The Right Coast

December 23, 2005
Oh, No! Not Marshall Field's!!!
By Gail Heriot

I know, I know, it's a mistake to orient one's life around retail establishments. They are not the foundations of stone that wise men urge us to build upon. Perhaps, if we are very lucky, the United States of America will still be with us 500 years from now. And the Roman Catholic Church. But don't count on Pottery Barn. Or Applebee's Restaurants.

At some level of abstraction, I know that's not a terrible thing either. Retail establishments survive as long as they serve the needs of the consumer. The moment the competition can make it better--whether that's cheaper, faster, bigger, prettier or whatever--they are history. And we shouldn't shed too many tears over them.

BUT NOT MARSHALL FIELD'S. I draw the line there. In my lifetime, I have seen the demise of seemingly countless department stores: Franklin Simon, Landburgh's, Joseph R. Harris, Raleigh's, Garfinckel's, Woodward & Lothrop, Goldblatt's, Wieboldt's, Lytton's, Buffum's, Chas. A. Stevens, The Broadway, I. Magnin, Bullock's and many others. Most of these I took without batting an eyelash--although I have to admit that I was sad to see Garfinckel's and Woodies go (especially in view of the baffling survival of Hecht's, the least interesting of the home-grown D.C. area department stores). But Marshall Field's is different. It's a traditon that for a lot of Chicagoans, former Chicagoans, children of Chicagoans, and grandchildren of Chicagoans runs very deep. Everyone has a story about how Uncle Charlie bought Aunt Madge a fur coat at Marshall Field's for Christmas that was so beautiful that she would cry like a baby every time she put it on.

Marshall Field's wasn't (and isn't) just any department store. It was once the largest and most glamorous department store in the world (and it is still second). Along with Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, it inspired the department store method of doing business around the world. When I worked there as a sales clerk during college, its State Street Store had an Antique Silver Department, a Stamp Collection Department, and a magician who worked in the Toy Department. They made their own chocolates and marzipan in a hidden candy kitchen upstairs. They sold antique maps, exotic cheeses, and the best deli sandwiches this side of the galaxy. (I would tell you about the 28 Shop--which was Field's very exclusive dress department--but it seemed so special to this young sales clerk that I was too shy to go in it.)

Of course, the grand lady of State Street is not exactly closing its doors. It was simply bought up a few months ago and not for the first time. For more than two decades, Field's has been owned by somebody else. It flipped, and flipped again. In the last round, it wound up in the hands of Federated Department Stores (as part of Federated's acquisition of May Department Stores). But unlike the previous owners, Federated plans to take down the "Marshall Field's" sign and put up a "Macy's." (This appears to be part of a general plan to turn every department store in the country into a Macy's. Bullock's in Southern California became Macy's years ago. And Joske's of San Antonio is now Macy's. Field's and the rest of the May Department Stores family--Hecht's, Robinsons-May and several others--are scheduled to go Macy's next fall.

Federated contends that it will save operating expenses by homogenizing its stores. And I'm sure that it's true. The movement toward standard issue department stores has already taken its toll on Marshall Field's. Many of the specialized departments--like Antique Pewter and Fine Arts--that made it such a magical place to go are long gone. Much of the merchandise is the same as Macy's now anyway.

But why does it have to change that Marshall Field's name? Can't we at least keep the name that reminds us of the store's illustrious history? Again, Federated's answer is that it will save money. The cost of bags and boxes is lower if everything can be ordered in Macy's red rather than Field's green. More significantly, the cost of advertising decreases if all the advertisements can be identical across the country.

I can't help but believe, however, that Federated is making an enormous mistake, and that its management is suffering from a "New Coke" moment. The Marshall Field's name is worth a lot more than they apparently realize. And if they don't believe me I would happily mortgage my home to buy the trademark from them. Federated may save on operating expenses by throwing away that name, but they will lose loyal customers.

I, for one, always rush to Marshall Field's State Street Store whenever I'm in Chicago and buy an armload of provisions. They're usually not unique things (except the Frango mints). I could have purchased them at Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus or Saks (or sometimes even Macy's) here in San Diego, but I buy them at Marshall Field's because I used to work there. And because I used to sing "Silver Bells" in front of the store at Christmastime. And because I love it--just like every Chicagoan and former Chicagoan in the country. There are millions and millions of us.

I won't do that when Field's becomes a Macy's. And it's not that I'm trying to be difficult. But my heart is only so big and there can only be so much territory in it for department stores. Marshall Field's staked out its little corner thirty years ago and there's no room for Macy's.

By the way, if you're interested, here's a petition. If you're from Chicago or your grandmother was from Chicago or you just like Marshall Field's, please take a look.