OPINION: The long decline of Macy’s in Chicago, now a shell of a once-great department store

“So Macy’s has closed the candy department in its State Street flagship. You could see it coming. For a long time, the shelves have been nearly as empty as those in a Soviet-era department store. And they leased over 1,100 square feet to the chain It’Sugar to open a candy outlet on the Wabash side, so there’s that.

“Still, it’s a part of a trend happening to what was once one of Chicago’s greatest jewels, Marshall Field’s — an increasingly depressing, long and painful goodbye to a loved one who is excruciatingly, slowly, wasting away before our very eyes.

“Macy’s is the dinosaur who ate up all the other animals in a survival-of the-fittest, bigger-is-better rampage, only to discover it’s now too stupid and lumbering to survive. Think Borders, whose superstores gobbled up market share while destroying competing book retailers, before imploding from its own overleveraged weight.

“Right now, Macy’s primary — only? — value is as the kind of real estate play that greased the extinction of the likes of Sears and Kmart. That’s what interested the investment firm that recently offered $5.8 billion to snap up all of Macy’s. For the buildings and the parking lots — the retailing is just an annoying distraction.

“Already, Macy’s snagged $30 million selling off the top seven floors of its State Street store to become a new 650,000-square-foot office center, filling in the barely two-decade-old atrium with 14 new elevators. In 2022, candymaker Ferrero announced an ‘innovation center’ in space where for decades Field’s iconic Frango mints were manufactured.

“Things change. Get over it. Like, we have our own lives to live, you know?

“Yet something’s missing. And there is a cost. Visionaries breathed life into cities

“The great department stores were a major engine of urban growth, among the largest employers and key players in the life of their city. They bought tons of ads that sustained newspapers. They were major philanthropists. They were the creation, not of anonymous corporate logarithms, but of actual visionaries — John Wanamaker, Edgar Kaufmann, Harry Gordon Selfridge and above all, Marshall Field, who created what would become the largest department store in the world except for Macy’s Herald Square.

“His stores’ customer service — ‘Give the lady what she wants’ — was legendary, as was the toy department. Authors from all over the world came to Field’s massive book department to do signings. Field created the idea of a personal shopper and the first bridal registry.

“Macy’s officially took over Field’s on State Sept. 8, 2006, in a blaze of glory. Glamorous models rappelled down the façade in an outdoor fashion show. A jazz combo played inside. The store was packed. It felt like a rebirth, but it was actually a requiem. Never again would the store generate such excitement.

“So began the long process of Macy’s on State becoming the store no one really wants, or needs, slowly drowning in a generic sameness. The Christmas windows — long a cherished holiday tradition — last year shrank to ever-smaller displays within windows, with much of the glass along State Street covered with boring wallpaper. There’s no more flower show. The once-spectacular Christmas decorations were replaced by things whose only distinction is they appear to be easily foldable. Santa was available only by appointment.

“A 2019 renovation made much of the store sparkle, but as sales space shrank, layouts became compressed and confused. People still lined up for a holiday lunch at the historic Walnut Room, but just steps away was an abandoned former ice cream parlor.

Read the full op-ed at Chicago Sun-Times

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