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Retail Chains Try Facelifts to Lure Back Customers

  • Ted Landphair

A crowded Macy’s department store in New York City the week before Christmas 1941.

A crowded Macy’s department store in New York City the week before Christmas 1941.

Can stores make shopping fashionable again?

Regal independent department stores were once landmarks and the retail bedrock of every American city. Pampered shoppers could sample perfumes, select suits for which tailors would carefully measure them, take the elevator up to Lingerie or Housewares, linger at animated Christmas-window displays, even meet friends for lunch.

Shopping was an adventure.

But toward the end of the 20th Century, discount stores began luring away bargain-hunters, and chic, designer-brand competitors nibbled away at department stores’ high-end customer base. That left them with an unpleasant choice: offer less expensive merchandise, join forces with a rival, or perish. The grand court of Wannamaker’s department store in Philadelphia holds the world’s largest functioning pipe organ. It’s still played twice a day, except on Sunday.

The grand court of Wannamaker’s department store in Philadelphia holds the world’s largest functioning pipe organ. It’s still played twice a day, except on Sunday.

Over the past decade, a wider threat has further crippled retailers - especially those tied to so-called brick-and-mortar stores in shopping malls. Americans began doing a lot of their buying on the Internet and their hand-held phones, knowing that the selection of goods would be wider and that their purchases would often be shipped to them for free.

“The only reason I would go inside any kind of department store anymore is to return something I ordered online,” one California shopper told The New York Times.

So what are department-store chains doing to survive? Many are reviving the old idea that shopping should be glamorous and are remaking their stores. Taking their cue from discount chains, some are offering specialized food and pharmacy items. The May Co. store in Los Angeles, now a branch of the county art museum, was a 'streamline moderne' showplace.

The May Co. store in Los Angeles, now a branch of the county art museum, was a 'streamline moderne' showplace.

Others have adopted a look reminiscent of old-fashioned general stores, with bins of merchandise and booths selling frozen custard or fountain drinks such as New York egg creams.

Now one of the nation’s largest retailers, the J. C. Penney Company, has hired a top Apple computer company executive to give its tired-looking mall stores a suave new look. The idea is to make going shopping pleasurable again - an experience that cannot be duplicated online.

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