Before Wal-Mart and Kohl's, before Pottery Barn and Pier One and Bed Bath & Beyond, the department store catered to shoppers' needs for everything from apparel to appliances, packaging it all under one roof and throwing in a good measure of customer service.
But department stores across America are fighting for survival as never before. They're struggling amid intense competition, value-conscious and time-starved consumers, a weakened economy and, from some accounts, a lack of creativity that has sent bored shoppers away in droves.
Surveys by America's Research Group, a Charleston, S.C., consumer behavior and strategic marketing firm, have shown that the numbers of people shopping at major department stores in any given month have dropped by 30 percent to 40 percent compared with five years ago.
"Are department stores in trouble? The facts say their position is unsustainable," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a national retail consulting firm with its headquarters in New York.
He gives most of the department store chains a 50-50 chance of survival.
"The good news is generally they have lots of money," he said. "They're not going out of business tomorrow."
May Department Stores Co., one of the nation's biggest department store owners, is just the latest retailer to feel the woes enveloping traditional mall anchors vying with too many rivals for consumer dollars.
On Wednesday, May said it will pull the plug on 32 of its money-losing Lord & Taylor department stores in 15 states -- more than a third of the chain -- lay off 3,700 employees and completely abandon some markets where it can't compete as a more upscale retailer.
Having entered the Baltimore market in 1998 with four stores, including an Owings Mills Mall store that closed last year, Lord & Taylor will close its White Marsh Mall store, leaving it with just two in the area -- at The Mall in Columbia and Annapolis Mall.
"The problem is endemic with department stores as a whole. They don't own a niche," said Tom Rothschild, vice president of marketing for Millman Search Group, a national retail consultant based in Owings Mills. Department store chains have made their problem worse, he said, by trying to play a game they can't win.
"They've become so promotional that the only time people shop the stores is for the one-day sale. The department stores hung themselves on a promotional nail, and now they're having a hard time getting off," Rothschild said.
But department stores, typically with higher overhead costs than discounters, can't compete on price with discounters such as Wal-Mart, or on the selection of big-box category killers such as Bed Bath & Beyond. Target, one of the nation's biggest mass discounters, has created its own niche as the hip discounter with cachet.
"The difference between Kmart and Target is emotional branding," Rothschild said. "If you buy a $10 top, if you got it at Target, it's cool; at Kmart, it's not."
Compounding department stores' woes, shopper traffic is declining at malls, where most of the stores are located.
"You can find the same item 20 times over; there's so much sameness in the malls," Rothschild said. "The customer will go where the sale is. If you're offering the same thing everyone else is, why should they shop you?"
Said Davidowitz, "'Off the mall' is more popular than 'on the mall.' If you need a washing machine, instead of going to Sears, you drive up to Home Depot and buy one."
The same goes for apparel shopping, he said.
"People find it much more convenient to drive up to a Kohl's, get out of the car, do their shopping in a simplified, 80,000-square-foot environment with a racetrack design where they can see the whole store with central checkouts," he said. "In the department store, we have a four-hour project when you have to park at the mighty mall parking lot. People are time-poor."
The rise of the discounters also has contributed to a more value-conscious mentality among shoppers, experts said.
"Consumers believe that department stores are going to cost them 10, 15 or 20 percent more than what they'd pay at some other store or a big-box retailer for the same goods," said Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America's Research Group. "Over the years, people would say, 'I didn't mind that, because I got service and help in the store,'" he said. "You didn't mind it because you got something for your 15 percent more."
But as department store chains consolidated and focused more on the bottom line and cutting expenses, many of the publicly held companies have cut back on store help, analysts said.
"If you're like me, you go to a department store and look around and say there's nobody in here," Beemer said. "You're struggling trying to find somebody that wants to take your money."
Department stores are not sitting idly by, watching their business completely slip away.
May intends to take Lord & Taylor upscale, returning it to its heritage as a purveyor of style. Marshall Field's, a Chicago-based division of Target, is renting out space in its stores to independent vendors. Federated Department Stores Inc., the owner of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, is trying to develop a strong brand with the Macy's name across the nation and seeking to increase its private label merchandise to entice customers. Saks Inc. is putting FAO Schwarz-operated branded toy or candy departments in more than 200 department stores run by Saks' Department Store Group.
Keeping it simple
Smaller chains are joining forces. The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., a clothing and accessory retailer, is offering $7 for each common share of Elder-Beerman Stores Corp., which operates 68 stores in Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Also, many department stores are carefully studying the more winning formulas, such as Kohl's, with simple layouts and more focused merchandising.
"They don't have pants in 85 places in the store," said Davidowitz.