In Johnny Mercer’s great 1941 big-band song “Tangerine,” Helen O’Connell sang: “And I've seen clothes on Tangerine, where the label says ‘From Macy’s Mezzanine.’”
1941 is before my time, but the context of the song suggests this was not meant to be a compliment either to Tangerine or to Macy’s. Tangerine was being exposed as a bit of a fake, and Macy’s was being depicted as a mid-level department store for aspirational but price-conscious shoppers. In other words, stuff that looked like Bonwit Teller but priced like Macy’s.
But 70-plus years later, Bonwit Teller and most of those other classy New York fashion houses are gone. And Macy’s is still standing – 200 feet tall and 2.2 million square feet wide – on the same huge Herald Square pad.
Macy’s four-year, $400-million renovation is more than just the restoration of a historical building – though if that were all, it would be a pretty worthwhile project.
It’s a remake of retailing history.
When Macy’s started rebranding the nationwide empire it had acquired, it was ridiculed. “Nobody needs a department store anymore,” said all the experts. “The department store business is a dead dinosaur!”
But Terry Lundgren clearly won’t let Dino die. Certainly not at the biggest, most visible store in the biggest, most visible city in the U.S. And certainly not a $28-billion business that has increased 18 percent in four years.
“I’ll make this claim,” Lundgren recently told The New York Times, as the store renovation is being revealed a floor or two at a time. “There has never been a store in the world that has ever had a $400 million renovation over four years.”
If you wonder why Macy’s is pouring that amount of resources into a dinosaur, consider that 20 million people visit the store a year. Consider that travelers to Manhattan from London, Paris, Singapore – as well as from London, Ohio; Paris, Texas, and Singapore, Mich. – have Macy’s on their itinerary.
So much so that James Bellante, Macy’s senior vp of visual merchandise presentation, told me earlier this year that many foreign vendors consider Macy’s their flagship store in New York.
And Macy’s is fueling the romance with some spectacular brand concept shops in the new cathedral. (Gucci is in the house!)
You can do this, of course, if you have 2.2 million square feet of selection to work with, sprinkling high-end fashion brands among more mid-level price points and high-profit private labels. (Lundgren gleefully showed a reporter a leather boot selling for $1160 in the new Louis Vuitton shop.)
If you’re in New York on Thanksgiving Day, look upwards for a dinosaur balloon in the Macy’s parade. Then step into the dinosaur on the sidewalk. You’ll likely be amazed.
As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20 years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.