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Macy’s, Inc. (M), Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN): Is Shopping Thrilling Anymore, Anywhere?

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Maybe you saw the “Mr. Selfridge” premiere on PBS about the man and the store. Selfridge’s is still a going concern and if the Yelp! reviews are any indication it is still as amazing as in 1909 with Quiet Rooms, live actor displays, art collections, fine restaurants, and much more. If you were inspired by the story of the man who vowed to “make shopping thrilling” you may wonder if the American founder’s legacy is reflected in any publicly traded department stores.

Macy's, Inc

Unfortunately, no. The closest anyone comes is Macy’s, Inc. (NYSE:M) with its Bloomingdale’s stores and its flagship store in NYC and Nordstrom, Inc. (NYSE:JWN) with its standards of customer service. The Bon-Ton Stores, Inc. (NASDAQ:BONT), J.C. Penney Company, Inc. (NYSE:JCP), Kohl’s Corporation (NYSE:KSS) and Sears Holdings Corporation (NASDAQ:SHLD) don’t even deserve to be in the same paragraph as Selfridge’s.

Is the department store dead?

Harry Selfridge pioneered so many practices that have become standard, like putting items on the counter for display, lighted store windows, the bargain basement, and doing away with supercilious floorwalkers who discouraged browsing.

At the time he opened Selfridges the Department Store as a cultural phenomenon was in its heyday. Since then innumerable department stores have closed or been folded into larger entities like Macy’s, Inc. (NYSE:M) or BonTon.

Inspired by his paramour (in the TV series) Mr. Selfridge decides to put cosmetics counters at the front of the stores. Macy’s, Inc. (NYSE:M) CEO Terry Lundgren also makes a point of installing high margin cosmetics and fragrance at the front of his stores and it’s become a standard procedure at most department stores.

The problem with these stores nowadays is competition as a place of entertainment from all media and the ongoing threat of e-commerce (which both Macy’s, Inc. (NYSE:M) and Nordstrom have embraced to their benefit.) Where one grand department store could solve a majority of a family’s shopping needs, their location in malls presents competition from every other store in the mall.

In 1878 the New York Times wrote in its headline on Macy’s, Inc. (NYSE:M) opening day, “The Great Sixth Avenue Bazaar; Opening Day at Macy & Co.-A Place Where Almost Anything May Be Bought.” Now, not that much.

The “experience” of spending an afternoon as one still can at Selfridge’s or its London rival Harrod’s doesn’t exist to that degree in the US. Segments of retail are fragmented by the Internet and a plethora of bricks and mortar specialty stores. What “events” are organized by the mall REITS these days. Where’s the socializing, shopping, and dining experience?

What’s a latter day Mr. Selfridge to do?

Department stores need to make themselves relevant in a way never imagined before. Counting on the six weeks of the holiday season, Black Friday and beyond, to make their nut just isn’t enough. Trivia: you have Harry Selfridge to thank for the catchphrase, “Only XXX shopping days until Christmas.”

Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) is benefiting from our couch potato mentality and the lack of excitement bricks and mortar stores provide. It’s not just showrooming about which pundits are always bloviating. Why drive and deal with parking when there’s no other reason to shop for one or two items that could show up on your door within one to two days from Amazon? And don’t forget the retail giants Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT).

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