By ELLEN BYRON (The Wall Street Journal)
When Kaufmann's department store unveiled its annual Christmas windows in downtown Pittsburgh last week, Lisa Matesic rushed to snag a memento: A tote bag that reads, "Meet Me Under the Kaufmann's Clock."
"I had no idea this would be so emotional," says 40-year-old Ms. Matesic, who grew up visiting Kaufmann's holiday windows and now brings her own family. "Even though next year the store will be Macy's, we'll still call it the Kaufmann's clock."
This holiday season marks the last time many longstanding holiday parades, window displays and Santa visits will be headlined with century-old department-store names such as Marshall Field's, Filene's, Meier & Frank and Kaufmann's. The chains, all part of May Department Stores Co., will be converted to the Macy's nameplate next year, the result of Federated Department Stores Inc.'s acquisition of May in August. The local names will disappear.
Peter Sachse, Federated's chief marketing officer, says that in the short term he expects the local celebrations to stay in place. "We want to remain very committed to all of those local traditions and continue doing those that have been done in the past," he says. "We have said consistently that we are going to be thinking nationally but acting locally."
But Federated has not yet assured public-events planners at many of the chains that their holiday celebrations will return next year. So they've been cautiously telling customers to wait and see.
"If someone asks if this is the last time for these traditions, I can't say no," says Erika Kirwin, divisional vice president of special promotions and communications for Kaufmann's. "We're going to tell them that we will be sure to inform everyone in advance so they can plan their holiday accordingly."
Among the festivities that have become synonymous with local retailers are Pittsburgh's day-after-Thanksgiving parade, sponsored for 25 years by Kaufmann's, as well as the city's 45-year-old Light Up Night celebration, when the city lights its decorations. Portland, Ore.'s day-after-Thanksgiving parade is hosted by Meier & Frank, a store that precedes Oregon's 1859 statehood by two years. The event marks Santa's arrival in town and the store's 35-year tradition of hosting breakfasts with him.
In Boston, the lighting of a Christmas tree over Filene's marquee marks the city's holiday kickoff and includes a bell-chiming ceremony, harkening back to when the store once had bells that chimed every hour.
Marshall Field's Great Tree - looming over diners in the Walnut Room - has been a holiday tradition in Chicago for 98 years. Lavish window displays and the store's famous Frango mints are also favorites among Chicagoans.
Federated has determined that Marshall Field's Frango mints will continue; it is considering keeping that name, renaming them Macy's Frangos or leaving them as a brand on their own. "We don't anticipate any changes" in holiday traditions, says Jennifer McNamara, public-relations manager at Marshall Field's. "Next year's plans are already well under way."
Other retailers seem less certain. "It's too early to tell whether these traditions will continue or not," says Robin Reibel, Filene's vice president of special events and public relations. "I understand Federated and Macy's will look closely at all the markets where these traditions have been in place a long time."
It's not just store events that are affected. In many communities, the local department store sponsors civic and cultural activities. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of The Nutcracker is underwritten by Kaufmann's. The store's iconic clock tops the stage's proscenium, and a book titled "Kaufmann's Christmas Stories for Boys and Girls," published in 1906, is read by Marie, the lead role in Pittsburgh's version of the ballet. The book then transforms into a massive stage prop, from whose pages its characters come to life and dance.
The ballet company expects to know by the spring whether it will receive funding for next year's production. Meantime, it's putting out feelers to try to line up a backup sponsor. Taking a break from rehearsal of the Sugar Plum Fairy's pas de deux, artistic director Terrence Orr says he will keep references to Kaufmann's in the production even if the funding ends. "They've been an important part of Pittsburgh's history," he says. "If Macy's is willing to sponsor us for $50,000 to $75,000, I'll figure out a way to get them in, too," he says.
A Federated spokesman says it plans to continue underwriting local civic events, and notes that such decisions are up to the regional divisions, which determine what to sponsor on an annual basis.
Macy's, with its nationally televised Thanksgiving Day parade and Fourth of July fireworks display in New York City, is one of the last marketers to rely on large-scale civic festivities for brand building.
"These are not things we try to put a (return on investment) on - these are things that are right to do for the community and the brand," says Federated's Mr. Sachse. "We have the largest parade in the world on a day when we can't sell anything," he says, referring to Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
Still, the feasibility and cost of continuing so many holiday festivities in much smaller communities around the country draws skepticism from some marketing experts. Parade organizers estimate that hosting one in a large city can cost upwards of $100,000 in production costs, plus a few hundred thousand dollars more in broadcast fees to have the event televised locally.
"If Macy's wants to get this right, they'll take a percentage of their budget to build a national brand halo, and then with the rest of their budget they'll build their brand locally, in every market," says Jordan Zimmerman, chairman and chief executive of Omnicom Group Inc.'s Zimmerman Advertising, a retail-marketing specialist based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. There's a lot at stake in maintaining local traditions. "When you take away what the community is expecting, and what has come to be a family event over the last 50 years, what do you think happens to the feeling of the brand?" he adds.
Federated already has some experience incorporating regional traditions into the Macy's fold. The company converted its own longtime chain names, including Rich's, Lazarus and Bon Marche stores, to the Macy's name earlier this year. In Seattle, the Bon Marche flagship store downtown, though now called Macy's, will still be flanked by a big, lighted star, a tradition since 1957. The traditional day-after-Thanksgiving parade, long called the Bon Marche holiday parade, this year continues under the Macy's name, along with the store's 30-year tradition of hosting breakfasts with Santa. "Federated has been very aware of just how much emotional equity is in our traditions here," says Kimberly Reason, director of corporate communications and media relations with Macy's Northwest.
In Atlanta, the Macy's chain formerly known as Rich's will hold its 58th annual tree-lighting ceremony on Thursday night, although this year the tree will also feature red stars, part of the Macy's logo. Two years ago, Rich's brought back its holiday children's ride called Priscilla the Pink Pig to commemorate the ride's 50-year anniversary, and has continued it since. "Everyone in Atlanta knows that the lighting of the tree and the pink pig are important holiday traditions here," says Ellen Fruchtman, divisional vice president of public relations for Macy's Central. "During our name transition it was up to each division to keep its finger on the local pulse, and we did."
For now, shoppers are snapping up merchandise and memorabilia that feature the department-store names destined to disappear. Marshall Field's says replicas of a Marshall Field's store and a Frango chocolate shop are selling well, as are commemorative gift plates and ornaments with the Marshall Field's logo.
But those likely to miss the old names most of all are descendants of some of the founders. John Rich, a 78-year-old former marketing executive whose great-grandfather founded the Rich's chain, says he and his family have accepted that their name is no longer part of American retailing. "When the name changed this year, my son asked me, 'Does this mean that when I go to Atlanta I'm not going to be a big deal anymore?' " Mr. Rich said. "I told him I was afraid so."