By EILEEN SMITH
CHERRY HILL, N.J. - Ralph Scott of Philadelphia walked out of Strawbridge's at Cherry Hill Mall, lugging a turkey roaster he bought for half price.
Inside, the department store looked like a carcass in the process of being picked clean, with bare expanses where racks used to stand and mannequins in varying stages of undress.
"This is my fifth trip to Strawbridge's (stores) today," Scott said.
He had made the rounds, making purchases ranging from cookware to a Persian rug at the downtown Philadelphia store, marked down from $15,000 to $5,000.
But when the bargains are gone, sometime around the beginning of April, another department store will have vanished from the scene, following such retail giants as Gimbel's, Lit Brothers and Wanamaker's.
So where did Strawbridge's go wrong?
Analysts and consumers said few of the big anchors meet the demand for stylish merchandise and superior service. Strawbridge's was especially vulnerable after its corporate parent, the May Co., was acquired by Federated Department Stores, said Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group, which analyzes retail.
"Getting rid of Strawbridge's and converting the stores to Macy's will save Federated a lot of money by consolidating advertising costs," he said. "By getting rid of regional names, Federated also can advertise Macy's on national television and reach a younger demographic."
Beemer said Strawbridge's also followed the lead of other department stores on an ill-starred track away from furniture, housewares and food and toward a heavier reliance on apparel.
"When clothing styles went flat for a few years, people no longer had a reason to shop at department stores," Beemer said.
Scott puts the blame on the Strawbridge family, which sold out to St. Louis-based May Co. in 1996. The store stopped carrying top-shelf brands in favor of more middle-of-the-road merchandise.
"The owners had a choice," Scott said. "They could either reinvest in the stores or take the money -- and they took the money."
Debbie Panto of Turnersville said she enjoyed shopping at Strawbridge's. On a recent stop, she bought a jogging suit, marked down to $16, and a selection of $4.26 cell phone cases she will give as gifts.
"I liked the store just fine, but I only shop there during sales," she said. "I would have bought more but it was hard to find someone to wait on me."
Consumer expectations of a good deal eroded the profit margin at middle-market department stores like Strawbridge's, where coupon offers became commonplace. While low prices turned consumers on, understaffing turned them off.
A regular customer at Deptford Mall, Panto is looking forward to shopping at Boscov's, which will move into the Strawbridge's anchor in time for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. The Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, owner of Cherry Hill Mall, is still looking for a retailer to replace Strawbridge's.
Kim Woodbury of Philadelphia was pleased to buy Escada perfume at 40 percent off at the store because it was a rare opportunity for a discount on the popular fragrance.
But she is sad to think of the passing of a once-great store.
"I will miss it dearly, thinking about my grandmother taking me to the store downtown," she said. "There's a lot of history down the drain."