Losing its place in retail world


Sometime long ago while no one was paying attention, Hecht's lost its way. When its parent company announced Thursday that its stores will be converted into Macy's stores and the Hecht's name will vanish, it wasn't so much sad as inevitable.

Hecht's - the last of the four homegrown department stores that once dominated Baltimore's retail landscape - was already heading toward oblivion.

Its place in the retail world had grown as glum and disorganized as the view in its department stores. Sweaters and color-coordinated Garanimal-like daywear for adult women crammed tight to the right of the entrance. Sneakers and heels squeezed on shelves on the left. Tags displaying repeatedly marked-down prices and red signs announcing even more knocked off.

Oodles of stuff, but little to get excited about anymore - even at those glorious prices.

As shopper Valerie Montgomery of Bel Air put it during a trip to Harford Mall this spring, when Federated Department Stores said it would buy Hecht's: "If I were looking for a housecoat for my mother, I'd go to Hecht's."

Like other shoppers, Montgomery more often frequents other stores, whether it's the Gap for pants, Old Navy for tops or Target for everything else.

That sort of competition made shopping at Hecht's seem anticlimactic - much like this week's expected announcement of its forthcoming demise.

Poor Hecht's. The retail world changed, but Hecht's didn't. It lumbered on like a sleeping giant as Nordstrom arrived to feed a booming demand for luxury items on the one end and nimbler, better-priced outlets like Wal-Mart, Target and Kohl's served the other end.

"There was nothing special, no excitement in the company," said Mark Millman, president of the Millman Search Group, a national retail consulting firm. "No special reason to go to the Hecht company."

Still, many kept Hecht's in their lives - whether out of loyalty, familiarity or those sales. When Federated announced its takeover in the spring, Linda Love, 58, was shopping at Hecht's in Harford Mall as her family has for generations.

Part of the landscape

"It's sad," said Love, a physical therapist's aide who lives in Abingdon. "Hecht's has been around for a long time. My family has shopped there for years. My grandmother shopped at the one downtown. My mother shopped at the one in Eastpoint Mall. My sister shops at the Hecht's in White Marsh."

There was something addictive about shopping there with all the red dot sales and endless coupons - a bargain hunter's trove of hidden treasures. But smart shoppers rarely bought that Calvin Klein denim jacket at full retail. Any longtime Hecht's devotee knew it would be on sale in due time.

"I think Hecht's probably does relate to a community like Baltimore more directly than Macy's does," said Thomas H. Maddux, president of NAI KLNB Inc., a commercial real estate company in Towson. "It does seem their format is more attractive to Baltimore. They're more promotional. There's a lot of everything in stock. Baltimoreans are value-oriented customers." The store, built by Bavarian-born immigrant Samuel Hecht, started selling furniture in 1857. The first Hecht Brothers department store opened downtown in 1885 to quick success. Its Howard Street location was one of the four royals of retailing in the city along with Hochschild Kohn, Hutzler's and Stewart's, a destination for spenders near and far.

But the heydays of local department stores would not last. Hochschild Kohn closed in 1976, Stewart's in 1979, and the beloved and high-fashion Hutzler's soon after.

Hecht's eventually moved its headquarters to Washington and abandoned its Baltimore store altogether in 1989. But its strong brand name, its reputation for catering to blue-collar families and its purchase by the May Company three decades earlier helped the store survive in the region.

Hecht's continued to embrace a nostalgic image as a middle-of-the-road retailer, a formula that had worked for years, experts said.

Instead of flourishing, though, Hecht's became more and more stodgy with each year.

Its merchandise and wares became increasingly outdated. Anti-glam. Confused. Even as Macy's showcased hotter private label clothing brands like I.N.C. and Charter Club, Hecht's offered the less fashionable Valerie Stevens and Karen Scott. While Macy's was building its Web site to lure house-bound shoppers with a tantalizing collection of shoes and clothing, the online Hecht's offered a paltry selection of sweaters, jeans, coats and not a single shoe. In stores, it sold beds-in-a-bag, moderately priced cookware and elastic-waist pants.

But even Baltimore isn't entirely immune to the larger, nationwide trend toward upscale shopping, whether or not it is within your means.

While Hecht's sold sensibility, stores like Bloomie's, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom seized the high-end shoppers and lured away middle-class spenders looking to trade up, at least with an occasional splurge on a designer handbag. At the same time, Wal-Mart's everyday low prices easily drew away deal-seekers. Target offered reasonably priced chic with Isaac Mizrahi apparel and Michael Graves housewares. Kohl's sold virtually the same line of products as Hecht's but at better prices and, in most cases, without the hassle of going to a mall.

Worse still, Ikea stripped away furniture shoppers; Best Buy, Home Depot and Lowe's grabbed its electronics and appliances market; specialty stores like the Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch snatched the youthful, fashion-conscious set.

"Hecht's just didn't get it," consultant Millman said "They couldn't find the trend. They didn't stand for anything. Service was terrible. They couldn't find a niche."

No picketing

Hecht's officials would not comment on why customers have found Macy's more appealing. "The customer is going to see a lot of advantages" of the merger, said Sharon Bateman, spokeswoman for May department stores.

Shoppers say Hecht's will be missed, but not necessarily mourned.

"I don't think anyone will be outside picketing," said Lisa Condon, a 42-year-old Bel Air resident who is prepared to shift her loyalties to Macy's when the Harford Mall Hecht's disappears.

That's hardly the outrage Chicagoans felt when they found out their beloved Marshall Field's - which like Hecht's is owned by May - could be swallowed up by Federated. Movie critic Roger Ebert threatened in print to convene an orderly mob under the Field's clock to burn charge cards in protest.

In Baltimore, shoppers will simply go elsewhere when Hecht's disappears. But then again, wasn't that already the problem?

"That's the sad state of affairs. There are so many choices," the retail consultant Millman said. "Everything in life has a run. This appears to be the end of the line for Hecht's as we know it.

"Nothing is forever."

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