Chicago without Marshall Field’s?

Marketplace Staff Sep 8, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: You go to the mall. It doesn’t really matter what you need. You’ll find at one of the big department stores there. You go in to Macy’s, don’t find what you’re looking for, so you walk across the mall to the other anchor store.

And you notice it’s Macy’s, too. That’ll be happening all over the country this weekend. Macy’s parent Federated is bringing 400 stores its bought recently into the Macy’s chain. In the Midwest, that’s an especially cruel blow. The much-loved Marshall Field’s will be no more. Commentator and transplanted Chicagoan Gail Heriot says it’s a lousy idea.

GAIL HERIOT: Terry Lundgren, Federated’s Chairman and CEO, ought to be getting a little worried by now, what with all the Field’s loyalists tearing up their new Macy’s cards and sending them back. But he’s a smooth talker. He still insists that customers don’t really care about the name so long as the Field’s traditions are respected. They’ll shop at Macy’s anyway.

Oh, pleeez, Terry. So why are sales already down? And why are thousands of shoppers wearing “Keep It Marshall Field’s” lapel stickers? People in other parts of the country may not care when their regional department stores are absorbed by Macy’s, but Midwesterners know that Macy’s is a giant step down from Marshall Field’s. And they aren’t happy.

Field’s invented the department store. It had the first bridal registry. And the first bargain basement. This Midwestern cathedral of commerce was the first to offer revolving credit or money back guarantees. In a recent poll, Field’s was second only to Nordstrom among department stores in customer service. Macy’s didn’t even make the list.

Field’s most important tradition — top quality merchandise — is already hitting the skids under Macy’s.

High-fashion brands like Prada and Jimmy Choo shoes pulled out after the change was announced. They’re anxious to ensure that their upscale merchandise is sold only in upscale stores. And Macy’s just isn’t.

Armani suits have been replaced with something Macy’s calls “Alfani.” I am not making this up: Alfani. Fashion- minded Chicagoans might laugh if they didn’t want to cry.

Indeed, the whole Macy’s conversion may be shaping up to be Federated’s equivalent of New Coke. We’ll know soon.

Marshall Field himself had a saying: “Give the lady what she wants.” Doing so made him one of the richest men in the world. It’s hard to believe that ignoring customers will make Federated rich.

RYSSDAL: Gail Heriot is a professor of law at the University of San Diego.

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