September 3, 2017 by Leanna Garfield
In the past year, department store chains have announced a wave of location closures across the United States.
Macy’s recently revealed plans to shut down 100 stores. In July, Sears said it’s shuttering 43 US stores, in addition to the 265 closings it announced in early 2017. JCPenney released a list of 138 stores it will close this year.
All three chains are considering even more closures as they battle declining sales, largely due to changing consumer habits and the rise of online shopping.
But these iconic stores weren’t always hurting. Over the latter half of the 20th century, they defined and anchored the American shopping mall.
Take a look at the rise and fall of three formative department store retailers.
Founded in 1858, Macy’s was one of the first American department stores. It started as a small dry goods store in New York City, but later expanded to 11 adjacent buildings to form a department store.
On its first day in October 1858, Macy’s made $11.06, equal to around $300 today.
Before Sears opened a fully air-conditioned, retail store in 1925, it sold products through mail-order catalogs for 40 years. By that time, Sears was already a household name, known for its affordable prices.
By 1927, Sears had launched 27 stores, mostly in Chicago.
James Cash Penney launched his first store, called the Golden Rule, in 1902 in Kemmerer, Wyoming. By 1913, he had opened 34 (non-mall) stores, which he consolidated under the JCPenney Company name that year.
In 1874, Macy’s opened its first holiday window display in NYC, which featured porcelain dolls from around the world and scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Shoppers traveled in droves to see the display.
A half century later, Macy’s employees started its famed Thanksgiving Day Parade (originally called the “Macy’s Christmas Parade”), which featured live animals from the Central Park Zoo and attracted 10,000 people.
Macy’s spearheaded the one-price system that most American stores use today (which eliminated the common practice of bargaining). It was also the first department store to advertise full refunds when it opened.
Additionally, Macy’s was the first clothing store to have a liquor license (which it acquired in 1862) and a Santa Claus during the Christmas season.
Sears had more than 600 stores when World War II began in 1941. The chain ventured outside the US for the first time when it launched a store in Havana, Cuba in 1942. That store was followed by others in Europe, Central and South America, and Canada.
By 1941, JCPenney Co had expanded to 1,600 stores in 48 states (all except Hawaii and Alaska). Most of the stores were in outdoor shopping centers.
In the 1950s, the three chains began anchoring indoor shopping malls, many of which moved from American cities to the suburbs.
They were phenomenally successful. Shoppers flocked to department stores, hundreds of which launched across the US in the midst of postwar financial optimism.
Source: The Atlantic
Sears, Macy’s, and JCPenney became symbols of suburbia during this time.
In the 1970s, the three chains started focusing on fashion as more women entered the workforce. JCPenney Co rebranded as Penney’s in 1963, and then again as JCPenney in 1971.
Sears was the nation’s largest retailer by revenue until the late 1980s, when Walmart surpassed it.
Online shopping became popular in the 2000s, and department stores started experienced a slow decline. In 2008, retail sales decreased by a record 4.1%, and as much as 28% for some department stores.
From 2007 to 2009, at the time of the Great Recession, department store employment also fell by 132,000 jobs.
Due to declining sales, Macy’s, Sears, and JCPenney have collectively closed hundreds of stores in the past decade.
“We’ve reduced risk by eliminating a lot of our pension liability, reducing the size of our bank facility, we reduced the risk by closing stores and reducing the size of the company,” Sears CEO Edward Lampert told The Chicago Tribune in March 2017.
“We’re fighting like hell to change the way people do business with us.”
Today, Macy’s still anchors Herald Square as the world’s largest store, and an upcoming renovation will bring its total retail space to 1.1 million square feet. At the same time, the chain plans to close at least 100 stores across the US.
Since a department store often pays a large part of its mall’s lease, a closure can cause smaller shops throughout a mall to shutter. Some analysts project that nearly 25% of American malls are in danger of losing their anchor stores.