Breathing New Life into America’s Department Stores

17 May 2017 | By Sign Salad
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The decline of the American department store, long discussed and debated, has more recently developed into what has been dubbed a ‘great war’ between the most powerful brands in the category. Whilst some have suffered faltering sales and interest amongst shoppers (including Macy’s, J.C.Penney, and Sears), others have launched big-budget initiatives to revive their once-irresistible allure: Nieman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue are each set to open new locations in the NYC area in 2018.

Why the identity crisis?

Borne of the Industrial Revolution that made commodity goods widely available to a rising middle class, stores such as Nieman Marcus (in Dallas) and Marshall Field’s (in Chicago) became symbols of novel discovery and social privilege – spaces of leisure in which wealthy urban Americans could access the nation’s promise of plenty. But over the decades, democratically priced department stores proliferated – offering varied selection and convenience – sometimes at the expense of top-notch quality. Today, these desires are satisfied by even more varied alternatives, including e-commerce (Moda Operandi, Net-a-Porter, Amazon), stand-alone shops, and subscription services. In effect, department stores are left with the need to modernise their stuffy interiors and old-fashioned grandeur without alienating nostalgic shoppers.

In order to revitalise their sense of purpose and relevant to the changing cultural landscape, here are three questions brands should consider:

What does it mean to be American?

The American promise is defined by its boundlessness, and this is apparent in the way department stores have historically been structured: extensive choice, selection, variety as far as the eye can see. But especially in the era of Trump, limitless abundance (and consumption) has lost some of its lustre for urban sophisticates. What does this mean for retail?

Consider Old Navy’s recent commercial revival – its newfound reputation for body confidence, racial inclusivity, and functional simplicity has edged the brand toward a modern interpretation of Americanness as expressive freedom and warmth. Emerging Americanness can be about openness and inclusivity – and there’s space for retail to evolve its traditions without throwing away core American (family) values.

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What is style?

How can traditional department stores showcase cutting-edge style without losing their identity?

Modern ‘it girls’ like Lorde, Solange, and (septuagenarians) Iris Apfel, Linda Rodin are a few examples of style beyond fashion – fluid, bold, and unexpected, ‘good style’ means unexpected delight and discovery (not only dressing ‘correctly’ according to established norms, or sticking to the ‘right’ brands). Nordstrom’s buzzed-about in-store boutique Space, brainchild of its VP of Creative Projects Olivia Kim, speaks to this – with its ever-changing juxtaposition of up-and-coming and established ‘niche’ designers, the brand promotes style as evolving creativity, based on continual exploration by the passionate and adventurous.

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How can ‘quality’ be communicated beyond brand names?

Finally, how can department stores keep up their reputation for quality with heightened competition from discount outlets peddling the same brands?

NYC’s The Apartment by The Line offers some interesting ways forward. The shop comprises a series of “living spaces” in a loft apartment. With items organised by thematic ‘story’ (“style in context”) rather than (more conventionally) by brand, the space signifies quality through not only what, but how each item is sold – i.e. as a piece of a fuller idea, philosophy, or immersive, multisensorial approach. Quality, then, means mental engagement and emotional connection – an experience in which aesthetics and functionality are simply two facets.

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By understanding and redefining the cultural values they stand for, department store brands can evolve with clarity and confidence – and continue to honour the tradition and heritage that American consumers have grown to love.

– Michelle Fan, Semiotician and Project Director

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