Monday, February 06, 2006

Signs of Transition as Hecht's Fades Away

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer

WHEATON, Md. - The signs hanging in the Hecht's at Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton say it all:

"Inventory Clearance"

"Entire store 20% - 40% off"

"Nothing held back"

They read like epitaphs for the nearly 149-year-old department-store chain that was founded by a furniture maker in Baltimore. This week, the stores at Wheaton and Marley Station in Glen Burnie began clearing out their merchandise, and the Hecht's in Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax will hold its clearance sale soon -- the first visible signs for shoppers that Hecht's is turning into Macy's.

Hecht's parent company, May Department Stores Co., was bought last year by Federated Department Stores Inc., which owns Macy's and Bloomingdale's, in an $11 billion deal that has changed the retail landscape in the Washington area and across the country. Regional names such as Hecht's and Marshall Field's in Chicago will disappear as Federated refashions them into two national chains.

Most of the May stores will be converted to Macy's; some will become the higher-end Bloomingdale's. But the change isn't as simple as hanging a new nameplate and throwing open the doors. It is a complex undertaking that includes shutting down some stores, moving others, clearing out old stock and buying new merchandise.

The Hecht's stores at Wheaton, Marley Station and Fair Oaks are the only three in the Washington area that will hold clearance sales, Federated said. Two other clearances are being held in the Baltimore region, at White Marsh Mall and Owings Mills Mall. Transitions at the rest of the Hecht's locations will be more gradual.

Take the store at the Mall in Columbia, for example. As at most stores, this Hecht's will stock its shelves through May 1, and then Macy's will take over merchandising. Only eagle-eyed shoppers will likely notice the switch at first.

But things get trickier in malls where Federated directly competes against former May stores. The company is closing 78 stores across the country as a result.

In some cases, the May store will be the one to close. That's the case of the Wheaton Hecht's, which was renovated last February. A Macy's opened next door a few months later.

Shoppers there yesterday took advantage of discounts on items as varied as everything from Remington razors, girls' spring dresses and digital MP3 stereos. The store is expected to close within two months, said Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman for Federated.

"Look at these shoes!" said 85-year-old Ann Meinwald of Silver Spring as she picked up a pair of gold stilettos. "You can get killed wearing these shoes."

"Oh, come on," urged her friend, Mary Brophy, 80, also of Silver Spring. "I don't need shoes. I said I'm throwing some out."

The friends said they have been shopping at Hecht's for decades and were sad that the Wheaton store would be no more.

"I hate to see the store go, I really do," Meinwald said. But she shrugged it off, attributing the change to "progress."

Wheaton mall marketing director Debbie Young said a decision has yet to be made about what will happen to the empty store when the Hecht's is closed.

At other malls, it is the Macy's that will go dark before reopening in its rival's spot -- sort of like retail musical chairs.

Such is the scenario at Marley Station. Hecht's is liquidating its inventory to make way for Macy's merchandise. It will go dark in spring for remodeling, then reopen as Macy's. The former Macy's location will in turn shut down, ready for a new retailer. A similar switcheroo will occur between the Hecht's and Macy's stores at Fair Oaks, but a date for the clearance sale has not yet been set.

Sluzewski said Federated decided which stores to close according to size, location in the mall and age of the facility, among other factors. The company plans to convert all of its stores to Macy's or Bloomingdale's by September, accompanied by grand-reopening celebrations.

"It will be a big event," he said.

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