April 19th, 2020
Guest Post

How Will We Replicate The Department Store Shopping Experience?

My sister and I were chatting about the demise of the department store. Barneys shuttered before COVID-19 was part of our lexicon, and Neiman Marcus just defaulted on their loans and is predicted to go into bankruptcy. The other big names are also on the ropes financially with uncertain futures. Neiman owns Bergdorf Goodman, the only department store I frequent. But, I don’t always go to BG to shop, more often I go to meet friends for lunch. I’m a devoted online shopper, but for my sister, who is  from another generation, the store closures are making her question how she will shop for clothes in the future. So, I asked her to share her thoughts.

I have had plenty of time to ponder just how much adapting will be needed once COVID-19 runs its course.  This global stress test has accelerated trends that we were perhaps slow to accept. What do we see more clearly now? That everyone needs access to good health care. That carbon emissions really do pollute our environment. That working remotely in a digital environment is…workingThese are some of the many things we will come to accept as the new normal.

The future of retail shopping is another trend being brought up short by this pandemic.  The heyday of department stores and retail malls is clearly behind us.  We have slowly acclimated to the closures by turning to online providersOur local malls are filling voids with non-revenue producing uses such as kids’ playgroundsThese changes were already set in motion long before COVID-19.

Assuming this trend towards the demise of retail accelerates in a post-COVID-19 world, we will be forced to find new ways to shop for clothes.  Perhaps the “we” in the former sentence, is we Boomers who grew up with the Macyand Filenes of yesteryear.

I, for one, am a devoted Nordstrom shopper.  At 68, I have been relying on Nordstrom’s offerings for over 40 years.  Going to Nordstrom is the highlight of my spring and fall forays into the fashion world.  It is there, with the help of a terrific personal shopper, that I discover what’s new and where push new boundaries to find my style.  For me it is more than simply shopping- it is an opportunity to reinvent myself.

So, should Nordstrom fall victim and disappear, I will need to adapt.  The question is how. What will my future clothes shopping experience look like?

Susan Bastress is an attorney practicing international law in Washington, D.C.


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  • Not only carbon emissions do pollute our environment. Fashion industry is terribly polluting waters and soil, making very sick people which are working at the production. I really do hope it will disappear in this form as we know it. It will be very painful. I think each of us has enough clothes and shoes to survive 3 years (perhaps more) of not shopping. I read yesterday “A letter for the new time” from Brunello Cucinelli on their website and it amused me really. I used to buy their clothes 4-5 years ago, I used to buy Hermes and Loro Piana and all this became so poor in quality and fabric composition that I don’t even check their websites anymore. At the certain age we know ourselves very well, excellent natural fabric and a good tailor., that’s all what i need. And a shoemaker. There was overproduction of everything in the world, and this “everything” was in mass quantity and mass quality. No matter how much you are ready to pay. Online shopping doesn’t exist to me, I need to touch the fabric, see the print or design. And shipping back again and again in case of mistakes or not fitting well is not for me. I really do respect our environment.

    IsabelApril 19th, 2020  12:08 PM

  • As a typically glass half empty person, I am strangely optimistic about this, I do not think this is the death of so many beloved and dear traditions. As I was processing my sadness over my teenage son’s loss of some Spring rites of passage, my very wise Mother reminded me this is ‘ but a drop in the bucket of his life’. Humans are adaptable and we overcome – we rebuild ( often better than before even!) and we will Do so again. It’s far too early in my humble opinion to declare this the new normal. Xo

    GraceApril 19th, 2020  12:20 PM

  • My family has moved around the country a lot over the years and I think the department store experience has slowly been on the demise way before COVID. We lived in the Chicago area for some years and had a wonderful N-M that I would go to. In the last few years, the store has gotten emptier and the staff less helpful. Very often when I would go in search of certain items/designers, I would frequently be told that they “only carry that online.” If that is the case, then how is a brick and mortar store to compete with either the online version of itself or say an NAP or a Matches? I shop through NAP a lot, find their customer service most helpful and you certainly can’t beat their return policy.

    KimApril 19th, 2020  12:28 PM

  • As someone your sister’s age, I commiserate with her. I have always loved shopping! I’d visit department stores and small boutiques the world over, like others would visit museums. I am also an avid online shopper, although I once imagined I could never get used to it.

    Right now, tho, I don’t recognize myself anymore. I haven’t travelled or been inside a retail shop in months. I still peruse some online sites, but with little enthusiasm or desire to buy, since I’m not out and about.

    Will this trend have staying power? Who knows? But I am curious about the prospect of what’s next. We’ll all just have to stay tuned…

    LKAApril 19th, 2020  1:26 PM

  • I think the demise of the department store has been a long time coming. Especially high end ones that really don’t meet the needs of today’s shoppers. I have found the commission structure to create a rather obnoxious shopping experience when it’s clear the salesperson is motivated by that. I believe there will always be a place for a Nordstrom’s although I’ve lived quite nicely without entering one for years. If the higher end stores want to stay around they would need to gear more towards today’s shopper, get rid of “ commissions” change their rigid shipping requirements, etc. for the time being, stores like Net-aPorter have figured this out.
    For me, this pandemic has made it obvious that I have way too much of everything and I’m going to stop shopping so much . .

    Paula BApril 19th, 2020  1:42 PM

  • Having been in isolation for almost 40 days, working from home on line, I can hardly wait to go shopping!
    Yes, I’ve purchased and returned clothing and household items during the past 40 days but the touch of the fabric, the color of the print, the quality of the cloth, the way the clothing is stitched makes me itch for more, and yes I will be back in the store for more!

    Margaret CorneliusApril 19th, 2020  1:42 PM

  • I am with the crowd that has noticed demise of the brick-and-mortar stores long before the current crisis. It had somehow become the norm to see only a ‘sampling’ of sizes for a given item in an upscale store with a sales person sheepishly offering to order your size (a fairly standard 8 or 10)… online with, oh, a few day delivery delay. My biggest Neiman’s surprise came last year when I arrived with a couple of nearly empty bottles of Dior nail polish and a humble request to help me find the same colors. I had already done the homework as the bottles were in my hands and so were, of course, the color name and the product code. After a couple of minutes of fumbling on her computer a very polite lady told me the colors were no longer available. That same evening I found the colors I needed on… Neiman’s website. Unfortunately, along with many other things, the pandemic has highlighted the not-so-great path the department stores had taken over the past decade. At the same time, a number of boutiques have quickly adopted to the new realities and upped their offerings. Remains to be seen whether this is where the future is.

    IrinaApril 19th, 2020  2:33 PM

  • I miss the social aspect of it. It was an activity that we could do as friends, poking around,
    trying things on. I will miss that..

    LeslieApril 19th, 2020  4:15 PM

  • As Preston often says, I would miss the “discovery” element of shopping in my favorite department store. Designers produce more than shown on the runway, and each store’s buyer has their own taste. I, too, love Bergdorf Goodman for their buy.

    NinaApril 19th, 2020  5:50 PM

  • I woke up to the Neiman Marcus news then saw your post come through. Enjoyed reading your sisters thoughts. I grew up in retail. I crave a shop atmosphere and a relationship with a salesperson. Will be interesting to see how things progress.

    AmyApril 19th, 2020  7:59 PM

  • Back in the 50’s the standard way of buying was through the sears catalogue . That ended with the rise of the Malls. Now we are at a turning point. On line buying is great for a perfect size 40/42. But once you start going up in size, which is inevitable , buying on line is impossible. Companies size differently . American brands cut bigger, European brands smaller and British brands I just can’t figure out. So I like department store. Lately , if my local Barneys or bergdorf did not have my size I would look for it on their online . It worked and I enjoy trying things on. However, my kids buy on line and the return rate is insane!!! I do not see this working long term and I think that all these returns must have an effect on bottom line!!

    Angela LApril 19th, 2020  8:51 PM

  • I buy plenty online, but I know the demise of brick and mortar stores is going to be greatly regretted and mourned. My first job in high school was in a local department store in Hartford, CT, and so many of my teenage memories are wrapped up in that experience. It was exciting and so much fun. I remember the excitement of the first malls, too. I tend to think, that in the future the concept of local shopping will be revived and it will come back in all its glory, like its a new concept. At least I hope it does. I share your sister’s feelings.

    AprilApril 20th, 2020  10:59 AM

  • I worked for a luxury brand that is still one of the last companies to sell RTW and accessories online and I think it’s still important to have brick and mortars- there will always be people who want to experience the clothes in person. The million dollar question is HOW they will function. To me the biggest problem for fashion was it became excessive- and the luxury houses were competing for a share of the customer dollar- with various levels of ‘ luxury’. The drive for accessories-handbags, wallets, shoes, sunglasses, scarves, costume jewelry- all of it became too common and lacked the true ‘luxury’ emotion retailers were promoting. Bergdorfs survived during the Great Depression, and I think they will survive this, especially since they’re a one of. I think the other brands like Saks, Neimans, etc will have to downsize their chain, and conglomerates like LVMH and Kering will whittle down their stables and return to a less is more approach. The indie brands are offering bespoke and I believe we will see a rise in that, as well as vintage. And I think whatever happens will be driven by climate change first over anything else. Because the planet is clearly happier- and healthier without us humans.

    SeverineApril 20th, 2020  11:22 AM

  • I wonder if the decline in physical department stores like Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus will push for a less industrial and smaller scale shopping experience. Rather than multi floor complexes, a small boutique, privately owned will dominate. I hope that the less intimidating, welcoming feel of a single room store will be promoted. A smaller yet curated collection for a specific taste. I hope more of these come out of the fall of big department stores.

    Giovanna BoffaApril 20th, 2020  12:05 PM

  • I’m of your sister’s generation, but gave up shopping in department stores (except for shoes and makeup) long ago. I prefer shopping online. But, like you, I love meeting friends for lunch in nice department stores and just sort of wandering. I remember going to “fancy” department stores for lunch and a fashion show with my mother and grandmother, and then getting outfitted for school. The world is changing so fast, and I’m hoping for the better, but feel unsure of it.

    KathyApril 20th, 2020  12:08 PM

  • I think Isabel said it right. Over consumerism is so tacky now, I just don’t want to see what $2,000 bag someone “has” to have when they already have a dozen other options. Maybe reinvention is seeing that you have a closet full of things to wear and you just need to put it together differently. For the planet and for the animals that sacrifice their lives for fashions whims.

    JessApril 20th, 2020  2:49 PM

  • Similar thoughts here. Shopping was evolving pre-Covid-19. I thought a balance was emerging between the online and physical shopping experience. I’d hoped for fewer stores, but better experiences. It’s not only what I will miss about shopping, but who. I have had some truly wonderful salespeople in various stores in various cities who would follow up with thank you notes, occasional texts, and have been wonderful resources and advisors. You just can’t replace that level of personal service online. Missing wishing them well!

    KWApril 20th, 2020  8:45 PM

  • As some one who does not live in the USA, I can still relate to the demise of the department store, not just for purchasing fashionable clothing but furniture, appliances and as a social venue.

    In my opinion, the curated boutique will be there for the real life shopping experience for those ‘out of work hours’ wardrobe. However, for those ‘ corporate work clothes’ not too frivolous, not too dowdy, I think it be the on line shop.

    The shopping mall is in a death spiral. Where I live, there is the return to local shopping strips ie along streets and local centres as opposed to the mall.

    I don’t think brick and mortar shops will disappear because the best ones are works of art and a vital part of the community. This includes not only clothing stores but independent book shops and whatever else presents an independent view. The best shops are not just about shopping but about education, experience and building communities.

    claireApril 21st, 2020  4:52 AM

  • So many thoughtful and interesting responses and I find I agree with at least part of what everyone said. Nostalgia makes me long for the days of attentive, creative staff in even the larger department stores but perhaps the shopping experience is like politicians, we get what we deserve; if we don’t pay people enough for them to be treated like professionals and always demand more for (unrealistically) less then we can’t wonder why things have deteriorated. Online can never fully replace the feelings invoked by a relaxed, enjoyable retail day and that’s perhaps the future: emotional attachments created by experiences. How that is accomplished is the wonderful thing about the future in that we haven’t met or seen the way creative people will make this happen. I read an article recently interviewing scientists and health professionals talking about the lessons learned from previous pandemics and the last line quoted by one of the interviewees resonated with me: “one of the most harmful after-effects of these events is amnesia”. Once there is a vaccine and we can truly move around again, will we be so relieved and excited that we’ll want to duplicate “before” or will we have learned anything by living more slowly, that’s an interesting question for me. Thanks Preston for sharing your sister’s thoughts and your always insightful community. ❤️

    SueMApril 21st, 2020  9:17 AM

  • I’m 40 and despise online shopping where it’s nearly impossible to accurately discern quality or fit.

    I have noted in the past few years, much to my irritation, that when I do go into stores nothing is in stock but is available online. The practical solution would be moving towards the model of carrying one thing in stock in each size for trying on but then having the customer order it.

    Regarding department stores, outside of BG most in the US don’t differentiate enough so going to Nordstrom is very similar to Bloomingdales etc.

    SRApril 21st, 2020  10:00 AM

  • We would all do well to heed Grace’s mother’s advice! I have remained very optimistic throughout this health crisis and highly skeptical of the predictions that we will return to normal, including living life to it’s fullest. Sadly, the national ‘stay home for weeks on end’ policy will be the nail in the coffin for many business, large or small, that was teetering at the outset. We have been in social purgatory for nearly two months. Of course businesses are failing!
    It’s worth noting that NM, BG, & My Theresa are all owned by Mariposa Intermediate Holdings. Without doing a deep dive, I don’t know who the major investors/owners are of the LLC, but just guessing it’s an international conglomerate of some sort. I think this is worth mentioning in order to understand why they are failing. I doubt creating a fine ladies’ full-service department store with top quality retail professionals or offering a special shopping experience that is unique or different is at the forefront of this large holding company’s mission.
    I, too, am of the department store shopping generation. I didn’t grow up looking at labels. The stores themselves had individual identities based on their buying selections, and the better stores sewed their own labels in the clothing. Shoes were always by brand. Buyers had the primary influence over the success of each department. They could spot when one line had gone south or if the quality was not worth the price tag. They also knew their customers likes and needs. Designer label boutiques didn’t exist. The people who worked at these stores were at least middle age, mostly older. Men in suits fit my siblings and me in back-to-school shoes, and most parents were willing to pay fairly for this assurance of fit, quality, and for their services. All stores had fashion merchandising professionals – exceptionally artistic and talented people who created seasonal displays throughout and in windows and oversaw the newspaper ads. A shopping day usually included lunch at one of the tea rooms or a cafeteria. All of this made for a delightful, rich shopping experience which we all looked forward to. My mother, having four children, needed the help of sales people. I think she would have pulled her hair out to have to shop for us individually online (not to mention the returns!).
    As a young college woman, I worked part time at a beautiful bridal salon in our loveliest ladies department store under the supervision of the buyer – a woman in her late fifties who I learned so much from. Observing her interactions with brides and their mothers, listening to her commentary on a variety of subjects, learning to take instruction, serve, and communicate properly with customers, was without question the most formative work of my life. After my mother, I owe a debt of gratitude to LeAnna.
    Both my son and daughter appreciate the difference an in-person shopping experience makes in their lives and they would like more retail shopping. Selecting and clicking on the image of a well-designed website, then meeting the UPS man at the door is nothing more than buying. It’s not shopping. I like to think there will be a demand for a more fulfilling, social shopping experience than sitting home with one’s computer and spending money and accumulating empty boxes for the recycle bin.

    My daughter and my recent shopping experience in NY surpassed our wildest expectations! We had the most wonderful, gracious, knowledgeable, professional bridal gown consultants. It was exactly what it should be – extremely special and personal. I loved the consultant at Bergdorf’s so much, I ended up writing her a follow up note. My daughter wrote each the two consultants who assisted her. And after weeks of looking online for my own dress, and after having numerous dresses sent out, none of which were right, I made a trip to Chicago and met the best, most delightful sales associate at a designer boutique, and it was without question among the best shopping experiences I have ever had. She took such an interest in understanding my need and getting it right. She took customer care to a whole new level. The personal shopper at Saks was wonderful, too.
    Finally, not all retail experiences are worth preserving – Hermes on Oak Street deserves to be called out among the worst! Unfriendly, indifferent, haughty, horribly snobby – the only person who has greeted me there in years has been the security guard at the entrance. And even he can’t be bothered to open their heavy door for a customer.
    : ))

    PaulaApril 21st, 2020  4:16 PM

  • I agree the experience has changed and it will be interesting to see what the future holds. I mostly shop online for convenience, but perfer to shop for shoes in person because I can work with the sales person I have known for years. I know the way I shop is changing. This year I have been using Rent the Runway more, assessing what I already own, and feeling the need to better focus my purchases. Going forward, I still see the need for the stylist/sales person’s input.

    CBApril 23rd, 2020  6:36 AM


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