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One Stop Shopping

G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

"Can the magic of 59th and Lexington play in Peoria?" was the pregnant question the Daily News Record--the newspaper of the menswear industry--asked last fall when Bloomingdale's opened five new stores, not in Peoria, as it happens, but in California. * Department stores are aggressively on the march. Bloomingdale's, for example, now has 21 far-flung branches and, according to the report in the industry paper, the new California stores are expected "to do between $50 million and $70 million each" in sales this year. They are facing stiff competition: in the Los Angeles area, for example, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom and a host of spirited specialty shops are all within several miles of the Bloomingdale's in Century City. Nordstrom, which has 83 stores in 17 states across the United States, plans to open another three full-line stores this year.

Achieving success in new locations is certainly challenging, and preparations for doing business in the twenty-first century go on apace. Of course, department stores have had well over a century's history to hone their skills.

Shortly after the American Civil War ended, the two engines that most promoted the selling of consumer goods--the mail-order catalog and the department store--came into being. As far back as the late 1860s, dry goods stores were using catalogs to sell their wares by mail. By the turn of the century, about 1,200 mail-order businesses were competing for the more than six million customers available to them.

Department stores had arisen at the same time in the major East Coast cities of New York, Philadelphia and Boston, as well as the Midwest metropolis of Chicago. They developed so rapidly in Chicago, as a result of commercial restructuring after the great fire of 1871, that Theodore Dreiser wrote a chapter about them in his 1900 novel Sister Carrie:

"The nature of these vast retail combinations, should they ever permanently disappear, will form an interesting chapter in the commercial history of our nation. Such a flowering out of a modest trade principle the world had never witnessed up to that time. They were along the line of the most effective retail organization, with hundreds of stores coordinated into one and laid out upon the most imposing and economic basis. They were handsome, bustling, successful affairs, with a host of clerks and a swarm of patrons."

Fashion had always been an aspect of the department store's wares. Fashion merchandising, in the words of William Leach (author of Land of Desire, a history of merchant culture in the United States), "democratized desire." For women, department store fashion quickly introduced a world of aristocratic glamour and exotic allure. For men, it took a while longer. The displays of menswear, as well as the actual clothes themselves, were less glamorous and assuming. Neckwear was the only category of menswear in which some color and dash were seen.

All that has changed, of course. The introduction of sportswear--which gained momentum between the world wars, as the time for and interest in sports increased--altered the look of displays with a greater variety of clothes and colors. This was followed by the designer movement, which came to menswear at the end of the 1950s. Soon there were men's runway fashion shows, colorful displays of everything from athletic shoes and flowery waistcoats to patterned underwear, crayon-colored polo shirts and polypropylene parkas. Perhaps menswear still doesn't vie equally with women's clothes in store displays, but it's close. Men's clothing is still slightly more subtle.

"Actually, I'd call stores like ours specialty stores, rather than department stores," says Derrill Osborn, director of men's clothingat Neiman Marcus. "Not just any department store can sell quality men's clothing, you know. It takes expertise on the part of the sales staff, who must be knowledgeable in cut, fit, fabric, styling. Quality clothing is a personal investment."

Today, if there is one observation to emerge from strolling the menswear departments of these sizable stores, it's that we are living in a fashionably global economy. Manufacturing and designer labels are from everywhere. At the lower end of the clothing manufacturing spectrum, third world countries seem to predominate, while the Italians by and large rule the high end. Prices for suits run the gamut from around $450 for a private-label Metropolitan View at Bloomingdale's to $2,775 for a Brioni at Neiman Marcus. Some designer names such as Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss and Armani are omnipresent, although tailored clothing collections may well be completely different from one store to another. The reason is that stores want agreements of exclusivity regarding fabrics that buyers have selected from these resources. In this sense, it can be said that the store's fashion collections are a cooperative effort between producers and sellers.

Similarities in sportswear are more usual--Ralph Lauren polo shirts and Calvin Klein khakis seem to be ubiquitous, for example--but even there one may find differences in the collection holdings, which can be put down to the "flavor" of the fashion approach, whether it is more heavily traditional or more forward. Here too there is private-label merchandise.


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