With local management, store gets a makeover and new products
Allison Kaplan, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Junky, drab and rundown. Macy's Mall of America has done little to endear itself to Minnesotans, which helps explain the local apprehension about Marshall Field's stores being converted to Macy's next month.
Even the store manager at Macy's Mall of America acknowledges that environment has been the No. 1 customer complaint in recent years. Aisles were cluttered, displays were haphazard, fitting rooms were dingy and the merchandise was mediocre. The store, operated by Macy's California division, was totally out of touch with the local customer. In December, you were more likely to find bathing suits than winter coats. And that was reflected in annual sales, which plunged from a high of $58 million in the early 1990s, when the store first opened, to $35 million in recent years.
Macy's Mall of America was an orphan, abandoned by West Coast parents who initially were excited about giving birth to a store at the nation's largest mall but never understood their sole Midwestern child and finally stopped trying.
After more than a decade of flailing without any support system, Macy's Mall of America finally has found loving parents. As it turns out, they were here all along. Federated Department Store Inc.'s purchase of all 61 Marshall Field's stores has resulted in Field's Minneapolis-based executive team, which has long regretted its decision not to build a store at the successful Mall of America, being put in charge of the Macy's Mall of America store.
The new local leadership, now called Macy's North, spent the summer at Mall of America upgrading merchandise, clearing aisles, shampooing carpets and remodeling fitting rooms. Basically, trying to make the store look more like Field's, which -- stay with us here -- will be converted to Macy's as of Sept. 9. Their hope is that Minnesotans will embrace Macy's Mall of America with the same devotion they feel toward Field's stores.
But will fickle shoppers give Macy's Mall of America a second chance?
Retail expert Dave Brennan has his doubts. The one thing Macy's Mall of America always had going for it, even as the store deteriorated, was its uniqueness in this market.
"Now, that uniqueness is gone," said Brennan, co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas. Brennan conducts an annual holiday-spending survey, which has shown that in the past three years, local shoppers visited the Mall of America occasionally at most. "If anything, this isn't going to help the Mall of America."
The Mall of America is an unusual beast. At Macy's, tourists account for 40 percent of sales. The store is busier in July, when most malls are slow, than December, which is the busiest month for most retailers. That's because tourism peaks in the summer and trails off as the holidays approach and shoppers retreat to their "local" shopping center. Macy's Mall of America store manager Ed Buechel is determined to change that pattern.
The key could be coats.
A lack of warm coats on the selling floor in past winters was the most obvious sign that Macy's Mall of America wasn't the local department store. Decisions were made by California buyers, many of whom had never even visited Minnesota. This year, with Minneapolis-based Macy's North at the helm, the first wave of fall coats is already on display. Coats will get a prominent spot by the door, and there will be a much larger selection. Buechel expects to quadruple his outerwear business.
Throughout the store, more than four dozen national brands are being added -- upscale labels like Coach, Eileen Fisher and Joseph Abboud sportswear, which won't impress the Field's shopper but represent a marked improvement for Macy's Mall of America.
Still, better merchandise won't help if shoppers do not want to spend time in the store.
"Environment is a stronger influence on customers than they even realize," said Cindy Eliason, regional vice president of stores for Macy's North in charge of the Mall of America location. "This was a worn store. It's things you can't put your finger on, but they make a difference."
Sleek waiting areas with leather sofas and textured walls have been added outside the fitting rooms. Bathrooms have been upgraded. A new floor was installed in one section of the home department. Dark-wood display tables were swapped for more contemporary, light-wood models. Premium denim was taken off the racks and spread out on tables to give the young men's and women's departments a more modern look.
These tweaks may seem minor, but they affect shoppers' perceptions, said Lynn Robertson, president of Fame, a Minneapolis-based retail brand agency. "You don't notice the quality of materials used in stores -- flooring, ceiling, fixtures -- but it's visceral. You can feel it."
Macy's Mall of America is also getting new directional signs. ("Maybe we'll only have to tell customers where the bathrooms are 50 times a day instead of 150," Buechel joked.) Fifty price-checker machines for customer use are going to be prominently placed throughout the store, particularly in the home area, where many items don't have price tags. The store is now tied into the Field's computer system, so out-of-stock merchandise can be tracked to St. Paul or Roseville rather than New York.
Macy's salespeople, dressed in all black, cheered enthusiastically when executives recently announced these improvements at a pep rally to usher in the new era. Unlike Field's employees, many of whom seem apprehensive about the conversion, the attitude at the Mall of America store is upbeat. Now, someone cares about them.
"We had so many meetings through the years to talk about how to get into the Mall of America," said Ertugrul Tuzcu, who has been with the department store chain through several transformations, starting with Dayton's in 1978, through the Marshall Field's years and now as executive vice president of stores for Macy's North.
"Now, we have you," Tuzcu told Macy's Mall of America employees. "You are one of a kind in 800-plus stores."
Tuzcu took care not to sugarcoat this merger: "It's going to be a rocky road at times. There are all these people in the sandbox, and we have a lot to learn."
But no one flinched when he called for a 17 percent increase in sales for the fourth quarter at the Mall of America store. The sales staff was too busy celebrating the arrival of Gucci watches and Calvin Klein suits. Said Tuzcu, "We're counting on this store to be a major focus for us."