed floor after floor of clothing, jewelry, furniture, books, toys, a swank restaurant…and Santa. It was heaven on earth for children, and we would spend hours there. The enormous Christmas tree inside, which rose several floors through the open middle of the building, beckoned to be photographed. Memories were created that, to this day, are as clear as the Chicago horizon as seen from Navy Pier.

But all that tradition came crumbling down for Chicagoans a couple of years ago when Federated Stores bought the May Company, then the owner of Field’s. Federated owns Macy’s, and in an act of sheer corporate ignorance, decided to consolidate all its operations under the Macy’s name.

You know…the Macy’s glamorized in film for the miracles that occurred down on 34th Street in New York City.

The only problem is, when the Macy’s name started replacing old hometown department store names across the country (like Filene’s, Kaufmann’s, and Field’s), Federated unwittingly launched a resistance that was none too happy about the switch. Especially among Chicagoans.

Field'sSo strong has the anti-Macy’s resistance been in Chicago that numerous groups have organized to protest and try to get Federated to change their minds. Macy’s has no connection to Chicago (or Boston, Pittsburgh, etc.), and thus has far less value as a brand name than it does in New York. And downtown is just not the same with the familiar green logo.

I visited Chicago this last summer, taking my family downtown for a walking tour. We went inside Field’s…er…Macy’s, and it simply was not the same. It was painfully quiet in there. You could almost hear a dollar bill drop.

But Federated is not one to let sagging sales cause them headaches. They’re not going to listen to protesters boycotting outside. No, they have adopted a new strategy that essentially flips off the die hard Field’s shoppers.

The plan is to attract shoppers who never went to Field’s in the first place, notably young adults and college students. A wine bar and free wi-fi have been added to try to attract youthful shoppers who now live, work, and/or attend university downtown.

Federated’s deafness in the face of overwhelming protest is the epitome of stubborness. While they claim the protestors are the recalcitrant ones, I find it hard to believe that a retailing conglomerate of such size and seeming intelligence cannot read the writing in their spreadsheets. The downtown Macy’s is sinking into the Chicago River, about the only chance it has of seeing green.

While I understand the potential benefit of consolidating marketing and operations under one banner, Federated must remember they are not Wal-Mart. The latter moved into towns by building new stores, while the former came to town by buying up established entities…entities that were held in deep regard by local residents.

Federated’s insensitivity is appalling. Forget the wine bar and free wi-fi, and figure out what you’re going to do with all that coal in your stocking.

Dr “Spending the Hours Reminiscing” Gerlich

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