Thursday, July 03, 2014

Viewpoint: Fifth Avenue or Mall of America?

Last October I accompanied my husband on a business trip  to  Chicago where we stayed at a hotel directly off of Michigan Avenue aka the "Miracle Mile." At first it was amazing to me that so many huge chain and higher-end department stores were all within walking distance. Several of the stores were just cavernous, flush with seemingly wasted acres of space between racks of clothing, no doubt due to rents being a good deal less expensive than in the Big Apple. That night at dinner I recounted my retail observations to a native Chicagoan in our group who shook his head disparagingly. "Yeah, but It's not New York," he chuckled.

Recently, while briskly pounding the pavement of Fifth Avenue on our very own "Miracle Mile" between 50th and 59th Streets, I decided that if our friend were here now, he'd see that as of late, even New York isn't New York. To begin with, I have a love/hate relationship with the aforementioned stretch of glorified real estate. In fact, since I became a New Yorker 25 years ago, wild horses could not drag me to the "tourist central" between Thanksgiving and New Year's. I always breathe a huge sigh of relief in January at the thought of reclaiming my city from the hordes of "looky-loo's" who descend like locusts around the holidays. They tend to come back in the spring and summer months, stopping for photos and clogging the sidewalks in front of Tiffany & Co., the Apple store, FAO Schwarz, not to mention Abercrombie & Fitch where a line of wide eyed tweens and parental units often snakes out onto the sidewalk, wrapping around the building thereby exposing the noxious fumes of toxic cologne that is piped in through the air ducts and out on the bare-chested male models.

Saks Fifth Avenue store

Like the proverbial woman past her prime, the stores have "let themselves go" often to the highest bidder and just as often it has destroyed their character. Last year Saks Fifth Avenue had its moniker officially shortened to Saks and was acquired by Hudson Bay Company (HBC) a former Canadian company that had already purchased Lord & Taylor. Saks is to be the jewel in their crown, their classy trophy wife however the quality of the merchandise has truly suffered and the sales staff seems mostly ill trained and surly. It appears as if the playing field is in the process of being leveled and while Saks still carries many more exclusive designers, L & T has been brought slightly up market creating more overlap where there used to be little to none.

HB bag

Meanwhile, another iconic store, Henri Bendel is undergoing a downsizing and reorganization of its own. Bendel's had a storied history until it was bought in 1985 by L Brands of Columbus, Ohio (formerly owners of The Limited) to add to its portfolio of Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, and La Senza (a Canadian brand) stores. Again, this was to be their luxury holding; the Fifth Avenue flagship as well as 28 stores in malls across America. In 1990 the store was moved around the corner from 10 West 57th Street to 712 Fifth Avenue into a much larger landmarked space complete with soon-to-be discovered Lalique windows. Initially some of the Bendel concepts including the designer Open-Sees for hopeful unknowns to show their wares and perhaps garner a trunk show at the store, were still in effect. Although fewer and more far between than before, one could still find interesting clothing that couldn't be seen everywhere else.

Eventually that dwindled and in 2009, Bendel's went with an only accessories format introducing a line of Henri Bendel handbags and other items while still carrying third-party merchandise such as designer costume jewelry, sunglasses and the visiting trunk shows. Recently, it was announced that further changes were in the air as all third-party cosmetics, jewelry, fragrances and accessories would be discontinued in order to focus only on the HB line of products. In its heyday the store boasted five floors of retail including a hair salon. It was cut back to two floors with "Rent The Runway" leasing space on the third floor. With the newest adaptation, only the main floor will be in use by Henri Bendel. Their lease is up in February 2016 and it will be interesting to see if the Bendel brand is a viable concept that can work over the long haul. It's worth noting that the mall stores only sell the HB branded merchandise and none of them have been closed so perhaps Bendel can trade on their iconic name outside of New York. After the change-over I would be surprised if any New Yorkers frequent the store as I have yet to see anyone locally flaunting a HB bag. Thank goodness Geraldine Stutz who ran the West 57th Street store for 29 years is not around to see what they've done to her "once-the-epitome-of-chic" brainchild.

Juicy Couture

Also on Fifth Avenue until recently was Juicy Couture, a brand which had a distinct rise and fall. No one can forget the terry cloth bling encrusted sweatsuits with writing on the butt, which came to characterize an entire decade (the 'OO's) of Hollywood starlets, junior high school girls (I finally got rid of at least a dozen of the zip up sweatshirts that my daughter wore daily, many purchased at full price, ugh!), as well as older women in suburbia or at the gym pre-Lululemon. The company had been sold to Liz Claiborne (now Kate Spade & Co.) in 2003 by founders Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor (see my previous article about this) who walked away with $53.1 million yet recently told the Huff Po "It's Been Painful to Watch the Brand Fail." I saw the writing on the wall (or actually in the window) when a 60% off sale sign appeared in early spring before any other stores were having their seasonal clearance. All North American stores are closing yet Kohl's will feature the brand as well as several international stores. I don't know the status of the now shuttered Fifth Avenue location but would not be surprised to see a Kate Spade boutique in its stead assuming there's still time on the lease.

Intermix on Madison Avenue
Lastly, I am watching a chain of stores not yet represented in the upper Fifth Avenue locale (they have one on 21st and Fifth) namely Intermix which was purchased by The Gap at the end of 2013. They have recently completed a renovation of the store closest to me (Madison and 78th) and seem to be putting a good deal of money into the brand. Merchandise seems to be holding steady (still wickedly overpriced and usually available elsewhere) although there are definitely more sales promotions. Service issues can't be generalized on however; the last time I shopped the uptown store the "sales-sphynx" could not be bothered to show me the merchandise I inquired about and directed me with a sweeping hand and a "It's over there" wave. I walked out and decided to give the Meatpacking District Washington Street store a whirl and surprisingly received no snooty attitude. In fact, the sales staff couldn't have been nicer!

In a soccer analogy,(thanks World Cup): although mass market retailers seek to add profitable higher-end specialty stores as a goal, quite often they can't seem to keep their eye on the ball long enough to kick it in.

- Laurel Marcus

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