Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Sinking Flagship: Macy's Kills the Magic of Marshall Field's

I'm from Chicago, so naturally I was a little disturbed by the whole "Macy's buying out Marshall Field & Co." thing. The flagship store on State Street was class and good smells, matchless chocolate and the essence of Christmas. The green-tinged plaque on the cornerstone, the aging clock on the street, the view of the Christmas tree from the seven-story was, in a strange twist of fate, exactly the image that the mention of Macy's in New York conjured up. Wouldn't a store famous for its Santa Clauses and its Thanksgiving Day parade have that kind of glamour? The well-dressed clerks who virtually melted into the background, only to magically appear at your elbow with the size or color you needed or a gesture toward a register with no waiting?

When I was in college, my cousin (a flight attendant) did her Christmas shopping at Macy's one year. I never wore the sweater she gave me without thinking about the fact that it had come from the glamorous department store I'd IMAGINED Macy's to be.

And then reality struck.

I'll admit that I wasn't entirely objective. The classic green turning red, the change in bags and logos and all of the little trappings was unwelcome for me. But Macy's talked a good game about maintaining everything we loved about our flagship store, and I was inclied to believe they'd come close, because even though they weren't Marshall Field's, they were MACY'S.

Last week, on the Quest for Navy Shoes, I shopped at Macy's for the first time since the changeover. Fickle though it might be, I didn't expect much difference. I needed to stop on one, pick up a pair of hose, then pop up to four for shoes.

I entered the building through the pedway, since it connects the store with the building where I work. The first thing I discovered was that the elevators across from the book section didn't work. There was a floor-by-floor directory in front of them, but pushing the buttons didn't seem to summon a car. After a few minutes, a clerk in books called out "None of them elevators works. Go down there." She gestured vaguely to the other side of the food court and I thanked her and moved on. I should have paid more attention, because it turned out that was stellar service for Macy's.

I finally made my way to the first floor and went looking for hose. I checked two directories without anyone offering directions (something that would never have happened in Marshall Fields), but was virtually assaulted by no fewer than four women who wanted to push perfume samples on me. I was reminded of the jewelry-peddlars we used to encounter on the street when my mother visited her old doctor at 95th and Stony Island--the ones my father advised us never to speak to or even look in the eyes.

It turns out that navy hose aren't much easier to find than navy shoes these days, and it took me upwards of 15 minutes to find a brand that offered navy. I spent that time alone in the department with a clerk who studiously focused on some busywork and avoided acknowledging me. Yes, I could have asked for help, but as I discovered a few floors later, it probably wouldn't have yielded much. As it was, I didn't make contact with the clerk until I carried my purchase over to the counter and she brusquely said, "Got to go over there" and made a sweeping gesture a little like she was shooing a fly.

I found an open register feeling a bit depressed. Perhaps I was glamourizing the old Marshall Field's help in my mind. Perhaps they didn't really glide more than they walked; perhaps they hadn't really always appeared at just the moment when having my clothes hung in a dressing room was really appreciated. But I KNEW not one of them had ever said, "Got to go over there" to me. I knew I'd never been shooed like a fly when the shopping bags were green.

Still, I had only twenty minutes until my meeting and I wanted navy shoes. The fourth floor was my only option, so I headed that way (this time taking the escalators to avoid any confusion with non-operational but unmarked elevators). A quick circle around the shoe department didn't reveal a single navy dress shoe, so I carried a black shoe over to a clerk and asked her whether it came in blue. No, she said, only black, brown and red. She was already turning away when I asked whether she had any other navy pumps.

"Not really," she said, turning away again.

As it turned out, I did find navy shoes in time to save myself from wearing black and navy together, but I left the store sorry I'd ever stepped inside. If I had it to do over again, I'd remember the magical Marshall Fields of my youth and carry on, happily oblivious to the third-rate discount store it's becoming.

1 comment:

Jen said...

I am so with you on this. We had Dayton's which acquired Marshall Fields in 1990. There was little change as both department stores were wonderful. The service was wonderful, many of the clerks knowing the customers by name, the merchandise was amazing, expensive at times, but amazing. The stores were clean and well kept. Dayton's was the parent company to Target. in 2000 or 2001 they changed their name to Target Corp and got rid of the department stores, selling them to the company that owned Macy's. I haven't bothered shopping at Macy's unless I absolutely have to. I can get the same experience at Wal*Mart and pay a lot less. So basically, it's Target's fault. You can read all about it here
Oh, Dayton's was the department store that Mary Tyler Moore was standing in front of when she tossed her hat in the air.