Department stores make sales pitch

Traditional retailers try to win back customers lost to big-box operations

November 25, 2006|By Hanah Cho, Andrea K. Walker and Tyeesha Dixon | Hanah Cho, Andrea K. Walker and Tyeesha Dixon,sun reporters

The day after Thanksgiving is a special time for Michelle Robinson. Growing up in Atlanta, she and her mother would head to Macy's downtown to browse, shop and eat at the department store's cellar-level market.

So, she and her sister-in-law, Jessica Robinson, arrived early yesterday at the Macy's in Towson Town Center expecting to snag some great deals. Though fans of department stores, the women left disappointed.

"Macy's is known for great sales," said Michelle Robinson, 36, of Westminster, who managed to pick up a jacket for her husband but nothing else. "They weren't as exciting as they've been in past years."

With another holiday shopping season under way, department stores like Macy's, J.C. Penney and Boscov's, among others, face important tests during the next month to attract customers and maintain what have been strong sales this year. After steadily losing market share to popular chains, department stores hope that this is the year consumers give them another look as a destination shopping spot.

Industry analysts say it could be a daunting challenge because so many consumers have turned their back on the department store model, believing it has nothing to offer them. Indeed, while big-box retailers had lines out the door yesterday morning, some department stores around Baltimore attracted sparse crowds a few hours after opening.

To combat those hurdles, department store workers are highlighting customer service, offering big sales and tugging at the nostalgia of years past when holiday shopping required a department store visit.

Macy's enters the season as a much different company after merging this year with a host of regional department stores across the country, including Hecht's in the Baltimore-Washington area. As it works to make itself a more national brand, Macy's faces new competition here since Reading-based department store chain Boscov's expanded to four locations in the Baltimore area.

Patricia Pao, chief executive of Pao Principle, a New York retail consultant, said department stores are in better position this year because consolidation means there are fewer of them. Also, they are focusing more on offering distinct merchandise, becoming more efficient and trying less to compete with discount chains.

"It's this whole issue of choice of merchandise," Pao said. "They tried to compete with Target and Wal-Mart in the past and lost sight of who their customer really is. Now they're offering branded trendy merchandise, and that is going to bring people back into the stores. It taps people's need for personalization and customization."

After years of lagging behind specialty clothing retailers such as the Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch, department stores are gaining traction among customers. From February to October, department stores outpaced same-store sales at apparel chains, 4.1 percent compared with 1.3 percent, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Robin Beall, 42, of Baltimore, is turning to department stores to buy clothes this year because of the advertised deals. Yesterday, she bypassed her usual holiday purchases at Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Target.

So, she waited in line at the J.C. Penney in Owings Mills Mall at 4:30 a.m. and then hit Boscov's when it opened at 6 a.m., where she was browsing for men's shirts.

"It's the first time I've been to the mall first," she said.

Boscov's, which has had a store in Westminster since 2003, opened in Marley Station Mall, Owings Mills Mall and White Marsh Mall last month. The company advertises its one-stop-shopping philosophy, selling homemade fudge and a variety of merchandise including toys, apparel, curtains and mattresses. It hopes to fill the niche left by Hecht's, which had Baltimore roots going back to 1857.

Abbie Stiffler, an avid department store shopper, stood in line at 6 a.m. yesterday at Boscov's electronics department for a home theater system. The 24-year-old teacher from Randallstown said she used to drive to the Boscov's in Westminster before it opened in Owings Mills.

"I come here when they have stuff on sale," she said.

The J.C. Penney at The Mall in Columbia was bustling midmorning with shoppers trying to get bargains of as much as 50 percent off select merchandise. It was one of the many stops that Angela McCauley made yesterday, looking for deals wherever she could find them. Her loyalty, she said, goes to the store with the best price.

Monique Pridgen browsed through Macy's in Towson Town Mall with several shopping bags, including one holding a shoe purchase from Macy's. Signs advertising up to 65 percent off were posted throughout the store.

Pridgen, a 29-year-old from Baltimore, said she misses Hecht's for its frequent sales and trendy hip-hop clothes. Nevertheless, Pridgen said she's giving Macy's a chance. She also shops at Sears and J.C. Penney.

"It's about selection for me," Pridgen said.

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