Department Stores Bore?

Also in this week’s New Yorker is an excellent article by Adam Gopnik about the rise and fall of the New York City department store. Citing the failings of such retailers as Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s, Gopnik suggests that the department stores that are still successful have redefined themselves as upscale clothing stores with less focus on furniture and cosmetics, stepping away from their storied past offering everything under the sun under one roof. Strategy: Scale back to survive.

Richard Tedlow, a professor at the Harvard Business School, traces the decline of the department store to after World War II, when changing transportation trends and spending habits led to the emergence of shopping malls, which, ironically, have historically been anchored by one or more department stores — enabling smaller specialty stores to thrive in their weakening wake.

But Marvin Traub, dubbed the godfather of the New York department store, says that despite shopping malls and big-box retailers a la Wal-Mart, department stores can still meet needs other retailers don’t — emotional and theatrical needs.

Even if it’s true that department stores are “cathedrals of material aspiration” that “hide acquisitiveness as membership,” their merchant leaders could surely take a page from Paco Underhill, as well as scrappy specialty shops like Anthropologie and perhaps even Pret a Manger. It all comes down to the customer experience, and if department stores no longer meet people’s needs, merchants may need to turn back to the very emotions and theatrics Traub mentions.