From Retail Palace to Zombie Mall: How Efficiency Killed the Department Store

May 5th, 2014

The once-vibrant shopping mall has one foot in the grave these days. About 20 percent of the 2,000 largest U.S. malls were failing in 2008, and by 2012, only 1,513 remained in operation. Current numbers predict more than 200 existing big malls will collapse in the next 10 years. Search the phrase, “dead malls,” and you’ll find photo after photo of tiled walkways littered with debris, untended planters near the darkened rest areas for bored dads, and empty indoor storefronts—the discolored shadows of their missing lighted signs lingering like ghosts.

“Today, we shop as if we know about everything that we’re shopping for, but in the mid-century, you trusted your department store.”

Often, the mall’s anchors, the big chain department stores, are the first to go. It seems that the 2008 recession and dominance of the Internet—where you can buy anything and everything with a few clicks—have taken their toll on brick-and-mortar behemoths like JCPenney, Sears, and even Macy’s. As the Computer Age thrusts us into the future, would-be mall rats are spending all their time on Facebook, and the breath-taking range of products, once so meticulously displayed for our delight, is being crammed into our PCs, tablets, and smartphones.

But 60 years ago, these same department stores, particularly the new branches installed in fledging suburban shopping malls, were the way to the future. Post-World War II prosperity meant returning vets and their wives could ditch the turmoil of overcrowded cities, the frugal values of the Depression, and the frilly heirlooms of the Victorian Era. They would build their dream homes in the suburbs and fill them with shiny new appliances and furnishings made of cutting-edge materials, like acrylic and fiberglass, developed for the war. There, housewives would throw away their Rosie the Riveter coveralls and reclaim their “femininity” with new dresses, fashion accessories, and beauty products.

Top: The Art Deco exterior of Bullock's Wilshire luxury department store in Los Angeles, built in 1929, was designed by architects John and Donald Parkinson. (Via TenOver6.com) Above: The Raymond Loewy-designed interior of the girls' clothing department in Bloomingdale's in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1959. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

Top: The Art Deco exterior of Bullock’s Wilshire luxury department store in Los Angeles, built in 1929, was designed by architects John and Donald Parkinson. (Via TenOver6.com) Above: The Raymond Loewy-designed interior of the girls’ clothing department in Bloomingdale’s in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1959. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

Of course, this surge of consumers needed somewhere to go, explains Alessandra Wood, a design historian who blogs at Huffington Post and is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on mid-century department stores for the University of Delaware. Into the void stepped forward-thinking designer Raymond Loewy, who took the fusty, old concept of the department store and reinvented it for these eager shoppers. As the young couples were drawn into these stores to start their new lives, Loewy and other designers were gently ushering them into the Modern Age of Design. Ultimately, Loewy didn’t just alter American style or tastes, he changed the way Americans consume.

“In the early 20th century, department stores, located downtown, were opulent and over the top, reflecting the Victorian and Edwardian obsession with excess and wealth,” Wood says. “To most people, they were aspirational spaces celebrating what you couldn’t have, unless you were extremely wealthy. In the mid-century, there’s still a bit of an aspirational ideal in department stores, but it’s much more toned down. With the booming middle class and the introduction of credit cards, the shopping experience is much more about what you can have.”

At his namesake firm Raymond Loewy Associates, the esteemed industrial designer—who’s known for redesigning Coca-Cola vending machines, Lucky Strike packages, Coldspot refrigerators, and the Studebaker Avanti—and his partner, William Snaith, came up with a standard vision for modernizing department stores in the late 1940s. It was rolled out in remodeled New York City flagship stores like Gimbels, Bloomingdale’s, and Lord & Taylor. Then it spread across the country through downtown stores and new suburban branches. Soon, department-store chains like Neiman Marcus and Foley’s based in Texas and JCPenney based in Wyoming adopted the Loewy plan as well.

The juvenile shoes department at the Raymond Loewy designed Lord & Taylor in Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, in 1955. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

The juvenile shoes department at the Raymond Loewy designed Lord & Taylor in Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, in 1955. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

“The stores were designed to create an expansive view so you could come off of the escalator, look around, and see all of the well-labeled departments, instead of having the departments walled off,” Wood says. “It was all about paring down the interior. The stores were beautiful spaces that looked and felt modern to people and were simple to walk around. And Loewy’s plan wasn’t just about how shoppers experienced the space, but how the stores could more efficiently sell their merchandise.”

Victorian department stores were not only sectioned off into myriad departments, they were also dark, crowded places, with merchandise stuffed in imposing glass cases and dense wood furniture. That’s why when Loewy debuted his vision at the Gimbels in downtown New York with a pastel color scheme and “invisible” fixtures in 1948, it caused a stir.

“He really created a much brighter and lighter atmosphere,” Wood says. “Fixtures go from being very heavy pieces of furniture to being these ‘invisible’ pieces that really highlight the merchandise. Modular and movable, they could house stock within them and grow or shrink, depending on the merchandise that you wanted to display that season or that month.”

Women's clothing on display at a Loewy-designed Gimbels in Valley Stream, Long Island. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

Women’s clothing on display at a Loewy-designed Gimbels in Valley Stream, Long Island. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

Fixtures might seem like a small thing, but they were key to drawing in postwar shoppers, who were growing hooked on modern convenience and efficiency—at the time, cafeterias, drive-ins, and automats were way more exciting than sit-down restaurants. Of course, high-end department stores, like Ransohoff’s in San Francisco, continued to offer the full-service shopping experience. High-society ladies still enjoyed getting dressed from head-to-toe, the way you see Jimmy Stewart having saleswomen remake Kim Novak in 1958’s “Vertigo.” But by and large, the booming mid-century middle class wanted shopping autonomy.

“In the mid-century, Americans were wanting and buying more,” Wood says. “In response, the department stores offered and displayed more, like the same purse in five colors. There was a new desire to let shoppers see and touch all the merchandise. Before this change, department stores would have everything behind the glass case, with just one sample out. You’d have to ask the salesgirl, ‘Hey, do you have any other colors?,’ and she would search the stockroom for you. The new stores would have had everything out so shoppers could walk around, see it all, and then choose something on their own and take it to the sales counter.”

The first Macy's department store (at left) opened in New York City in 1858. The store moved to Herald Square in 1906 (right) and expanded to 2.2 million square in 1924. (Via Ephemeral New York)

The first Macy’s department store (at left) opened in New York City in 1858. The store moved to Herald Square in 1906 (right) and expanded to 2.2 million square in 1924. (Via Ephemeral New York)

The earliest department stores appeared in England during the Industrial Revolution, when the middle class first emerged. Harding, Howell & Co., for example, opened in London in 1796 with four separate rooms: One for furs and coats, another for women’s clothing, another for men’s clothing, and a fourth for jewelry, accessories, and toiletries. One of the longest-lasting department stores in England is Bennetts, which opened in Derby in 1734 as a store specializing in ironware and now offers a wide range of home décor and housewares.

“In the mid-century, convenience was defined as a place to shop within your town. Our notion of convenience now is not leaving our houses.”

Of course, markets and bazaars featuring different vendors selling a variety of goods existed long before the department store. The big difference was at a department store, all the individual shops belonged to the same business, so they had consistent policies. (To small-time shopkeepers, these new department stores threatened their livelihood the way Amazon upsets brick-and-mortar retail today.) In New York City, A.T. Stewart pioneered this new format: his eight-story, 19-department “Iron Palace” offered goods carefully curated from around the world—from clothes to carpets, toys to china—for fixed prices, meaning no haggling was necessarily. His store offered customers special services like free delivery and waiting rooms.

During the 19th century, some of the most iconic flagship department stores opened their doors: Kendals, Harrods, and Bainbridges in England; Macy’s and Lord & Taylor opened in New York City; Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia; Marshall Field & Company and Carson Pirie Scott in Chicago. By the turn of the century, every city worth its salt had a department store downtown—and they just grew bigger and bigger. In 1924, Macy’s in New York City’s Herald Square consumed another block to take up 2.2 million square feet, making it the world’s largest store, up until recently. It’s still the biggest in the United States; J.L. Hudson’s in Detroit, which grew to 25 floors of retail space in with 11 add-ons built between the store’s opening 1911 and 1946, came close, falling just short of 2.2 million square feet.

Eleanor LeMaire was in charge of overseeing the interior design of the Bullock's Wilshire, which was all about the emotional experience of the store, which opened in 1929. Jocks Peters was one of the most important designers on the project, and Henry Sachs painted the ceiling mural. (Via TenOver6.com)

Eleanor LeMaire was in charge of overseeing the interior design of the Bullock’s Wilshire, which was all about the emotional experience of the store, which opened in 1929. Jocks Peters was one of the most important designers on the project, and Henry Sachs painted the ceiling mural. (Via TenOver6.com)

But department stores didn’t really update their format to suit changing customer tastes until the 1930s. Bullock’s in Los Angeles pioneered this movement when it hired young New York interior designer Eleanor LeMaire to modernize its downtown flagship store in 1926. After that, she was charged with coordinating the decorating scheme for the store’s first luxury branch, Bullock’s Wilshire, which opened in 1929. She employed 13 interior designers to work on the breathtaking Art Deco masterpiece, most notably Jock Peters, who designed each department to reflect the emotional tone of the goods it offered. Because the experience of the design was such a priority, clothes and accessories were displayed in flat glass cases on rosewood stands or on live mannequins so that hanging racks wouldn’t interfere with the view.

“The stylistic changes in 1930s retail were starting to reflect ideas of streamlining and European moderne, based on looking at World’s Fairs and what was happening in industrial design,” Wood says. “In the ’30s, a Federal Housing Administration-backed program gave loans to Main Street businesses in small towns to help them modernize their stores. The government believed the upgrade would bolster the economy during the Depression. So people were talking about what a modern retail space should look like—with large-plate glass display windows, chrome hardware, and modern lighting—and that became central to what a modern department store was. In the  ’40s and the ’50s, these ideas were pushed even further, so they start to incorporate not just materials but also modern conveniences.”

The exterior of a late-1940s Loewy designed Lord & Taylor in Manhasset, New York. (Via MrBluehaunt.blogspot.com, from "Contemporary Shops in the United States: 1945-47")

The exterior of a late-1940s Loewy designed Lord & Taylor in Manhasset, New York. (Via MrBluehaunt.blogspot.com, from “Contemporary Shops in the United States: 1945-47″)

By the late 1940s, Raymond Loewy had already made a name for himself as a futurist design visionary. But it wasn’t just because of his Art Deco stylings; Loewy made everything he touched work better. So when he took on conceptualizing department stores, which had employed him as a window dresser early in his career, he approached them the same way he would a Studebaker or a locomotive. How do you make these places run more smoothly?

“The Raymond Loewy plan wasn’t just about the aesthetics,” Wood says. “He did in-depth studies of how these department stores functioned including what managers and salespeople were doing. He’d basically present the store with a plan on the best way to run their business. He found that people wanted to be able to go into a store and not have to wait for help. They wanted to be able to see everything in stock. They wanted to be able to have it instantly, and that’s what would facilitate selling.”

For example, Loewy employed a combination of incandescent and new fluorescent lighting, as well as spotlights, to emphasize particular items for sale. Wood says, “he created an atmosphere where people’s eyes would feel relaxed, and they could be directed towards certain products.”

In Season 1 of "Mad Men," Don Draper tells Rachel Mencken that the fictional New York department store her father founded needs a modern upgrade for 1960.

In Season 1 of “Mad Men,” Don Draper tells Rachel Mencken that the fictional New York department store her father founded needs a modern upgrade for 1960.

Not only did the design influence where a shopper’s eyes would go, it also influenced the steps that shopper would take through the store. “In a department store, there’s a tile path or flooring that you feel compelled to walk on, because you’re not going to cut through the carpeted area that has all of the fixtures to get from one place to another,” Wood says. “So you follow that path, which leads you where the store wants you to go. It leads you away from the exits and toward the interior. When you want to go up, the elevators are always hidden so that you’re more likely to take the escalator. Once you get to the next level, you have to walk all the way around the other side to keep going up, so you see everything showcased on that floor.”

Early in the century, the first escalators were a hard sell because high-society ladies wouldn’t use them, but by the ’50s, escalators were a central feature of most department stores. “Escalators have this weird history of being thought of as low-brow,” Wood says. “I’ve seen multiple references to the fact that women of a higher class did not want to use escalators. When the flagship Foley’s in Houston was redesigned by Raymond Loewy, he kept elevators to appeal to the carriage-trade women. They could come in and take the elevator, which would deliver them directly to the high-end floor.”

The escalators at Gimbels in Yonkers, New York, in 1955. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

The escalators at Gimbels in Yonkers, New York, in 1955. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

In addition to the escalators and new forms of lighting, new department stores featured another marvel of modern technology: central air. The heating, air-conditioning, and bright lights eliminated the need for windows, so in the 1950s and ’60s, stores without windows were built inside new shopping malls. “It was all a part of creating this shopping atmosphere that felt modern,” Wood says. “Everything about it made people want to shop. Air-conditioning, which most people didn’t have at home, was a huge draw, especially in places like Texas where it’s oppressively hot.”

The concept of the indoor shopping mall is often credited to Viennese American architect Victor Gruen, who first described this wild dream of a huge enclosed air-conditioned space packed with stores, day cares, libraries, post offices, community halls, and art in a 1952 article in “Progressive Architecture.” Gruen introduced his predecessor to the modern mall in 1954, Northland Center, an open-air shopping center for Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He followed that up with his first enclosed climate-controlled shopping center called Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, in October 1956.

Victor Gruen's Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, (shown in 2009) is widely believed to be the first enclosed shopping center in the United States. (By Bobak Ha'Eri/WikiCommons)

Victor Gruen’s Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, (shown in 2009) is widely believed to be the first enclosed shopping center in the United States. (By Bobak Ha’Eri/WikiCommons)

While Gruen’s Edina location is widely hailed as the first modern shopping mall, the indoor Valley Fair Center in the small town of Appleton, Wisconsin, may actually have beat him to the punch, opening in March 1955. Unlike the others, the Valley Fair mall was located only one mile from downtown.

“The department stores and the shopping malls took the place of downtown, as the place where you went to socialize and get a glimpse of culture.”

“In a suburban mall, the anchor department stores were smaller than the massive city department stores,” Wood says, “but they could be. They knew exactly who their shopping demographic was because it was just the people who lived in the community. They knew exactly what items they needed to have for them. Initially, they would still expect those people to come into the city store on occasion. But by the ’60s, stores started to realize people weren’t coming in to downtown anymore; they were staying at their suburban locations. Those branches were outperforming the city stores. Sometimes companies even closed down the city stores.”

The first indoor shopping mall on the East Coast, Gruen’s Cherry Hill Shopping Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, opened in 1961. For suburban housewives who felt isolated while their husbands worked, department stores in shopping malls were a saving grace. These women could pack their children into the car, get away from the house, and interact with other adults while running errands. Shopping wasn’t just a duty; it became a source of pleasure.

In 1950s and ’60s, Bloomingdale's advertised exclusive designs offered in its "Green Room," such as these gowns by the label Sutton Place at the Hackensack store in 1959. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

In 1950s and ’60s, Bloomingdale’s advertised exclusive designs offered in its “Green Room,” such as these gowns by the label Sutton Place at the Hackensack store in 1959. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

“In the 1950s and ’60s, you see this shift where shopping becomes a pastime and a hobby, especially in the suburbs,” Wood says. “The mall would have the grocery store, a liquor store, a pharmacy, a bakery, and then your department stores. You could drive there, take your little children around in a carriage, and spend the whole day there because there would be at least one restaurant in the department store.”

Eventually, malls became all about pleasure and replaced grocery stores with food courts, arcades, movie theaters, and specialized retail. But in the ’50s and ’60s, before suburban grocery stores and utilitarian businesses got their own buildings and parking lots, malls stepped into the former role of Main Street. While Gruen’s vision pictured malls as the new town square, they were private and not public spaces, where “suspicious” characters could be removed by security guards.

“In the ’60s, there was a lot of unrest around race and class in urban areas, and women in the suburbs would have been scared to drive into downtown alone with their children,” Wood says. “The mall was a place they could feel safe driving to, because they didn’t have to leave the comforts of suburbia. The department stores and, at that point, the shopping malls became community centers, really. They became the old downtown area, which is where you might have gone in the past to socialize and get a glimpse of culture.”

William Pahlmann's Tent Room for Lord & Taylor in 1939.  (Via IndecorousTaste.com)

William Pahlmann’s Tent Room for Lord & Taylor in 1939. (Via IndecorousTaste.com)

One way these mid-century shoppers got a taste of culture was through model rooms that showcased the latest designs and educated homemakers about the Modern Movement. Thanks to department stores, Modernism had a vehicle to move out of lofty urban art galleries and into the average family home.

“Every season in the 1940s, William Pahlmann would do a suite of model rooms for Lord & Taylor,” Wood says. “His legacy of the model room is something that lives on. Through the 1970s, Bloomingdale’s was working with Barbara D’Arcy, who did model rooms for them, very much in this William Pahlmann style, which was sometimes very fantastical and sometimes very standard and normal. People would come every season to see the rooms change; it was a big attraction. These interior designers were celebrities in their day. In advertisements promoting the model rooms, the fact William Pahlmann or Barbara D’Arcy designed them was a big selling point.”

A Bloomingdale's model room by Barbara D'Arcy featuring "flame stitch" wallpaper. (Via ThePeakofChic.blogspot.com, from "House & Garden's Complete Guide to Interior Decoration")

A Bloomingdale’s model room by Barbara D’Arcy featuring “flame stitch” wallpaper. (Via ThePeakofChic.blogspot.com, from “House & Garden’s Complete Guide to Interior Decoration”)

Housewives who might be intimated by the new colors, spare lines, and undulating curves of Mid-Century Modern furnishings could see them in the context of model rooms and see how to make them work with the furnishings she might already have.

“A lot of the very Modern pieces of furniture would’ve been surprising to some people,” Wood says. “A lot of people stuck with traditional ideas, which we know because Colonial Revival style was still popular in the 1950s. But seeing the Modern pieces being used encouraged people to buy them. These model rooms were redefining our visual vocabulary.

Often, D'Arcy model rooms for Bloomingdale's would combine many different styles, including Modernist and traditional furnishings. (Via ThePeakofChic.blogspot.com, from Barbara D'Arcy's "Bloomingdale's Book of Home Decorating" from 1973)

Often, D’Arcy model rooms for Bloomingdale’s would combine many different styles, including Modernist and traditional furnishings. (Via ThePeakofChic.blogspot.com, from Barbara D’Arcy’s “Bloomingdale’s Book of Home Decorating” from 1973)

“Most people weren’t going to just give up everything they had and buy a whole new suite of furniture,” she continues. “Even though each room was created by a big-name interior designer, that designer didn’t use just one product line, like Hickory Furniture Company. The room might have one piece from Hickory Furniture, and then 20 pieces from 20 other different manufacturers. So instead just spotlighting a blue-and-white vase on its own, it was set up so you could see how someone might use it in a setting, and that could give you inspiration to put it in your own setting. You could think, ‘I could be eclectic like that. I could combine this Danish Modern piece with my Colonial Revival table.’”

Outside of the model rooms, department stores were particularly important when it came to convincing consumers they could use strange new materials in their homes like Formica, fiberglass, vinyl, or Lucite. These materials were even incorporated into the design of the store itself, making consumers more willing to use similar objects at home.

Other D'Arcy model rooms were wildly Modernist. In "Bloomingdale's Book of Home Decorating," D'Arcy says, "This room would certainly belong to a member of the Saturday Generation," meaning teenagers. (Via nadja robot's Flickr, from Barbara D'Arcy's "Bloomingdale's Book of Home Decorating" from 1973)

Other D’Arcy model rooms were wildly Modernist. In “Bloomingdale’s Book of Home Decorating,” D’Arcy says, “This room would certainly belong to a member of the Saturday Generation,” meaning teenagers. (Via nadja robot’s Flickr, from Barbara D’Arcy’s “Bloomingdale’s Book of Home Decorating” from 1973)

“Instead of having a painted or a wallpapered wall, a store might have a wall made of plastic, or if not plastic, a high-shine material that looked plastic-y,” Wood says. “Then people became used to those materials, and those materials became less scary. Things like Formica would be used for display tables, and then you’d see Formica sold for your kitchen counters or on a table that you’d want to buy. I think it’s less scary, even if it’s subconscious, when you’ve connected that with being a modern material.”

For example, the Eames shell chair—which is now a coveted collectible—was a strange, new piece of fiberglass furniture offered at a 1950s department store. But it received an award from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, in collaboration with Merchandise Mart of Chicago, which put on an annual “Good Design” showcase, starting in 1949. Having this MOMA stamp of approval helped make the Eames chair a staple of mid-century furnishings.

“‘Good Design’ awards were given out so that a general middle-class consumer could make smart buying decisions,” Wood says. “The consumer could say, ‘This new molded fiberglass chair seems weird to me, but I know it is a good choice because the museum said so.’ They were meant to be affordable, comfortable, and beautiful at the same time—just very simple everyday objects. You might have a whole cafeteria filled with Eames chairs or a dorm room with an Eames chair. They weren’t considered iconic pieces in the same way they are today.”

Powerhouse Mid-Century Modern furniture designer couple Charles and Ray Eames work on some of their famous chairs. (Via Teakhound)

Powerhouse Mid-Century Modern furniture designer couple Charles and Ray Eames work on some of their famous chairs. (Via Teakhound)

But it’s unlikely department stores will ever have that much influence on American tastes and culture again. As much power as the department stores were gaining in the mid-century, they faced their first serious threat in the ’60s: the discount box store. Combining the cheap convenience of a five-and-dime store like Woolworth’s with the specialized sections of a department store, Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target all debuted in 1962 and, in the following decades, popped up all over the United States.

“These stores were even more tailored toward complete self-sufficiency,” Wood says. “There is a real difference in how you navigate the through the store. You walk around with your cart. And then you go to one central checkout, as opposed to the checkout in a specific department, and pay for everything all at once. You have the concession stand, so you maybe get a snack, but you’re not going to spend the whole day there, because you can’t get a whole meal.”

In 1988, Wal-Mart introduced its first Supercenter, a combination of its standard discount department store with a full grocery store, as well as other services like shoe repair or fast food. As Wal-Mart opened more and more Supercenters in the 1990s and 2000s, Target and Kmart also opened “super” stores offering groceries. These days, even suggesting a trip to Wal-Mart will send people into a state of exasperation. Same goes for the mall. Has the shopping experience been drained of all its pleasures?

The Loewy-designed men's department in Bloomingdale's in Hackensack, New Jersey in 1959. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

The Loewy-designed men’s department in Bloomingdale’s in Hackensack, New Jersey in 1959. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

“It’s an older idea of shopping, where you spend half a day at the mall, being leisurely about it, wandering through the stores, and getting lunch,” Wood says. “You maybe buy something, or maybe you don’t, but you go just be at the mall.”

“You could think, ‘I could be eclectic like that. I could combine this Danish Modern piece with my Colonial Revival table.’”

Perhaps the lack of the enthusiasm comes from the big box stores full of low-quality goods made overseas. And when it comes to something we need, we want it immediately. “We have different ideas of efficiency now,” Wood says. “We want to shop with as little intrusion by anyone else as possible. Self-checkout is one of, in my opinion, the least efficient tools in the world, yet everyone is obsessed with using self-checkout at the grocery store. It’s so much faster to just wait in line and have someone check out for you.”

Self-checkout debuted in 1992, just a few years before the World Wide Web made online shopping widely accessible to everyone. Amazon and eBay, both launched in 1995, taught us to be even more self-sufficient shoppers—at this point, the two Internet giants offer everything you’d find at Wal-Mart and more. Other online retailers, like Zappos and ModCloth, focus on the kinds of fashion you’d find at department stores. Of course, Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, Nordstrom, Macy’s, JCPenney, Sears, and IKEA all offer robust selections online as well. In exchange for all this convenience, perhaps we’re less concerned making a mistake, by wasting our money ordering the wrong thing.

The sports department designed by William Pahlmann in Bonwit Teller in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1951. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

The sports department designed by William Pahlmann in Bonwit Teller in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1951. (Via the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection at the Library of Congress)

“In the mid-century, convenience was defined as a place to shop within your town, within a 5- or 10-minute drive from your house,” Wood says. “Whereas our notion of convenience now is not leaving our houses. These ideas of self-sufficiency and self-service have been pushed so far that you go on Amazon and you just say, ‘This is what I want.’ Amazon says, ‘Okay, here’s everything we have that matches that description,’ and then you choose. In actuality, I think Amazon is highly inefficient if you don’t know what you’re buying because you don’t have anyone to help you and say, ‘No, actually, this is better than that.’ Today, we shop as if we know about everything that we’re shopping for, but in the mid-century, you trusted that your department store was going to sell you something that was good.”

“In the ’60s, there was a lot of unrest in urban areas, and women in the suburbs would have been scared to drive into downtown.”

These days, retailers are particularly concerned with the concept of “showrooming,” which means consumers go look at an item in the store, and then go home to order it online. Big bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders are closing down, electronic retailers like Best Buy and RadioShack keep shuttering locations, and even the relentless growth of Wal-Mart and Target has been slowed. Wood could care less about the box stores, but she will be disheartened if the traditional department stores die out completely.

“What still draws me to go to department stores—because I still love department stores—is having tangible goods in front of you and being able to touch, to see, and to feel what it is that’s being sold,” Wood says. “You lose a lot when you don’t see an array of goods—your ability to compare quality and price, and see exactly what the store has to offer. When you’re shopping online, you’re just relying on anonymous online reviews, and sometimes, other people have bad opinions. I want to be able to buy things that represent me and not what represents someone else and what they want. I think that will be the saddest part if there are no more department stores.”

A room for trying on shoes at the 1940s Loewy designed Lord & Taylor in Manhasset, New York. (Via MrBluehaunt.blogspot.com, from "Contemporary Shops in the United States: 1945-47")

A room for trying on shoes at the 1940s Loewy designed Lord & Taylor in Manhasset, New York. (Via MrBluehaunt.blogspot.com, from “Contemporary Shops in the United States: 1945-47″)

But there is hope for the department-store anchored mall in America after all, according to a 2013 survey by Glimcher Realty Trust, part of its RetailMonitor series studying consumer behavior. Turns out, consumers say they like the shopping mall for the same reasons Wood does—and malls will succeed if they provide the right balance of shopping, entertainment, and community. As Sears and JCPenney branches shut down, surviving malls are replacing their anchor spots with fitness centers, grocery stores, and attractions such as children’s museums and ice rinks and filling in the other storefronts with services like hair salons.

“The survey findings show consumers seek an all-around shopping experience,” says Marianne Bickle, director of the University of South Carolina’s department of retailing, who consulted on the survey, in a statement. “From the moment they enter the mall, consumers begin to enjoy the tactile experiences, ambiance of the environment and aromas of the stores and restaurants.”

Michael P. Glimcher, CEO of Glimcher agrees: “While shopping will always be the primary reason people go to the mall, the survey supported our notion that going to the mall is about the experiences—whether that’s having a salad and a glass of wine with your girlfriends or enjoying a movie on a Friday night.”

Those sights, smells, and tactile experience are things the Internet can’t replicate—yet.

A Flickr snapshot of a "dead mall" with an empty anchor store. (Via DeathandTaxesMag.com)

A Flickr snapshot of a “dead mall” with an empty anchor store. (Via DeathandTaxesMag.com)

(Follow Alessandra Wood’s column at Huffington Post. Recommended reading: The Department Store Museum web site. Jan Whitaker’s “The World of Department Stores”; Jeffrey Hardwick’s “Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream”; Raymond Loewy’s “Never Leave Well Enough Alone”; William Pahlmann’s “The Pahlmann Book of Interior Design”; Barbara D’Arcy’s “Bloomingdale’s Book of Home Decorating”; Michael Galinsky’s “Malls Across America”; Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson’s “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.” Also, don’t miss the 2009 documentary “Malls R Us;” the trailer is here.)

18 comments so far

  1. Sean Bellin Says:

    This is very very cool love the write up and the photos!!

  2. Vonskippy Says:

    The problem with retail stores are they are racing to the bottom in an effort to compete with online stores. If they can’t match/beat the price, retail stores need to provide some value to win the sale. Service is always worth a bit extra, something current retail stores with their minimum wage clerks that have no pay incentive to provide real service lacks. Why do I shop the local Ace Hardware instead of Home Depot? Because when I walk in a sales clerk that KNOWS hardware leads me to what I want, suggests GOOD solutions to my problem, and helps me get it all up to the checkout station. Why don’t I shop at the local Radio Shack? Because the clerks there can’t spell electronics let alone help me find what I need. If you can’t provide HELPFUL service, then I’ll buy online – it’s just that simple.

  3. Loriann Witte Says:

    As a child of the 50’s born in Pittsburgh, PA I grew up going downtown into the city with my Mum and Dad to Gimbels and Kaufman’s department stores. Those experiences were grand events. I remember uniformed elevator operators who wore white gloves and called out the merchandise offered on each floor as we reached it. “Men’s Haberdashery & furnishings 5th floor, going up, Lingerie 6th floor.” At Christmas we’d see the Amish and Mennonites, dressed in their black clothing and bonnets in coming into the city from the county for Christmas shopping. The Monroeville mall was built in 1969, I got a job there. I saved my paychecks so I could go visit my husband at the Army bases before he went to Vietnam. We all started shopping in the suburbs, making less trips into the city. I believed I was a little less lonely because of working in the mall with all of the people around me everyday at the mall. Now that same mall has gang trouble and two of the malls in the next county out from the city have closed.

  4. Sean Fleck Says:

    Nice article – Great Photos

  5. Jules Says:

    Online shopping is just the final nail in the department store coffin. They all started to go downhill nearly 30 years ago when they began to consolidate. Allied and Federated and May all became one uncreative, unsightly stew of stuff. All of that lack of competition, sameness and ugly private-label clothing made for a dull shopping experience. To succeed, department stores have to have special merchandise that the shopper feels excited to buy. Furthermore, most of them have one person working per department, which means even if one feels like purchasing an item, it takes Lewis and Clark to find a sales associate. Not worth it anymore.

  6. Michelle Says:

    “Today, we shop as if we know about everything that we’re shopping for, but in the mid-century, you trusted that your department store was going to sell you something that was good… When you’re shopping online, you’re just relying on anonymous online reviews, and sometimes, other people have bad opinions.”

    The key word there is TRUST. I no longer trust that a department store is going to sell me the best item, or a high quality one.

    Vonskippy hit the nail on the head. If the person at the store is just an underpaid worker pushing whatever product corporate told them to push, it makes more sense to go online and read reviews instead.

    I wonder how locally owned businesses factor into this. Personally, in the past couple years, I’ve been going to local stores more. Sure, it costs a little extra, but I get better service (sometimes by the owner), a better product, and it feels like a better value with the money going to people I know as opposed to a big faceless corporation.

  7. Trish Says:

    I feel very bad about the fact that I used to be one of those “showroom” shoppers. When Borders started closing stores and the shoe finally dropped, I felt ashamed. I had helped close a bookstore. Now, although I do still buy almost all my reading on my Kindle, during the times when I visit a Barnes & Noble — or especially a Powell’s Books! — I make certain to buy at least one book, in however lame a gesture of atonement.

  8. Don Harban Says:

    One of the things the article overlooks is the exponential increase in the variety of choices we have for any particular item. Retail shopping in an urban environment can be frustrating because it is not possible to find EXACTLY what you want. Out side of urban areas it is simply impossible.

    We not only have more choices, but vendors change their products so frequently that even big box stores have a hard time assuring buyers that they are getting the latest updates of whatever it is they may be seeking.

    I know a lot of people blame the demise of local retailing on tax inequities that exist for online purchasing. But I if I want something like a mixer or even a light bulb these days, I can google my search and discover what my choices are and learn more about them than any sales clerk can possibly know. At that point I can surely take my knowledge to a local retailer and make a purchase — except that too much of the time the retailer does not have the specific item I have shopped for. And the sales clerk’s job becomes persuading me that what I really need is different from what I want. My option is to purchase it online and have it delivered to my doorstep in two days.

    Interestingly, the things I purchase online are seldom more expensive than the price I would pay from a local retailer EVEN IF I HAVE TO PAY TAX ON MY PURCHASE by the time I factor in the cost of driving and parking to my local retailers.

  9. Lisa Merriam Says:

    I grew up in Chicago. The death of Marshall Field’s still hurts.
    http://merriamassociates.com/2008/08/macys-blunders-with-marshall-fields-brand-name-change/

  10. Lisa Says:

    You mentioned that Target opened super enters in the 00’s. In the early 80’s, Target bought out Gemco, which had a grocery in its store, at least in Cupertino, CA. It also had an independent watch repair and optometrist. It had checkouts in every department, so in evolutionary terms, you could have called it a transitional species.

  11. Som Karamchetty Says:

    People spend a lot of time waiting at airports, train stations, bus terminals, and some offices. Such places may be ideal locations to place physical objects from autos, through appliances & electronics, to groceries. People may have a touch, feel, listen, smell, and even taste of the items (as appropriate) and order them instantly via their smart phones for home delivery.

  12. Kate Says:

    @Lisa: I used to shop at that Gemco with my mom, and also the one in Mountain View. Loved those stores!

  13. Kate Holden Says:

    I stopped at the Macy’s in Maplewood Mall (that’s minutes from St. Paul, Minnesota), and the ladies restroom made me feel sad. It still had the outer room, but all it held was a dusty, cheap leather couch all battered at the corners. Overhead lighting only. The cheapest counters, fixtures, etc., throughout both rooms. Ugh! Department stores used to have restrooms with a touch of luxury. You could sit at a mirror in the outer room and fix your makeup. There were paintings on the walls, lamps on tables, and the fixtures and plumbing were just a little nicer than the plain stuff we had at home. It may seem odd to someone who never saw it, but the niceness of the bathrooms made the experience of shopping in a department store just that much more special.

  14. Jan A. Garber Says:

    Buying some things online is okay. However clothing varies in size even the same size Levis made in 2 different factories can differ in fit. As a big & tall man I know the importance of being able to try on clothing! You can’t very well do that online. I am thankful to have a J.C. Penny store in my town.

  15. Johnc304 Says:

    Thanks so much for the article.Much thanks again. Great. dcdddeakebed

  16. Gabe Says:

    And I say good riddance. I’m old enough to remember vibrant big city down town business districts. One of the first malls in the nation (the Cherry Hill Mall in then Delaware Township, New Jersey) was build about a mile from where I grew up in Haddonfield, New Jersey when I was in high school and I instinctively boycotted it for a decade. Far from being a racist reaction, IMHO the development of a Babbitt-like mall culture (especially among suburban, white, upwardly mobile working class youth) actually fostered racism. One can only hope that the death of the malls might signal a rebirth of down town business districts. After all, they didn’t do all that badly during the Great Depression.

  17. MisterEsoteric Says:

    Extremely eloquent and well researched article. I shared it on FB and have read it a couple of times already.

    I also wrote a senior paper at USC on department store retailing. My paper was on the antitrust litigation of the early 1990’s during the massive department store acquisitions that really continued through the 2000’s. I started my department store career at The Broadway, then Macy’s, then Robinson’s-May, before leaving department store retailing altogether in 2003. I really loved it, but with the modern progression, as your article states, I am amazed these stores are still able to compete.

    I do miss old fashioned, personal service, retailing. To experience that in today’s world, you really can only go to the top 3 of the high end, Neiman Marcus, Barney’s, or Saks (or to a lesser extent, Nordstroms). Every once in a while, I will visit those stores just to experience the throwback, but even there, it simply isn’t the same.

    I have always been old-fashioned. Ever since I was a wee young lad, but I, too, have embraced online shopping and fully admit that I buy significantly more clothing online than I do in a brick and mortar store, and honestly, the last time I bought anything in a department store was last Christmas. And this is coming from a guy that used to max out his Macy’s President’s Club Visa weekly when I worked there in 1997. :)

    I miss those old days, and I wish I could have experienced retail in those decades when my parents were in HS. Thank you for posting this wonderful article. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  18. Preesi Says:

    Arent Walmart, Target and KMart Dept Stores?


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