Skip to comments.A Farewell to Carson's, and the Assignment of Blame
Posted on 04/20/2018 6:13:02 PM PDT by jfd1776
For over a century, Chicagoans grew up with a signature memory: special days downtown, shopping at Marshall Fields and Carsons, the great rival retail giants down the block from each other on State Street. (shown here: Carson's longtime downtown landmark by Louis Sullivan, sold off years ago).
Smaller stores came and went, but Fields and Carsons were the giants, the dominant figures in Midwestern retail for generations.
Macys bought out the struggling Fields chain over a decade ago and cremated the brand name while keeping the stores. Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. wasnt so lucky; its current holding company, Bon-Ton, is giving up the ghost for good this spring.
Unable to find a buyer or investor to keep the chain alive, Bon-Ton is shuttering its 200 stores and terminating its many brands. Along with Carsons, were likely saying goodbye to Bergners, Boston Store, Younkers, Elder-Beerman, and Herbergers (though theres still a chance that the liquidation might leave one or two of these names standing, God willing).
Many Americans grew up with these same memories Milwaukee kids shopped at Younkers or Boston Store; Rice Lake and Eau Claire kids headed to Herbergers there was a time when the department store the anchor of the local mall was the big draw. You bought your parents anniversary presents there, and your siblings Christmas presents, and your girlfriends birthday present too. Ever since the days of Montgomery Ward and Marshall Field, a century and a half ago, the department store has towered above the rest of the retail world in our communal memory.
And today, it is all but gone.
RETAIL: THE EASY ANSWER
Read the business pages, searching for the reason for the long slow death of traditional retail, and they will have answers that are difficult to challenge:
Its the full-on assault by Amazon and other online retailers; why pay more for the same thing at an expensive building, when you can get it by mail-order without leaving your house? Seems a logical enough position, until we recall that catalog sales provided just as easy an option for 150 years without killing the brick-and-mortar alternatives. So it cant really be that.
Or Its the lack of a genuine brand nowadays. When Fields, Carsons, and the rest stopped really making their own products, and just started slapping their private label on products made in the same Chinese factory as everybody elses, that took a toll. Why spend $40 for this Chinese shirt when I can buy a Chinese shirt at Walmart or Meijer for $20? That argument may be stronger.
Or Its the bad individual decisions made by some of these retailers. Penneys famously switched out their entire menswear lines in favor of all-extra-slim sizes a few years ago; the error lasted less than a year, but the damage was done. Similarly, some retailers target the wrong demographic, or hire the wrong decorator, or hitch their wagons to the wrong fad, and lose a season or two that they otherwise wouldnt have lost. But are such errors enough to kill a century-old name?
Industry experts have plenty of reasons for these failures. They see a bankruptcy, identify the companys last three mistakes, or the companys biggest competitors, and lay the blame there. Its how analysts think they have to in order to figure out which stocks to recommend and which stocks to flee.
But if every retailer is struggling, even in an economic recovery, mightnt there be some other reason for these doldrums? Some over-arching problem with our economy that we need to tackle before it gets too late? With the way that the analysts talk, one would think that the weak stores problems are their own fault, but strong stores will survive. And yet, only the low-priced stores are really thriving the Walmarts, the Meijers. Is that really because theyre so well-run, or might it perchance just be because they are low-priced?
Other industries dont have this problem. Theres room for both well-run fast food chains and poorly-run fast food chains, well-run homebuilders and poorly-run homebuilders, well-run landscape companies and poorly-run landscape companies, well-run radio stations and poorly-run radio stations. The economy is big enough to support all of these. You do better if you invest in the well-run ones, of course, but there are still jobs and profits to be made in the imperfect ones.
Why is it that only in retail have we begun to unquestioningly accept the premise that any business thats less than perfect is now expected to go bankrupt?
The retail sector especially every big department store that anchors a mall has an outsize role in the economic climate of our cities and towns. Retail draws tourists and suburbanites to our downtowns and to our malls. Retail provides the part-time jobs that high school and college students depend upon. Retail provides tax revenue for the community. And big retail makes small retail possible because without the anchors, people dont walk into the mall to get attracted to the smaller stores either.
RETAIL: THE REAL ANSWER
Retails plight has followed a demographic and economic change in America.
The retail world built up in the 20th century to respond to population growth, the same way it did in the 19th. As cities grew up, department stores came to the downtowns. As suburbs grew, the stores built branches in the suburbs too. Even small towns became hubs for the surrounding rural areas, and gained their own department stores as well. As American population grew, the feeling went, it would need and be able to support more stores.
But thats not how it turned out. The growth of the internet since the early 1990s has served as a handy scapegoat for our real problem, but the enemy is demographic, not digital. The long, slow death of department stores is caused by a transformation in who makes up the American population.
When America was on its great period of growth in the 1800s Americans prided themselves in being able to shop, to be able to own more than the single Sunday suit of clothes, the single wedding ring, the single pot or pan to which poor people had been limited since time immemorial. All of a sudden, a middle class was growing, a class of people who could enjoy plenty. Even those who were far from rich could afford to "go shopping," for the first time in history.
Henry Ford famously focused on producing a mass-produced vehicle that was affordable enough for his own employees to buy. Instead of the makers of luxury goods doing their manufacturing for members of an upper class, the American economy of a century ago enabled workmen to do their manufacturing for themselves. This was earth-shattering in economic history; it was a wonderful snapshot of the American promise that Washington, Hamilton and Morris had envisioned for us at our nations dawn.
But then came three big changes as the twentieth century progressed.
- The American government turned on its manufacturing sector. With high taxes, crippling employment regulations, union supremacy, corrupt government and a litigation culture, our manufacturers were driven away. The great American clothing and footwear and sporting goods and home appliance industries, one by one, were pushed overseas to foreign shores. Today, you cant buy an American iron, radio, or TV. You cant afford an American pair of shoes. You cant even find an American shirt or sport coat. The jobs arent there, so the people who would have worked those jobs cant afford to shop in the stores that would have sold them.
- The American public stopped marrying and having children. The average age of first marriages has skyrocketed; the average number of kids per family has plummeted. So the people who grew up in that department store culture we remember havent passed on that culture to many, or even any. (This writers grandmother worked at Fields in her 60s; both the writer and his father worked at Fields while in college. It was a part of our lives then; it is no longer). If you didnt grow up with both a special respect for the shelves of the department store, and an ability to afford what they sold, you wont shop there if you can buy the same thing for less somewhere else.
- Seeing the plummeting birthrates, the powers that be decided half a century ago to import their replacements. As we allowed late marriage, nihilism, selfishness and abortion to reduce our natural American population, we opened up our borders to a flood of immigrants, both legal and illegal as if numbers were numbers, and everyone was identical. But where has this left us? Our nation has nearly doubled its population since the last year of the Baby Boom, but with so much of that growth coming from poor foreign immigrants, this new demographic mix obviously cannot and will not support the same economy that the old demographic mix could (nothing against immigrants, by the way; this writer is a grandchild of immigrants but we are talking about undeniable statistics here, and cultural differences, in the big picture).
Just imagine. What if America had been allowed to continue, over the past century, the same way it grew in its first century? With limited government and minimal obstructions to manufacturing, our economy would have been able to continue to produce both domestic goods to fill the store shelves and an affluent enough populace to buy them. With an America that grew its population organically, with a gentle, controlled assist from abroad, rather than an America that stopped having children and had to import tens of millions wholesale, we would have a people who were raised from birth to participate in this domestic consumer economy.
The challenges of retail are real and this writer is not trying to overlay a political spin where none belongs. But as one peels this onion and studies these challenges, the real answer is undeniable. The causes of retails problems like the causes of most of our societal problems, from crime to wage stagnation to the unaffordable welfare state burden to urban flight lie in the errant liberal policies that have been practiced at the local, state, and federal level for a century now, and were then turbo-charged in the 1960s.
We have much to correct if we are to save this country. It can be done, but the first step is to acknowledge reality. Its the departure from the Founding vision of limited government that put us in this mess, and only a return to the Founders vision can help to bring us back.
Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer, writer and actor. A former board member of the Illinois Small Business Mens Association, the Illinois Right To Work Committee, and other such groups in the 1980s, he served as Milwaukee County Republican Chairman in the 1990s, and his columns are found regularly in Illinois Review.
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.
I remember my mother taking me downtown on the North Shore line and the L to to Christmas shopping at Marshall-Fields and Carson’s Sad.
John, you hit it out of the ballpark today.
Yup, same here. My grandmother worked at Fields, and we lived in Evanston, so we’d go downtown (Field’s had its own underground subway stop) and hit both Field’s and Carson’s. It was an event. But it’s part of a distant past.
Thank you, ConservativeMind; you’re too kind!
Particularly in the last year more and more stores are closing up.At least a third of the retail floor space in this mall is currently vacant.I go there regularly because it's a great place to walk but there's never anyone there...even on Saturdays.
Brick and mortar retail stores are dying...for better or for worse.
Macy’s was stupid to kill the Marshall Field brand. It was a Chicago icon.
I was one of those Chicagoans. Many times we took the L downtown and got off at the stop where you could walk into the lower level of Carson's. I remember the café there, the Tartan Tray. Going downtown was always a big treat.
Younkers was a brand from Des Moines, Iowa that spread over the midwest.
My mom always looked forward to visiting Younkers store for homes at Merle Hay Mall and the Younkers tea room in their downtown store.
All gone now...
In Boston it was Jordan Marsh and Filenes.
What is it?
JUST ABOUT NOBODY WEARS NICE CLOTHES ANYMORE, NOR DO THEY, ADULTS AND CHILDREN, WEAR MANY DIFFERENT TYPES OF CLOTHES FOR DIFFERENT ACTIVITIES, AS WAS ONCE THE NORM!
Even before there were department store, even long before the Victorian era introduced "consumerism" for everyone, people of all stripes, extremely wealthy to the very poor had "special" clothes to wear to church or temple. Special clothing for different events...confirmations, weddings, funerals. And then the "modern" era of consumerism hit!
The department stores of the 19th century, both in Europe and in America, were not just a place to buy many different things, all in one place, they represented adventure, a special trip/day out, a place to meet friends, and yes, many of them also had tea rooms and/or restaurants.
Christmas and Easter offered a time to do up the stores big time, offer special lunches, breakfast with Santa and yes, picture taken with Santa and the Easter Bunny.
Until relatively recently, kids had school clothes, play clothes, Sunday "best", and some had work clothes.
For adults, the more wealth, the more one used to need many different outfits for day and evening.
Then, in the late 1960s, the Commies, using the damned "HIPPY MOVEMENT", began, with much force, to get rid of all traditions, manners, normal families ( and by extension, families doing things together ), religion, and the whole idea of GROWING UP!
Today, almost NOBODY wears anything suitable; let alone proper for different occasions!
Then throw in the fact that as the years go by, whomever is designing clothes, are making ugly, unsuitable, trash...at every level!
The whole idea of "special clothes" has long ago gone by the wayside and so, you have people wearing T-shirts and stupid dungarees ( that's "jeans" for you youngsters )to the theatre, to work, everywhere. Heck, there are even people who wear pajamas to grocery stores and on airplanes!
Also, people are far more isolated; they no longer join clubs and spend far more time, all alone, but hooked up to cell phones, laptops, etc. and don't feel the need to bother to look "nice"...even when they ARE out of society.
So was Carson’s! :-)
(Mom had some knowledge of the fashion and home decoration fields.)
Our closest Younkers has always been a reliable place for finding nice things needed at the last minute, and it will be sorely missed.
I remember traveling with my parents as a child. Chicago - we visited Carson, Pirie, Scott and Marshall Fields. Dallas and trip to Neiman Marcus (I still remember the triple screen TV and the one with a reel-to-reel video recorder built in.) Boston, and an eye opening trip to Filene’s basement - when it really was the basement.
And of course, the Pink Pig the Crystal Bridge at Rich’s in Atlanta.
Nopardons, you’re absolutely right.
The Left has attacked everything that is American, in every way, right down to how we dress.
All an effort to ensure that the America of our ancestors - the nation of the protestant work ethic, the rugged individual, the limited government, the Judeo-Christian tradition - would be scrubbed from the historical record.
And it has left us with the current cultural and economic desert.
We lived in Chicago for a while and when we first moved there, one of our first stops was the downtown ( the one on the Miracle Mile, in Watertower didn't exist yet ) Fields and then Carson's. They were once great stores and their passing hurts my heart!
My mother always said that: YOU BEHAVED THE WAY YOU WERE DRESSED!" and she was correct.
Today, sadly, most people dress like slobs and behave badly.
Men don't shave and imagine that looking like they constantly need a shave is somehow alluring. It is NOT and neither are "man buns" !
Women aren't any better and many look like they just rolled out of bed, when they appear in public.
Kids? Don't get me started and college students look like the very dregs of the Earth and behave like the filthy mobs during the aftermath of the French Revolution.
So called celebrities? Beneath the bottom of the barrel and their behavior follows suit.
Me and mine?
We all refuse to be members of this uncouth rabble and stick with the "old ways", as much as we can.
“WEAR MANY DIFFERENT TYPES OF CLOTHES FOR DIFFERENT ACTIVITIES”
i still wear many different special clothes for many different activities. I have special clothes for painting - ones that already have spilled paint on them. Special clothes for using with 2-cycle engines like string trimmers and chain saws. special clothes for auto repair and oil changing. special clothes for hot weather like shorts and t-shirts. special clothes for cold weather like goose down jackets, insulated gloves, insulated headgear, and Sorrel boots for deep snow. special clothes for indoor activities in my own home like plain underwear and sometimes a fuzzy robe if it’s chilly. the list of my special clothes for special activities is nearly endless.
I went to a local bank this AM and the teller was a very nice young man WEARING A BOSTON CELTICS SWEATSHIRT.
I called their main office when I got home-——asking why not business attire. They said that they would look into it.
Good for you! A bank is a "formal place of business" and as such, the tellers not only represent the institution, but should dress in a suitable way, which means BUSINESS ATTIRE; i.e. a suit and tie for men and something similar for women.
Cripes...I remember when bank employees, even those whom the public never saw/came in contact with, had a dress code, which most assuredly did NOT include a damned sweatshirt!
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