Department store apocalypse is taking its toll on NYC

Department store apocalypse is taking its toll on NYC

By Steve Cuozzo July 14, 2018 | 8:39am

I’m going to miss Lord & Taylor like mad when the Fifth Avenue flagship closes next year. It isn’t only because of the unlikely bargains I scored on its often-deserted men’s floors — a red vinyl Perry Ellis-label jacket, marked down from $79.95 to $39.95 that strangers hilariously mistake for Armani, and a wool winter coat as good as any for $49.99.

I won’t miss the once-charming but more recently cheap-looking holiday windows that weren’t worth waiting on line for. But Lord & Taylor, like every big department store, offered a welcoming civility that softened the city’s rough edges. New York will be slightly less human without it, however obsolete its business model. Never again will the public enjoy the store’s grand main floor with its noble vaulted ceiling, arched mirrors and stately columns.

The shutdown is one of up to 10 Lord & Taylor closures of a total 50 stores planned by chain owner, Hudson’s Bay Company. It comes amidst a nationwide department store apocalypse. Hudson’s Bay, which owns 488 stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, is battling high debt, declining sales and falling stock prices.

Another industry giant, Macy’s Inc., which also owns Bloomingdale’s, has closed 14 percent of its stores since 2014, while its same-store sales in 2017 fell 4.3 percent compared with 2016. J.C. Penney closed 138 locations, or 14 percent of its stores, last year.

Jeffrey Roseman, vice chairman of Newmark Knight Frank’s retail-brokerage division, told The Post, “The need for an eight-story, multi-hundred-thousand square-foot department store in major cities is limited at best.”

Noting that most main floors are turned over to cosmetics, Roseman said, “What woman wants to buy fragrance there? They can go into Sephora, Ulta or Blue Mercury and get the same stuff cheaper and be out in 10 minutes.”

But while department stores might be extinction-bound dinosaurs, they’re charming dinosaurs to have around.

Cities, as urban-planning god Jane Jacobs wrote in her classic 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” are about multiplicity of choice. Department stores provide infinite choice, or at least the mirage of it — the opposite of boutiques that peddle a single designer or brand.

Department stores welcome everyone to peruse enticingly displayed cocktail dresses and necklaces, sofas and floor lamps under one roof. Trying things on is a breeze. Although I buy tons of stuff from Amazon and at no-frills discounters such as Century 21, I still crave the sense of abundant prosperity conveyed by Bloomingdale’s over-the-top model rooms and Saks Fifth Avenue’s stately procession of designer suits.

Sure, they’ve long been losing ground. Once-distinct department stores began looking more alike as powerful fashion lines came to dictate retail layout and design. They staggered through a beating from big-box and “category-killer” discounters but now face a possible knockout blow from online retailing.

Too bad, because department stores are among the most agreeable places to mingle, meet friends, linger on a rainy day — and eat. Many have fine restaurants like Macy’s marvelous Italian trattoria Stella. They offer public toilets that don’t require nuclear code-like protocols to use.

But almost every property in Manhattan today is worth less than its redevelopment value — a fact that puts all department stores at risk.

Sure, a small new Saks Fifth Avenue opened downtown last year and two more department stores are coming to Manhattan in a year or two. But the combined 652,000 square feet of the planned new Nordstrom on West 57th Street, Neiman Marcus at Hudson Yards and Saks at Brookfield Place are less than soon-to-go Lord & Taylor’s 676,000 square feet, which will become part of the mushrooming WeWork empire.

Meanwhile, Macy’s on Downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Street is shrinking from 378,000 to 310,000 square feet as the building is swallowed up in a new development.

Barneys’ Madison Avenue flagship might not survive an arbitrator’s upcoming possible decision to bless the landlord’s demand for a fourfold rent increase that the store says it can’t afford.

Even Saks’ great Fifth Avenue flagship is potentially at risk. One major shareholder in Hudson’s Bay Company wants to unload it to make room for an office or apartment tower, although the company said it has no intention of doing so.

Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue store suffered not only from real-estate pressure but from bad mismanagement. The store put more energy into preventing the pilfering of $50 items than providing service to customers who might spend $5,000. While I often looked in vain for sales help, a ferocious security guard once chased my wife when a false-alarm buzzer sounded until a manager came to her rescue — and offered her only a weak apology.

But losing it is a pity nonetheless. WeWork paid $850 million for the building, an offer that Hudson’s Bay, grappling with a $646 million operating loss in the last fiscal year, couldn’t refuse.

WeWork hopes to attract companies to its “people-centered design and connected-space technology.” The people at 424 Fifth Ave. will no longer include shoppers, browsers or salespeople hawking fragrances.

It won’t be the same without them. No, ladies, I don’t want to “experience Giorgio today” — but I’ll miss being asked.


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