Street Smart Chicago

Requiem for a Dream: Marshall Field’s Last Christmas

Chicago History, City Life, Essays & Commentary, Holidays, Loop Add comments

By Brian Hieggelke

“Marshall Field & Company, one of the world’s great department stores, is as legendary to Chicago and the good old middle west as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. It’s as sturdy as the tracks on the Loop, as timeless as the Lake, and almost as vast as the westward prairie. It is said that Marshall Field’s is Chicago.”
—“Store” by Nan Tillson Birmingham, 1978

Marshall Field arrived in Chicago from New England and got a job in the retail business in 1856. 150 years later, in 2006, he’ll leave Chicago for good. In the interim, the store he created, Marshall Field’s, will have survived the Civil War, the Great Chicago Fire, the Great Depression, two World Wars, the advent of electric lighting, the automobile, the airplane, the television and the computer. But it will not survive the merger of two corporations from Midwest towns that once challenged Chicago for primacy in the Midwest and lost, Federated Department Stores of Cincinnati, Ohio, and May Department Stores of St. Louis, Missouri.

Each year, my family goes out to dinner and takes in “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman as our way of kicking off the holiday season. My brother was not going to be able to join us this year, but when his plans changed and I told him we were going to dine in the Walnut Room, he decided to meet us for dinner, “since it’s the last time we’ll be able to do it at Marshall Field’s.”

Chicagoans are making pilgrimages to Field’s State Street Store this Christmas, like children visiting a terminally ill parent on the deathbed, thanks to the decision by new owner Federated Department Stores to change the store’s name to Macy’s next year. It likely ranks as one of the most unpopular decisions in the history of corporate America, comparable to the ill-fated “New Coke.” A web site (http://www.keepitfields.org) has collected more than 43,000 signatures in a petition against the change; film critic Roger Ebert has passionately attacked the decision, with a vow to never shop there again. Countless newspaper stories have been written wistfully lamenting the move.

Dining in the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s near the Great Tree, this year shimmering in Swarovski crystal, is one of Chicago’s most enduring holiday traditions. Families dress up in their Sunday best to bring their children to dinner, just the way their parents once brought them. Until the recent introduction of pagers that allow shopping while waiting, they would wait sometimes two hours in a line that snaked the entire length of the seventh floor. Painted on the woodwork near the entrance to the restaurant is the story of Mrs. Herring, who made chicken pot pies to satiate hungry shoppers back in the late nineteenth century, leading to the opening of America’s first department-store restaurant. The chicken pot pie remains on the menu today.

Field’s trades on such nostalgia—near the Walnut Room resides an “archive” that recounts the store’s history. The store abounds with decorative vintage black-and-white images that connect today’s shoppers with the past, as if to taunt those mourning the store’s impending transition. History is a priceless asset of a department store, one that distinguishes it from those who threaten its extinction, namely the discounters like Wal-Mart and the chain boutiques like the Gap.

“When I was ten or so, I began to ask my mother about my grandparents—where they all came from and when they came to Chicago. She always used the arrival of Marshall Field as a reference in time. I would, of course, consider that to be antiquity, since Marshall Field’s store looked ancient to me.” —Jane Byrne, the city’s first female mayor, in “My Chicago,” 1992

Many things separate city dwellers from our suburban cousins; one is our deeper appreciation for the past. Most suburbs are too young for history; the city swims in it. We landmark buildings, saving them not for their economic worth but for aesthetic value usually wrapped up in history. I live in a building more than a hundred years old; once a printing factory where Tarzan books were printed. Our condominium association keeps a large portrait of the namesake proprietor of the printing company hanging in the lobby, a man long dead and disconnected from our building, but alive in its history. Books are published about the history of our cities and some, like “The Devil in the White City,” become bestsellers.

Marshall Field and his store are an integral part of the history of Chicago, both coming of age in a time when cities were crawling out of the muck and transforming into great metropolises. No more so than Chicago, the fastest-growing city in history, which threatened to overtake the mighty New York as America’s greatest. Chicago institutions born in that era epitomize that striving for greatness, evoke the maxim uttered by the city’s leading architect Daniel Burnham, “to make no small plans.” Institutions like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Chicago. And Marshall Field’s.

“Marshall Field’s, the largest retail store on earth at the end of the century, was itself like a small city, its entrance adorned with ‘the highest monoliths in the world,’ the store’s publicists boasted, ‘except those in the temple of Karnak.’ Employing ninety thousand workers in peak season, it had fifty-three high-speed elevators, a medical dispensary, a post office that handled more mail than the city of Joliet’s, a delivery system covering an area of over three hundred square miles, and the largest private telephone switchboard in the world.”—“City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America” by Donald Miller, 1996

Marshall Field built a cathedral to retailing, a mercantile palace later garnished with the world’s largest Tiffany mosaic. It was meant to inspire its customers, to invoke the majesty of the American dream for all the people of Chicago. For if Field’s, with its decidedly upper-crust customer base, was never a store of the people, it still connected to the masses as a destination, as a keeper of Christmas traditions. It spoke boldly to the American aspiration in this most American of cities.

I fell in the love with department stores about the same time I fell in love with cities, when I arrived at the University of Chicago as an undergraduate. I have no particular memories of visiting big city department stores as a youngster; my hometown of Joliet did, however, get a Marshall Field’s when the Louis Joliet Mall opened in the late seventies. It was a fine enough store, attractive by the blue-collar standards of my steel-milled hometown, but nothing to stir the imagination.

But stir they did when I moved to New York City to train at Goldman Sachs in the early eighties, as I visited the likes of Bloomingdale’s and Gimbel’s. Macy’s especially won my affection, a colossus of a market with a legendary reputation, cultivated through television airings of “Miracle on 34th Street” and the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.” I was especially fond of The Cellar, a housewares and culinary emporium that had injected new life into the store basement, usually a dismal purveyor of “bargains” at most department stores. Macy’s conveyed the essence of New York to me, a young man from the suburbs ready to conquer the big city.

On a visit to Philadelphia, I visited the legendary Wanamaker’s and watched its Christmas light show and connected to the city’s history, along with the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. Department stores seemed like capsules of popular history, rather than the more academic version found in museums.

When I returned to Chicago for good, I was smitten with the State Street location of Marshall Field’s. Over the years, I bought furniture upstairs, suits in the men’s department and gifts in jewelry and cosmetics. I brought visitors down to see the windows and the Great Tree at Christmastime. Although the store was in a constant state of evolution, usually for the better, I felt like I was part of the continuum of Chicago history when I visited it.

Marshall Field’s, at least in its State Street incarnation, is as much cultural institution as cathedral of commerce. Visitors to the city seek it out like they do the Art Institute or Museum of Science and Industry. Still the second-largest store in the world, its influence on the development of merchandising in America is legendary: it created the money-back guarantee, the bridal registry, the bargain basement and a long list of other firsts; it was the first to install an escalator, a development to become so iconic that the Harold Washington Library Center, completed in 1991, uses escalators as its primary mode of travel between floors, a direct homage to the department stores on whose street it sits. Field’s founder and early leaders influenced the development of Chicago in many ways, whether cultural—Marshall Field endowed the Field Museum and gave land for the University of Chicago; his successor, John G. Shedd followed suit with an aquarium—or commercial. Field was a major investor in the Pullman Company and U.S. Steel, and his company would later build the Merchandise Mart, the largest office building in the world. His grandson would create what became the Chicago Sun-Times, a liberal answer to the arch-conservatism of the dominant Chicago Tribune. The list is endless; one of the store’s clerks, Montgomery Ward, later made a name for himself in the annals of retailing; one of Field’s top executives, Harry Selfridge, helped develop the store’s signature retailing flair before departing and creating an eponymous London department store that even today is a retail icon of England.

Walk down LaSalle Street, and observe the names set into brass, mounted to edifices seemingly designed for the ages: long gone are Chicago’s financial institutions like Continental Bank, Exchange National Bank and First National Bank. Ironically the latter underwent a transformation similar to the Macy’s change this year when its successor, BankOne, was converted to Chase, a top New York bank. Fewer tears flowed. Drive through the city’s few remaining factory corridors and fruitlessly seek out the remnants of our once-mighty industrial past, the Pullmans, the Swifts, the steel mills. But take a stroll down State Street, past the ghosts of Lytton’s, Goldblatt’s, Weiboldts and others more than a generation gone, and find Carson, Pirie and Scott and Marshall Field’s, in buildings nearing a century in age, where the business transacted in 2005 is not too far removed from the business transacted in 1905. Name another thing today where that is the case.

Smart-alecks might point to the mayor, whose family has dominated much of Chicago’s history these last hundred years. Yet Field’s, this icon of Chicago, found a meager defender in its mayor, who told reporters after the announcement, “Things change. If you aren’t willing to accept change, then you stay in the past, and we’re never going to stay in the past in this city.” Daley, it seems, gets his disregard for history from his father, upon whose watch the vibrant Little Italy was razed to make room for the widely reviled UIC campus, and who allowed masterpieces of Chicago architecture, like Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange, to fall to the wrecking ball in the name of progress. Ironically, it is our mayor’s mother, Eleanor “Sis” Daley, who was given credit for saving the priceless Chicago Cultural Center from a similar fate.

Of course, as the mayor would point out and so would Federated, the store is not going anywhere—its name is just being changed. Would that it were true that this is just a simple change of a name, for this change symbolizes so much more. In replacing Marshall Field’s with Macy’s, one of the greatest symbols of Chicago is taking on the moniker of one of the greatest symbols of New York, an effrontery not unlike if the Cubs became the Chicago Yankees. Field and his generation symbolized the rise of Chicago as a world-class city, one which aspired to be second to no one, as epitomized in the legendary Columbian Exposition of 1893, and least of all, its established rival to the east, New York. But even more than a capitulation of this city, my city, to an eternal second-class fate, I fear this change portends the beginning of the final act for the American department store, so unfortunate its strategic underpinnings.

The saga of the American retailer mirrors the story of the American people since the Civil War. As the industrial revolution brought workers to the cities, whether immigrants or off the farms, the concentration of wealth and resources in the city begat the department store. So too, did the nation’s expansion west, first served by wholesalers like Marshall Field, then followed by the catalogue innovators, also based in Chicago, like Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck, who soon followed their customers into the nation’s smaller markets with physical stores. Later, the car begat suburbs and suburbs begat malls. Malls needed “anchor” tenants to ensure enough foot traffic to allow their smaller retailers to thrive, and found willing partners in the department stores. Before long, the department store, which had built its equity by the creation of a single magnificent retail shrine, was trying to transform itself into a brand, where its historical associations would translate into sales, even if the stores were more plain than palaces. The strategy worked for a while, at least as long as émigrés from the city were heading households, transplants for whom the department stores and the great promenades that accompanied them were cherished. But the suburbs are in car country, and the mall is an artificial construction meant to emulate a pedestrian-oriented downtown. Before long, a new generation of consumers was forsaking the mall for the “big box” retailer, the superstore like Wal-Mart or Target or Best Buy.

Just as the malls and their department-store partners began their slide, the ravages of time on the ownership and capital structures of the department stores made them pawns in assorted financial games. The eighties were a time of hostile takeovers and leveraged buyouts that often spelled the end of the line for these once-proud institutions; even Macy’s stumbled into bankruptcy by the early nineties. Although Field’s avoided the worst, finding itself in the arms of the benevolent brethren at Dayton-Hudson in Minneapolis, it too became vulnerable to the capriciousness of ownership when its parent hitched its name and its future to its rapidly growing subsidiary, Target. By last year, nearly all surviving American department stores were owned by two holding companies, Federated and May. And then they merged.

Federated likes to see itself as the savior of the department store, the one company with the guts to make the necessary and painful changes to ensure its survival. Core to its strategy is to consolidate its “brands” around its two strongest “nameplates,” Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. While the company is not especially forthcoming on the details behind such a strategy, offering up PR platitudes like “Macy’s to bring new choices to Chicago customers,” it is likely a move driven by economies of scale in marketing. A national brand can advertise on national television. Most other efficiencies—consolidation of redundant services and enhanced buying power—would be present whether operating one brand or one hundred. Of course, the irony is this: national television audiences are in the midst of a prolonged secular decline, and effective marketing strategies of the future are going to be anything but mass, as the Internet and the proliferation of other media weans advertisers off the narcotic fix of television. But then, chasing a media platform into its grave is nothing new for department stores: they grew up in the heyday of daily newspapers, and to this day ride that dinosaur with singular zest, even as the newspaper’s audiences age, now averaging 55 years old. By comparison, television must look pretty sexy, in a sixties sort of wooly mammoth way.

As Federated discards its ace in the hole, local brand equity, it will find itself with a losing hand and few cards left to draw. Because just as consumers deserted the suburban shell version of city retail palaces for the everyday-low-price discounters, so too will the middlebrow merchandising of Macy’s fall on deaf pocketbooks. A national department store platform, aimed squarely at a mass market, ain’t exactly a new idea: Sears, Wards and Penney’s did it generations ago, only to be beaten and bloodied by Wal-Mart and Target.

If it is unlikely that Federated can compete with the discounters, what is the answer? Ironically, more Field’s and less Macy’s. We live in strange times, where we buy $100 televisions made in China and sold in Wal-Mart. And what do we watch? Celebrities, reality shows featuring celebrities and reality shows that create celebrities. For all our culture of consumption, we crave glamour and spectacle. And so, perhaps, the future of the department store lies in the past, in a time when one big store dazzled the carriage trade and the masses alike, when outstanding, selective merchandising and near-maniacal devotion to service delivered a shopping experience not available anywhere else. Service, that least corporate of endeavors, delivered one person at a time and often requires adherence to seemingly unprofitable principles—like those which made Marshall Field’s famous, that the customer is always right.

When Nordstrom entered the Chicago market a decade back, the story that gained traction was not about their shoes, but about their legendary level of service. Stories were told of customers returning items years later, and getting refunds; of customers even returning things that had not been purchased at Nordstrom. Ironically, the exact same stories are told about Field’s service in “Give the Lady What She Wants,” a lively official corporate history written in 1952 by Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan. Marshall Field’s invented the very narrative of customer service. When customers lament the changing times at Marshall Field’s, as they invariably do, it is service, more so than merchandise, that they claim has been compromised. And yet, in a recent National Retail Federation Foundation survey, Field’s ranked third in service. Macy’s did not make the top ten.

So what will change next year, when Marshall Field’s becomes Macy’s? Very little, at first, as the company is effusive in its commitment to “respect the legacy and traditions of Marshall Field’s.” Federated plans to make the current Field’s operation “Macy’s North,” headquartered in Minneapolis, with its own buyers. In that way, the hope goes, the superior merchandising enjoyed by Marshall Field’s customers will not easily give way to the more middlebrow legacy of Macy’s New York. But that, of course, defies logic in the long run, since the appeal of a national brand is a consistent consumer experience: a Big Mac in Sacramento should taste like a Big Mac in Boston. If Macy’s in Chicago is upscale, how will the middle-market Macy’s customer from Portland react? Eventually, the pressure to homogenize the Macy’s customer experience will grow insurmountable.

Of course, an obvious solution would be to keep the State Street venue named Marshall Field’s, with something along the lines of “A Macy’s Store” as its subtitle. That would allow for all the vaunted marketing synergy, while respecting the essential place the store holds in Chicago, both now and in its history.

It’s a solution so simple and obvious that I despair its inevitable disregard. Even so, I plan to give the store a chance. Like Roger Ebert, my first thoughts were to boycott the place, never again dropping a dime into its coffers. But I fear that the cards are now more stacked against it than ever, given Federated’s strategy. And that we’ll be left only with the great merchant empire of our time, Wal-Mart, a mighty chain that has crushed the remnants of America’s retail majesty and replaced the gilded corridors with a design aesthetic that strives for the banal, merchandising defined above all by price. Where Field once helped support culture, first in the establishment of its institutions, then later by serving as one of its benefactors, Wal-Mart seeks its suppression, by combining its imperial purchasing power with its refusal to sell works of artistic expression that don’t gel with its folksy small-town values. This is progress, apparently.

Urban consumers can find some consolation in the counter-trend to the Wal-Martization of America that is found in the neighborhood boutique. Proliferating with creative verve on Division Street, on Damen, on Southport and countless other avenues, the boutique offers discriminating products and personal service, the very attributes that once served as the foundation on which America’s merchant princes built their kingdoms.

Over the years, I’ve visited New York more than any other American city. Gradually, I’ve realized Macy’s is inferior to Marshall Field’s in both merchandise and merchandising, and found Manhattan’s 59th Street Bloomingdale’s to be more consistent with my interests. Last month, I returned to New York and decided to give Macy’s a new look, given the upcoming change. The store is still magnificent; it has much more in common with Field’s than not. But it doesn’t look like it’s changed much since I first visited it in the eighties: its fixtures and merchandising are showing signs of age, and the once-exciting Cellar seems a weak cousin of the rejuvenated lower level of Marshall Field’s, which long ago dumped its bargain basement in favor of a housewares bazaar of its own.

When I was in college, I worked part-time in the men’s department at Field’s in Water Tower Place. There, I learned about pinpoint oxford-cloth shirts and anal fisting. The latter, picked up by blushing ears as I discovered I was the only straight man working in the department. Near the exit, a gray-haired grandmother type wore a security-guard uniform, and kept an eye on the exit. At home, she was reading “Give the Lady What She Wants,” still for sale in the store decades after its publication. She’d beam with pride when she’d tell me the latest story she’d read. Even though she swam at the very bottom of the store’s food chain, she felt connected, through history, to the very top, and to the values its founder had cultivated.

That’s what’s in a name.

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