Bloomingdale's: Bargain Basement to Shopping Mecca

NEXT to baseball, shopping has become the great American pastime. And over the past three decades, Bloomingdale's has helped transform the shopping experience from the everyday to the extraordinary.

Bloomingdale's ``became to retailing what Barnum & Bailey is to circuses: The Greatest Show on Earth,'' a 1991 New York Times editorial stated.

In his book, ``Like No Other Store: The Bloomingdale's Legend and the Revolution in American Marketing,'' Marvin Traub, former chairman of Bloomingdale's, gives a behind-the-scenes look at how the department store changed its image from a bargain basement to a shopping mecca for the rich and famous.

Written with Tom Teicholz, the book is far from a textbook version of retailing philosophies and statistics. Rather, it is a colorful story that places Bloomingdale's against the backdrop of changes in American lifestyle over the past 50 years. It is filled with anecdotes about some of the biggest names in fashion, design, and cosmetics, including: Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Estee Lauder. ``Like No Other Store'' also gives a personal account of Robert Campeau, the corporate raider who almost bankrupted Bloomingdale's.

The book is divided into several parts. The first is autobiographical, describing Traub's background and early work experience. Born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan, Traub's education in retailing began at his parents' knees. His mother was fashion director at Bonwit Teller and his father was executive vice president of Lily of France. After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1949, Traub went to work for Bloomingdale's. Over the next 40 years, he rose from basement assistant to executive vice president and general merchandise manager, eventually becoming president and then chairman.

Traub spends most of the book describing the rise of Bloomingdale's and its impact on the home furnishings, apparel, and cosmetics industries. When he started at the store in 1950, it was not turning a profit. To do so, Bloomingdale's would have to change its image - the biggest challenge in retailing, according to Traub. The goal: to create a store that would appeal to an emerging group of middle- and upper-income consumers with sophisticated taste.

The most important person in Bloomingdale's transformation was Traub's mentor, James Edward Davidson, the store's chairman for 16 years. Davidson understood that ``shopping was about people's self-image.'' While most stores selected goods based on their regular customers' incomes, Davidson thought a store should decide what to offer based on the taste of the customers it wanted to attract.

Bloomingdale's success rested with its ability to change with the times. Before the 1950s, people shopped only when they had a legitimate need. But the 1950s brought the first post-war generation that could focus on quality-of-living standards, and Bloomingdale's was the first department store to recognize this shift, according to Traub.

In home furnishings, Bloomingdale's capitalized on young couples who wanted to decorate their homes with their own furniture, rather than that of their parents. So the store introduced a successful line of Italian furniture.

In clothing, weekend leisure wear, casual and athletic wear, and slacks for women were all becoming popular, as more people moved to the suburbs. Bloomingdale's introduced designers who catered to such styles. Ralph Lauren, for example, built his business step by step with Bloomingdale's.

No space in a department store produces more dollars per square foot than the cosmetics department. In 1950, less than 20 percent of female customers worked, but over the next four decades that number quadrupled. As a result, by the 1980s the cosmetics business was booming. Traub documents the rivalries between Revlon and Estee Lauder.

At Bloomingdale's, housewares were treated like fashion. The store sold kitchen items as status symbols. The newest and trendiest in housewares, appliances, and gadgets - Bloomingdale's had it first.

Bloomingdale's became a trendsetter in its retailing strategies, dividing the selling floor into boutiques that featured the products of emerging designers; offering customers unique mer- chandise from countries such as India, Israel, and China; creating unconventional window displays; and using photographs rather than illustrations in its advertisements.

At the end of the book, Traub makes predictions of future trends in retailing. Department stores, he believes, will survive because they meet a legitimate need of consumers. And mass-market department stores, such as Sears and J.C. Penney, he writes, will become more like traditional department stores. The future of membership warehouse clubs, however, looks uncertain, primarily because there are not enough customers to support the increasing number of stores.

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