The Grand Downtown Department Store Will Soon Be Nevermore

With each store closure, a piece of American retail history fades away
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

This article appears in print in the January/February 2020 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

long before the term “anchor store” was coined to denote a big retailer serving as the primary customer draw for a big suburban shopping mall, department stores were fulfilling that role for American downtowns.

Every town of any size had at least one. Bigger cities had lots of them. In Seattle, the downtown shopper could, depending on the era, visit Frederick & Nelson, the Bon Marche, J.C. Penney, MacDougall-Southwick and Rhodes.

Traditional downtowns, like the suburban malls, also had lots of smaller specialty retailers, but it was the big department stores that drew throngs of shoppers to gawk at the huge display windows, ride the elevators and escalators, visit Santa or watch the Christmas parade, shop for back-to-school clothes or a new dress for Easter, or outfit the home from basement to attic.

Going downtown to the big department store was both a routine and special-event excursion, but whatever the reason, that consumer traffic supported the smaller stores. Those lovely full-page ads kept daily newspapers afloat, too.

The presence of a big retailer was considered so important to the fate of a downtown that when Frederick & Nelson closed in 1992, the city went to great lengths to keep Nordstrom downtown, encouraging it to move into the mammoth F&N building. (Technically, Nordstrom isn’t a department store in the sense of carrying almost everything, but the apparel-and-shoe retailer often gets lumped in with the others.)

That was a different era, one whose end will be marked when the downtown Seattle Macy’s store, occupying a few floors in the former Bon Marche building, closes for good in February. That will leave downtown without a department store, unless you’re counting Nordstrom, or Target — traditionally a suburban discount department store that has experimented with center-city stores, including in Seattle.

The announcement of Macy’s closing evoked nostalgia but little surprise. Traditional department stores are ailing and retrenching. While much of the Macy’s building is already occupied by Amazon, a major contributor to those retailers’ woes, the big department stores saw their market share chipped away by discounters like Walmart and Target and the big-box category-killer chains well before Jeff Bezos and the internet arrived on the scene.

Department stores have been left with little role in the retailing landscape, in both the literal and figurative sense. If department stores aren’t wanted or needed by consumers, then they won’t be around to anchor downtowns or suburban malls. And if they’re not around to act as magnets, what replaces them? Does something need to replace them?

That’s the existential question for malls, which are trying everything and anything to avoid winding up in someone’s photo gallery of ghostly, vacant retail properties. That includes adding more entertainment, more and better food options and a larger variety of retailers as well as converting some of the space to offices, housing or some other unconventional use — whatever will bring in consumers no longer drawn to the mall by the presence of a big retailer.

Downtown, meanwhile, the influx of new residents with (theoretically) a lot of disposable income helps fuel certain segments like restaurants, but it doesn’t do much for full-line retailers. Even if those residents don’t all work at Amazon, that’s where they’re buying the merchandise that once kept department-store doors open.

It may turn out that what saves those suburban malls also is what keeps revitalized downtowns afloat. It won’t be one thing that saves either or both, it’ll be a lot of little things. Each will have slightly different mixes of components and attributes.

Downtowns have the advantages of concentration and amenities, like big sports and entertainment venues, while the suburbs can counter with convenience and free parking. Whatever the outcome for either, the great American department store, at least as many of us grew up with, isn’t likely to be a part of it.

Monthly columnist Bill Virgin is the founder and owner of Northwest Newsletter Group, which publishes Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. Reach him at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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