Service of Nostalgia III

February 3rd, 2014

Categories: Bargain, Fashion, Retail

Loehmann's

I haven’t covered this topic in quite a while and I hesitated doing so about this retail store that’s closing its doors because I’d dropped it as a must visit well over a dozen years ago when it became a shadow of itself. [Multiply me by millions of others and no doubt there’s the major reason it’s no longer in business.]

Navy blue sweaterAt one time and for years and years Loehmann’s was the place I depended on for my wardrobe. It was a store for people who love to shop, have an eye and lots of patience. This wasn’t the store to find a specific garment, such as a navy blue sweater or gray jacket. [Evening gowns were often an exception. In the day there usually was a perfect one at the right price but to be safe, you had to shop long before you needed it just in case you struck out.]

Some standout purchases: a spectacular raincoat and a magnificently tailored jacket better made than anything I owned–both with microscopic price tags. I tried on the jacket in spite of the marked size–far bigger than mine–and it fit perfectly. [It was such an incredible bargain that I kept the blue price tag in the jacket pocket for years because finding it there cheered me up.] Folks find great deals on line, but you can’t always tell quality—or lack of same–from a photo.

white blouseOne recognized challenge for Loehmann’s shoppers was that you’d buy slacks, a skirt or jacket and need a blouse to coordinate. Friends paid a fortune elsewhere. Not me: My budget taught me patience. Eventually I owned enough Loehmann’s odds and ends so I could create combinations that worked.

Audrey Hepburn BreakfastIn addition to evening gowns, the store was known for a great selection of winter coats. I predicted the death knell for the store in 1998 when I visited the Manhattan branch [for most of its successful life you had to hop a subway to Brooklyn or the Bronx], and there were only a handful of styles in any size–a first and a shock. You didn’t always find a coat you loved but you could count on a generous selection.

I have many Loehmann’s memories–the weirdo on the empty Bronx subway platform; Saturday evening jaunts that included a dash in to pick stuff to try on, a 5:30 church break to catch mass down the street and back again to vet the selections and the greasy spoon where we’d grab a bite before the store moved from Jerome Avenue–but enough about me.

As a lifelong discount shopper, long before such shopping was in fashion, I know that a store must meet its customers’ expectations while simultaneously keeping up with the times. Take Century 21. You can buy many of its bargains on line.

Can you predict the demise of a retail store or do you miss one that’s changed dramatically or that’s already gone?

Bonwit Teller

 

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22 Responses to “Service of Nostalgia III”

  1. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    Service, as well as merchandising, is responsible for the success (and failure) of any retail operation. I suspect that, in cutting back during the recession, Loehmann’s was literally gutting its future.

    Years ago, Conran’s occupied a key site here in Manhattan; it was one of Citicorp Tower’s original tenants, and the store was handsome. As a high schooler, my daughter worked there one summer…complaining almost daily about how badly the store was being managed. At one point she said that by the end of that month—because of rapid employee turnover—she was about to become the senior sales employee.

    That sounded ridiculous; I paid little attention to the claim. However, in responding to a sale of bar ware, I found myself in that store one day and, wandering about, hailed a smock-wearing sales person to ask where I could find on-sale bar ware. “That’s not my department,” she told me…and continued walking away.

    I eventually did find the bar ware and made my selection. Then I found myself in a long line at a single register. The cashier, though very efficiently taking money and credit cards, was on her mobile having a loud and extremely animated conversation with a friend. At times she was practically shrieking. Those of us standing in line were all (1) uncomfortable, and (2) annoyed—particularly when we could see people who appeared to be executives or, at the least, managers walking about, mindful of what was happening but indifferent to it.

    When I left, I thought to myself, “This store won’t be around in a year.” And it wasn’t.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Merv,

    I liked Conran’s! They sold a $10 plastic flamingo on metal feet that made me laugh! I didn’t have a lawn to put it on but what a hoot if I had!

    It makes me sad when a good place shoots itself. For individuals in management to be so shortsighted, not to see that their attitude could be the death knell to the place in which they make a living, causes me to shrug.

    I would be tempted to fire a person in any business who responded “That’s not my department” or “not my job” or “not my table” or “not my patient.” I heard the latter recently out of the mouth of a nurse walking outside a hospital patient’s door. He was in obvious distress and I was looking for help. Later that day I mentioned the incident to a young doctor on the patient’s team and she said that if she passed a room with someone in distress she’d rush in to help even if it wasn’t her patient.

    I have been in an inelegant grocery store where I’ve been brought not only to the aisle but to the actual product I was searching for by someone whose job certainly wasn’t to escort me. A tip–such as the aisle number–would be sufficient.

    So obvious and yet obviously, not so.

  3. Donna Boyle Schwartz Said:

    Donna Boyle Schwartz wrote on Facebook: “I find we miss Bombay Company stores–we could always find a nice gift for someone there, as well as interesting, offbeat items for ourselves. (And typically at reasonable prices.) The new licensed collections just aren’t the same….”

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Donna,

    I don’t know if this is the case with Bombay but so often a company thinks it can cut back on staff–“who needs a designer or a marketer? We’d save money by using Flossie, who just joined us from college, and ditching the other positions. She’s smart and her aunt is an interior decorator.”

  5. Martha Takayama Said:

    Nostalgia is a very powerful element especially today in a world ever increasingly interested in appearing to shed continuity even while sacrificing quality.

    It seems difficult the moment to predict what stores may fold and close. It remains to be seen what the results for the interminable convoluted snafus for package deliveries over the last holiday season will mean for the coming year.

    Among stores that I am nostalgic for or daintily miss are Best and Co., Bonwit Teller’s, (everything), C. Crawford Hollidge, (handkerchiefs, scarves), Jordan Marsh (Madame Alexander dolls, Christmas Village, blueberry muffins, Italian dresses), Peck & Peck, (tailored clothing) R.H. Stearns, (children’s clothing, shoes and accessories), Filene’s (The French Shops, Handbags, stockings) and more than anything Filene’s Basement (Everything).

    I also miss old-fashioned drugstores and maybe even “Five and Tens”. These all evoke nostalgia for different times in my life, for a variety of reasons and occasions. Some memories are even tied to specific relatives whose gifts were invariably of a similar nature and from the same store. The list covers a wide socio-economic range and varies from the elegant to the modest or mundane. Each business was renowned for its own area of specialization or focus, even though they were mostly department stores. At least in Boston, where I grew up, they also had many long-time employees who were often guides as well as salespeople and who enjoyed coteries of loyal shoppers.

    It is also often mystifying to understand those businesses that remain open and/or even expand often diluting their aura of preciousness, where pretentious, selective or rude service, if any, and prices that are clearly many multiples of the level of quality being offered, verges on a form of punishment.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martha,

    UPS was surprised that so many people did on the Internet what for years they boasted about doing before the Internet: Waited until the last minute to buy their holiday gifts. These people were no doubt disappointed for years when they couldn’t get just the toy or color gloves or size shirt they’d hoped for. I blame them, not UPS, for waiting until the last minute and the vendors who promised to deliver without leaving any margin for error.

    As for stratospheric prices, I can see why a business would ask for as much as it could get. The people I have never understood are those who pay silly prices for things. I guess it has to do with insecurity. The sad thing is when a person who can’t afford these symbols of wealth insists on buying them. They put the entire family into debt.

    As for being treated snootily in these places, it’s a disgrace. I would do what I do in anything from a coffee shop to a boutique, a newspaper store to a drugstore: I don’t go back.

    If I owned CVS, a drugstore in these parts, I’d consider adding a soda fountain that served very simple sandwiches, sodas, ice cream and milkshakes. I suppose rents are too high and return on investment too low for them to consider doing this. Too bad.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    At the very thought of large discount stores, all manner of aches and pains check in. Plowing through piles of tasteless and tacky items on the slim chance of finding something good is depressing, and places me one step away from a suicide hotline! Huge discounts may be found in better and smaller stores, if one is patient. Not only are the prices competitive with discount emporiums, one also enjoys a happier experience, consisting many tempting choices and an attentive staff.

    Loehmann’s has been around forever, and it’s upsetting to see a landmark, no matter how unloved, go. The resulting loss of jobs is also cause for concern. On that score, there’s reason to be sad. But when I think back to when as a child, I was dragged through these places (remember Klein’s, Ohrbach’s & etc.?) thus being given a lesson in how to hate shopping, I have trouble smothering a smile.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    I very well remember Kleins–which I HATED–and Orbachs–which I liked, but I loved Loehmann’s most of all.

    I learned a lesson in the days of formal dances, when I wore a dress from Bonwit’s and it was the first and only time that another young woman had on the same gown. I remember what it looked like and the fun my partner had in directing me near her on the dance floor as I cringed!

    I wouldn’t want anything to drive anyone to the suicide hotline but I admit I giggled when I read your reaction to the thought of hunting for things at discount places.

    I, too, am sorry for the loss of jobs.

  9. Horace Peabody Said:

    Last year my primary doctor sent me to a specialist who has treated him for many years. An absolutely charming man, this new doctor greeted me cordially and sat me down in his office. Then playing Dr. A. Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes, he asked me, “Now, which did you attend?”, and then he named the college he and my doctor had attended, and the college that I went to.

    I replied, “How the hell did you know that?”

    He told me, “Your tweed jacket opened as you sat down, and the name of the store you bought it at was on the label.”

    This small chain of men’s shops operates primarily in New England, but for many years it has had a branch (now shrunken to a third of the size it used to be) in New York. I first shopped there in 1947 and have been going back ever since.

    Why did I? Most of their clothes were well made and look like what you bought from them, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, even sixty years ago. Also, their staff knew its stuff and its prices were fair.

    No more. I stopped by the week before Christmas, and the place was empty. I bought a desperately needed shirt, good quality and not made in China, which was, even though on sale, horribly expensive. The salesman, who looked extremely uncomfortable in the decidedly un-hip clothes management had him wear, gave every appearance, perhaps because he was inarticulate, of being an aging escapee from a reform school. Fortunately, I knew exactly what I wanted. I double checked his math, paid and left.

    Soon, I fear, I shall have no choice but to wear rags or stay home. The alternative is a London tailor, and I cannot afford one these days. That’s progress for you.

  10. Deirdre Wyeth Said:

    Deirdre Wyeth wrote on Facebook: “Not for nothing, but Loehmann’s refused to carry what we call plus sizes. Overweight women would have brought down the tone of the store apparently. Hurt the brand. But If you stood outside Loehmann’s you’d see a large number of potential sales walking past the store. When companies discriminate and then go out of business, I don’t mourn. Century 21, by the way, only carries plus sizes downtown. They refused to have a plus department at the Lincoln Center store (about 7 blocks from the Going Out of Business Loehmann’s UWS store).”

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Deirdre,

    When I was a kid I had a horrible time finding gifts I was proud to give my Mom at any price—even from Bloomingdale’s microscopic plus size department. I never understood why an entire market was ignored by the fashion industry and then this changed. Finally. So it’s good to know that a fine discount store has a plus size department at all. Sorry that the store didn’t go the extra step by carrying even a small selection at all branches as it does a few scarves, handbags, beauty products. Given the slow recognition of the plus size market to begin with, there’s hope that discount venues will continue to smarten up. TJ Maxx in Poughkeepsie has.

  12. Larry Kay Said:

    Larry Kay wrote on Facebook: “This may have changed, but after trying to help a friend find a dress at Bloomie’ about 10 years ago, I decided that their motto must be “You can’t be too thin or too rich””

  13. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Larry –

    That’s funny. I haven’t been there in a dog’s age so I can’t attest to whether or not it’s still true.

  14. RCF Said:

    In Boston, Filene’s Bargain Basement. And all over the East Coast, Woolworth’s. I still have packets of pins and needles labeled “Woolworth’s.” and thread and cardboards of snaps, hooks and eyes, they have lasted unrusted and perfectly usable in my gold topped sweater box for sewing, with buttons, a thimble, patches (some iron-on, some not) and all sorts of necessities for mending. Something even seems to take over when I settle in to mend – skill returns to my fingers, concentration keeps my fingers unpricked, my scissors at hand. Wow – an ode to Woolworth’s! Thank you for bringing back memories.

  15. Jeanne Byington Said:

    RCF,

    I envy you your sewing talent, something I totally lack.

    However without places to buy notions, like Woolworth’s or department stores that can’t afford to carry low profit items in notions depts–Bloomingdale’s had one–I can’t find things in NYC like cotton iron-on patches [not the thick ones for jeans or cords]! I’ve checked online…there is a place in a neighborhood that’s so far out of reach that I’ve never made it over.

  16. Deirdre Wyeth Said:

    Deirdre wrote on Facebook: “TJ Maxx is the only place in walking distance that has plus sizes – about 2 racks of mishmash, but better than nothing. The best place, surprisingly, is Lord & Taylor, leading me to think L&T will be in business for a while!”

  17. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Deirdre,

    I’m glad to hear that about Lord & Taylor.

    All clothing at TJ Maxx upstate is a mishmosh–and not as good as Loehmann’s used to be. It’s especially great for frames, pasta, linens, glass and dinnerware, wrapping paper and Christmas cards. I’ve bought usable things to wear for little money but I don’t get excited when I wear them and while inexpensive, they look inexpensive.

  18. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Horace,

    You identify the signs of a store on its way out which is a shame as you obviously love the place. There is no reason it can’t thrive with a touch of marketing and paying better wages to attract the right staff–all those college kids who need work before they get the job they want. Further, it might expand its offerings to some things a younger crowd would enjoy wearing. They are missing the boat in many ways which is a shame as they have a nut of potential shoppers who can afford their fashions.

    Sounds like Ralph Lauren has taken a page from this store’s book–very expensive, classic clothing. Trouble with Ralph is that on most if not all of his things you have to wear his logo/initials which I don’t think is the case with your store. And his fashions show up at discount, although who knows if he doesn’t make a cheaper version for that purpose as manufacturers of dishwashers, stoves and refrigerators do.

  19. Horace Peabody Said:

    I disagree with your analysis of why my favourite men’s store is failing.

    First of all, they were never expensive. They were fairly priced. Now they are expensive. By maintaining quality standards and continuing to make clothes in styles popular a half century ago or more, its core market now consists of men over eighty. Their old salesmen either died of old age or starved from lack of commissions as the store’s customer base literally shrivelled up.

    I can’t stand the other store you mentioned, which I consider to be a fraud, and I refuse to wear their clothes even when someone gives them to me as a present. However, they did do something right. They changed with the times. I haven’t, and I’m proud of it. My store didn’t, and it’s dying.

  20. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Horace,

    I just returned from what used to be called the New York Gift Show. I may write about some highlights so I don’t want to go into chapter and verse here, but I noticed some brands that have been around for eons that do a great job of enticing today’s customers. One promoted the fact that it was founded in the 19th century. Their products were wonderful, valid for 2014 and their display a smash. Others, in the tabletop industry, have kept some of the classic of their 100+ history and have added fresh new looks and others haven’t. The latter simply looked wrong to me.

    What your favorite clothing store forgot to do was to tweak with the fresh while keeping some of the tried and true. I know plenty of men in their 60s-80s who like dressing in a spiffy manner. When they do it’s a joy to see.

  21. CKC Said:

    I never shopped at Loehmann’s but there were others i.e. Daffy’s, that are also gone. Now the department stores have such huge sales that they might as well be discount stores.

  22. Jeanne Byington Said:

    CKC,

    Maybe I should take another look at some of the department stores I’ve avoided for years as I found their service more than lackluster and I resented paying full price–or a measly discount on something that was overpriced–to be treated shabbily on top of it. I was tired of waiting for help in shoe departments to learn 99 percent of the time that they didn’t have my size and being abandoned in dressing rooms expecting someone, who never came, to ask if I needed a different size.

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