A trip through Field’s past:
Field’s & Leiter’s “Marble Palace” in 1868. (File photo)
Federated Department Stores chief Terry J. Lundgren has spent his years in retailing, and he had a product he wanted to sell: A new brand name for an old, familiar product, the quaintly titled Marshall Field’s.
He knew the change might be rough on Chicago. After all, we’ve had that name around for 153 years or so.
But Lundgren has seen it all before. He saw it happen to himself, in fact, when Macy’s bought Bullock’s, where he worked in the 1970s. He had to change his name tag, and everything.
But Lundgren knows how to sell, and he had his pitch all worked out for this one. Here’s what he was peddling: A done deal, carefully considered, a soft shoulder for Chicago to cry on maybe, even a silk handkerchief in his breast pocket, just in case.
Lundgren met with Mayor Richard Daley and even promised to consider bringing Frango production back to Chicago. Vague and non-committal as it could be, the pledge somehow tamed the mayor’s famous temper. No one said he wasn’t smart, and Lundgren clearly learned from his predecessor’s Frango fiasco that the mayor scorned is not a pretty sight.
Then Lundgren turned his ministrations on the public. “I decided to be present in Chicago because I wanted to be here for what clearly is an emotional decision that is on the minds of everyone,” Lundgren said.
These were the terms of the debate, then: Lundgren had sweet reason on his side. The rest of us had little more than emotion.
You can’t blame us. Field’s had the Frango factory and the Walnut Room and the seventh-floor restaurants and the huge open atrium--as out of fashion today as a Sunday hat or white gloves for evening wear. And, of course, Field’s had Santa.
Field’s was part of what made Chicago special, but remember, “special” is an emotion. And this is business. And the demands of business made this a no-brainer for Lundgren.
Named Macy’s instead of Field’s, the stores here in the Midwest can have national advertising backing them. They can carry Macy’s exclusive merchandise. They can model displays and promotions after what Macy’s does in New York, or its designers dream up at the Federated Department Stores corporate headquarters in Cincinnati.
Lundgren peddled a vision of what a Field’s-less future might look like: lavish new fitting rooms, keener product displays, lots of Macy’s private-label merchandise, a fashion show or two.
So let’s see: We trade in a century-old name, one with a heritage that dates to the Chicago Fire and beyond, and what do we get--some elbow room when we try on new pants? Some deal.
If this all sounds a bit emotional, well, it is. And emotion is what Lundgren and the legions of MBAs that argued for this deal missed when they decided that the Field’s name must go. They relied, instead, on logic and experience.
Trouble is, it’s hard to view Field’s recent history and not get a bit emotional or, as some might indelicately put it, get mad. People get mad because Field’s demise was not an act of nature, it was a result of neglect.
Marshall Field’s became one of those foster companies, passed from corporate parent to corporate parent, dying a little with each unhappy new home. It got bought by Dayton Hudson, which itself soon became Target Stores, which sold Field’s to May Department Stores, which in turn sold out to Federated Department Stores, which on Tuesday announced it will change Field’s name to Macy’s.
Lundgren explained that Field’s has lost some of its cachet over the years. No doubt that’s because cost-cutting that looked good at corporate headquarters--whether it happened to be in Minneapolis or St. Louis or Cincinnati--did not look so good when it meant display aisles with no service and cash registers with long lines.
Switching to brown shopping bags sounded like a cost-saving move in the purchasing department, until executives saw the impact on sales. Moving the Frango production made eminent sense--but only to someone blissfully unaware of how the mayor of Chicago might value 157 downtown jobs.
Field’s had something far bigger going against it than a few corporate miscues. Field’s is part of an outmoded retailing model--the stand-alone department store. Wal-Mart and Target and changing shopping habits are hurting department stores. As a local player in an increasingly national game, the Field’s name just could not hold its value anymore.
A change to Macy’s was inevitable. The national advertising will sell better, and Macy’s purchasers can buy in bulk. The company’s surveys show that the Macy’s name has a slightly higher cachet, especially with younger customers.
Lundgren likely is right that the State Street store will become known as Macy’s. In Atlanta, he explained, the city’s beloved Christmas tree lighting ceremony changed its name from Rich’s to Macy’s, with hardly a blown fuse anywhere.
But reason does not make this go down any easier. Even for business people, for those who spend their days trying not to let emotion cloud their judgment, the news on Field’s came hard.
Paul O’Connor is that kind of person. Raised in Chicago, he represents the city for World Business Chicago, a public-private outfit that persuades companies to locate here.
“It’s clearly a chromosomal loss of some kind. It really is a loss,” said O’Connor. “It’s clearly a blow to the Chicago psyche. It’s a finger in the eye.”
But the hurt is more than just some parochial paroxysm. “Chicago properly should resist this national homogenization to the extent it can,” O’Connor said. “But this is beyond our control, really.”
That’s the part that turns facts into emotions: This growing sense that, more and more, the world at large is beyond Chicago’s control. Sometimes the city is just a spectator to decisions made elsewhere, based on facts and not our unique, emotion-filled history.
There was First National Bank of Chicago and Amoco Corp.--and even the Standard Oil Co. of Indiana that preceded it. There was Ameritech, which had been Illinois Bell. There was Continental Bank and American Hospital Supply.
None of them meant a whit to children growing up in Chicago, or to the parents who brought them downtown to see the Christmas windows.
Field’s is a name that mattered, so Field’s hurts more than the rest.
“I saw Santa at Field’s.”
That’s what the buttons used to say. White lettering on a red background, and a gothic script in the fashion of the Marshall Field’s logo itself.
Parents would pile families into the old Rambler, their children buttoned into starchy Wieboldt’s blazers and clip-on ties. And from the back seat of the station wagons, the kids would search the skyline for the huge Magikist billboard--a neon kiss on the approach downtown.
Facts tell us that it’s probably time, but that doesn’t make it any easier to kiss the Field’s name goodbye.