Tuesday, June 13, 2006

What's in a name? More than Macy's may know

Saint Paul Pioneer Press

Employees at the Minneapolis Marshall Field's store have begun testing a new dress code policy, donning mostly black so that customers can more easily identify them on the sales floor.

This change seems just right for the Twin Cities retail market. Not only is black slimming, it is also the traditional color of mourning.

In less than three months, Federated Department Stores will pull the plug on Marshall Field's 115-year-old brand name, rechristening its holdings under the less-storied moniker of Macy's. While this is good news to bargain hunters who may have noticed that nearly everything with a Marshall Field's label is on sale right now, the move still leaves an empty space in the shopping landscape that can't be filled by a $140 down comforter on closeout for a mere $39.99.

It's been five years since we said goodbye to Dayton's, a department store name that now, seen through the rosy mists of nostalgia, evokes all that was once best about Minnesota: brand loyalty, charitable giving, support for the arts and a kind of sensible elegance that often surprised our friends from out of town. The downtown department store may have reached its apex in the 1940s, but Dayton's still seemed sophisticated and special and uniquely ours some 50 years later, thanks in large part to the elegant ladies behind the perfume counters, the clerks who pushed their way into the dressing room to insist you were wearing the wrong bra and the fine women in the china department who clucked approvingly at your choice of tableware for the wedding registry.

When corporate powers decided Marshall Field's was a better brand name to build on, we bowed not only to our own Minnesota inferiority complex but also to the logic contained in making all the bags the same. Couldn't the money saved on printing be put into deeper discounts on cashmere and designer shoes?

Very soon we saw the error of our ways when the store restricted its famously lenient return policy and began frowning on Minnesota's one-time currency the personal check. This sense of betrayal is now seen in the postings of many Minnesota shoppers at www.keepitfields.com, the Web site that has collected the signatures of more than 58,000 shoppers in an online petition with the quixotic mission of fending off the Macy's name.

Lessons from our mistakes might be fueling the apparent outrage from Chicagoans, who have always been more aggressive-aggressive than passively so. Film critic Roger Ebert even went so far as to call the Marshall Field's name change a form of corporate "imperialism": "If Columbus could claim America for Queen Isabella, if America could plant its flag on the moon, then why can't (Federated head) Terry Lundgren wade ashore in Chicago, plant his flag at Randolph and State and tell the natives they only thought it belonged to them?"

Speaking of Columbus, shoppers in Ohio haven't exactly embraced the new Macy's name painted over their beloved Lazarus, a regional chain that started in 1851. According to the Columbus Dispatch, visits to Macy's in the Columbus market dropped by 4.5 percent about 50,000 shoppers worse than what Lazarus experienced in the past five years combined.

The drop-off could be deep in the Twin Cities, too. Last year, the University of St. Thomas' Institute for Retailing Excellence conducted a survey of 339 metro households that found nearly 20 percent would moderately or substantially decrease their shopping at the store after the name change. This was in contrast to the polling Federated did last summer, which claimed that 89 percent of shoppers in all of the major cities where Marshall Field's does business regarded Macy's as "more fashionable."

Where did they find these shoppers? Certainly not in the Oval Room, where Prada will be packing its bags. Arrivederci to Miu Miu and Jimmy Choo. It's too bad, too. We always hoped we'd bump into them at a 13-hour sale.

Dave Brennan, St. Thomas marketing professor and director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence, says these moves have been a long time coming.

"This is almost the death knell of what traditional department stores have been," he says. "They've gone from class to mass, nationwide and it's going to be harder for larger corporations to sustain the intimacy they once had with their customers."

Though he notes that consolidating under a single brand name is probably a necessary move in today's marketplace, he does question the call for a sales force clad in black.

"It's not very cheerful," Brennan says. "And I don't think black is a very friendly color."

Yes, but it's always right for a funeral.

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