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Department Stores

Copyright © 2005 by David E. Ross

Recently, my wife and I saw the King Tut exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The museum is on Wilshire Boulevard between Fairfax and La Brea Avenues, a portion of Wilshire known as the "Miracle Mile".

Before I was born — decades before the first mall was ever designed — the Miracle Mile was initially developed as an area of retail shopping. My mother took me there to buy my clothes, even before I was old enough to attend school. After I was married and we had children, the Miracle Mile was still a thriving street of department stores, boutiques, jewelry shops, and restaurants.

The buildings reflected some of the best of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture. They fronted on Wilshire with their main entrances on wide sidewalks. Vast parking lots were hidden in back, also with impressive entrances.

I remember that the May Company (five stories high) had an observer on the roof. There were loud speakers on poles in the parking lot. The observer would use this public address system to direct drivers to parking spaces. "Blue car, there is a space at the end of the aisle." "White car, there are spaces in the next aisle to your right."

Today, the department stores are all departed from the Miracle Mile. There is little retail business at all. The street still has a few restaurants. Office towers either replaced the department stores or occupied their renovated buildings. LACMA, which originally occupied a small portion of Hancock Park now stretches two blocks west and occupies part of the May Company building.

Department stores originated in the 19th century, possibly through an evolutionary combination of the small-town general store and the mail-order businesses of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Today, comments in the news media suggest that they are on their way to extinction. According to those comments, shoppers prefer specialty shops.

In the Los Angeles where I was born and raised, there were a number of department stores: Bullock's, The Broadway, J.C. Penney, J.W. Robinson's. Some were entirely local: Coulter's, Desmond's, Buffum's. Others were part of national chains: The May Company, Saks 5th Avenue. On the Miracle Mile, we also had international chains: Orbach's, Seibu. While some focused only on women customers — I. Magnin and Joseph Magnin (each founded by a brother of Rabbi Edgar Magnin, whose Wilshire Boulevard Temple was east of the Miracle Mile) — most were for the broadest possible customer base.

We also knew of department stores based in other cities that did not have stores in Los Angeles: Macy's and Gimble's in New York, Marshall Field's in Chicago, Wannamaker's in Philadelphia, and Nieman Markus in Dallas. Much of the world knows of Harrod's in London, which even has a meat department. Another London department store is Selfridge's, from which I used to mail-order Yardley aftershave lotion when it was no longer available in the U.S. (When Yardley stopped making men's toiletries, I grew a beard.)

Years ago, two things were common to all department stores. First of all, each name represented a business independent of the others. There was no conglomerate such as Federated controlling several different chains. Second, each store had its own buyers to select the merchandise that was sold. There was no central buying. Combined, these features meant there was a variety of merchandise. If I could not find what I wanted at one store, I might indeed find it at another store. Of course, this meant that the merchandise in Los Angeles department stores was oriented to the styles, climate, and demographics peculiar to the area.

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"You want a short-sleeve dress shirt? But it's November. We don't stock that in the winter."

Less than 15 miles from my house, the temperature outside the store was 75°.

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Today, there are only a few conglomerates controlling the entire industry. And they have central buying. There is a frustrating sameness to the merchandise from one store to the next, even among stores controlled by different corporations. If I can't find the shirt I want at Macy's, I know I won't find it at Mervyn's or J.C. Penney. Everything is the same, not merely from one store to the next but across the country. Thus, because of cold weather in New York, from October to March I can't find clothes suitable for the mild weather here in southern California.

More than anything promoted by the specialty shops, this lack of variety is driving customers away. By stocking merchandise without any variation between chains and without considering local needs and desires, the department stores are committing suicide.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

7 August 2005

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