Department store sales have been declining.
Department store sales have been declining. - 
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The latest retail sales numbers from the Census Bureau show increases for almost every kind of store, except three. Gas stations (see also crashing oil prices), electronics (note  Radio Shack’s bankruptcy) and department stores. 

A hundred years ago, department stores like Macy’s in New York and Marshall Field’s in Chicago weren’t just places to buy stuff. They were destinations — especially for women  — and local icons.

As described by Jan Whitaker, author of “Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, "they offered customers something like an entire world.

 "When women went shopping there, they might spend hours within an individual store," she says. "Especially if they ate lunch or went to the hairdresser."

Or brought in bills to pay, or a watch to be repaired. Or consulted with a decorator, or a travel agent. "There were so many possibilities there that could consume your time," she says.

Whiling away the hours is no longer every consumer’s dream, and Whitaker says the rise in women’s employment was as big a factor as any in shifting the market. Discounters like Walmart were open in the evening, a convenience for working women.

Today, Nordstrom may be the bright light among department stores, according to Cowen and Company analyst Oliver Chen. The company has a thriving web presence, the discount arm Nordstrom Rack and a strong reputation for selection and service.

But is Nordstrom really a department store? Can you even buy a coffeemaker there? Or a suitcase, or dishes?

"I don’t even know the answer to that," Chen admits (the answer is "no").

However, Chen says, women’s clothes are the bread and butter for all department stores, including those that sell toasters. It also remains the areas where department stores retain their biggest advantage: having the merchandise right there — and lots of it — ready to be tried on. "Like those skinny jeans you find appealing, or that stretch denim," Chen says. "I mean, you might want to look at that stretch."

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Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann