Thursday, April 30, 2020

This is where I leave J.Crew ....

UPDATE as of Monday, May 4, 2020 - Details of the bankruptcy filing from The New York Times .... 

The next - leopard print, kitten-heeled - shoe is dropping. J.Crew is prepping to file for bankruptcy. 

This is not new news. This is not a surprise. This is not unprecedented. This is still sad. Kind of. They got pompous, they got full of themselves, they thought they were influencers. Just because you raise the price does not mean people think you are worth it. This. Is. Hubris.

Even if you are not a J.Crew fan, one must acknowledge this is the end of an era, but it's their own fault.

It started with the #JCrewCollection and continued downhill through the slalom of every "capsule" collection and "exclusive". Is someone really going to procure a J.Crew necklace or sequined skirt upwards of $500? Another marker was the case of the #tippi and #tilli. Not enough orders of the one, and too many of the other. J.Crew ceased to read its very loyal, albeit aging, audience.

The quality markedly went down in the early aughts, when J.Crew was feeling its proverbial druthers and thought it should rightly charge $98 for a sweater worth about $29, on a cold, Lake Michigan day in January. And then its sales people got snooty. Snobby. Too big for their khakis. I have never been so shabbily treated as I have in a J. Crew store. And they don't even offer a Coca-Cola, much less a champagne (see Tory Burch and Tiffany).

And I do actually, occasionally, venture into Chanel. And Gucci. And Bergdorf. From time to time. So when I say I've never been so insulted, I really mean it. And I did make this known to the brand in the hopes it would, could, should - help.

I get it. I was flying high on my #GenX brands like #BananaRepublic and #Gap. Even in foreign countries I still do shop at #Benetton and #Swatch. I want. Just really want (need?). Legacy brands to survive.

But J.Crew won't. J. Crew can't. Because prep school dressing isn't a thing. Gosh, with Covid-19, is going to an actual class a thing?

Admittedly, the mortifying - yet satisfying - athleisure trend - has also disrupted. J.Crew is well-suited for this trend, but is charging way too much for the privilege of sleeping in. It also didn't do much to grow the brand, make it relevant to the crucial under-40s (with the exception of the $100 per outfit crewcuts brand). The other thing is, how much do we really need to spend on pants only worn at home?

Then, there were tweaks to the distribution channels. J.Crew and Madewell, at Nordstrom. J.Crew on Amazon. To be a major brand, searching for a home - searching for relevancy - is like a death nell.

To the frequent shopper, this has all been too real, for too long.

The online "Chat" - tellingly helmed by everyone named "Ashley" in the free world - really! - has not been active for at least two years, near as I can tell. Every time I click to access it, they are "not available at this time." Mind you, "at this time" is 2pm on a Wednesday, 9am on a Monday or 11am on a Saturday.

I have tried. I have been in denial. I have gone through the stages of grief. Yesterday, when the temperature dropped below 60 degrees (in FL, in April!), I came across the first ever cotton sweater I bought from J.Crew. I bought this at NorthPark mall, in Dallas, circa 1992. As an SMU student, I considered this an "investment piece". It still holds up. Is still soft. Still holds its shape. Is probably the only J.Crew item in my wardrobe that completely still exemplifies the brand (still fits!).

I have been pulling for this brand. I have been loyal to it. Followed its triumphs - embraced its high-low chicness and cool-geek phases. J.Crew was the accepted bellwether of East Coast prep trends.

Capsule collections. Major cosmetics brands. French brands. Nike. Lacoste. "Exclusives." J.Crew on the upper East Side - Madison Ave. CEOs coming and going. Group management. Brand ambassadors, in and out.

This is what happens when you cannot take a step outside of your brand and see the bigger picture.

But who can? Can Gap? Can Neimans? Can JC Penney? Can Macys? Can Anthropology?

I ventured down the rabbit hole and clicked through one of the ubiquitous emails this past week - to see the New Arrivals. There were the "must have" looks. There were the "no-brainers". Alas, there were still the jewelry capsule collections, upward of hundreds of dollars - intermingled with latent items from a year ago that were now 50% off (the doppelgangers of which can be procured at Target).

I bought everything in my basket - white jeans, earrings and a signature striped top - for less than $75 (because, why would one pay more?). I bought these for old times' sake. For the nostalgia I feel for a brand that has been with me every step of the way. For a brand I really don't want to go away. But that is going to.

This is, sadly, where I leave J.Crew.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The End of Retail as we Know It. And I Feel Sad.

Not surprising to many, but shocking to some - on Monday it was announced that storied, sensational and super-luxe retail bastion, #NeimanMarcus, may file for bankruptcy this week. 

Since nothing is really all that outlandish in the age of #coronavirus, maybe that's not a big news story for most. But I would offer, that if one puts their retail hat (or boots) on, it is a lot. And it is indeed a pre-cursor (mid-cursor?) for things to come. For, as we prodigies of the digital age are all-too-familiar, this was bound to happen.

And even if it wasn't, it is actually, nostalgically, kind of sad.

As fate would have it, I happen to currently find myself in the middle of reading Minding the Store, by  Stanley Marcus.

I bought this book in its second printing, after Mr. Marcus had come to speak at my marketing class in the Cox School of Business, at Southern Methodist University. His family had been supporters of SMU since prior to its breaking ground. He regaled my class with the legendary customer service doctrine into which he was baptized by his father, Herbert Marcus. I was entranced and couldn't believe the great good fortune of being in the presence of such a retail legend and icon.

I had never shopped at Neiman Marcus until I moved to Dallas to attend SMU. As a rarefied SMU student, not on the BMW or prep school side of things, I kind of felt like I had no business shopping there. Nor did I find anything remotely accessible - at that time, they only took the Neiman Marcus Card. Which was a good thing - as I also had no business having a credit card.

There was something about the store that was significant to me from an historic standpoint. And, as someone obsessed by advertising and brands from a young age, while I couldn't count myself as a shopper of Neiman Marcus, I had an appreciation for the principles and the people on which the original business was built.

"This was another way of saying, 

'Let's practice the Golden Rule in all of our dealings'." 

- Stanley Marcus, Minding the Store

After graduation, when I migrated to Denver, as much as I loved every bit of that mountainy, outdoorsy, fleece-y place, every so often, I would wander through the Neiman Marcus store at Cherry Creek Shopping Center just to see the latest, the newest and the prettiest - and also, sadly the most expensive and unattainable (#NeedlessMarkup).

Until I saw a new denim bag by a #brightyoungthing named #KateSpade. I quickly fixated on this incredibly affordable bag. Finally, with the "disposable income" parts of my first, second and third paychecks as a young (read: poor) marketer, I bought my first Kate Spade bag. Made even more special because that label said "Kate Spade Dallas" - instead of the young designer's now famous "New York" insignia. This bag and I were meant to be. And because Neiman Marcus had the exclusive rights to Kate Spade's initial designs - by way of introducing her to the world - that was the only place I could get it.

With that first bag in front of Taos Pueblo.
The disappointing part is the woman behind the counter didn't feel the same verve about having this obviously not gilded, 25-year-old as her customer. If you've ever been on this side of a transaction, you know how it feels. Not unlike the famous scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, when Abe Froman (Sausage King of Chicago), Sloane and Cameron decide to dine at an exclusive restaurant and are greeted with nothing but disinterest, distain and snobbery - she treated me as small, unworthy and unwelcome.

Which was the exact opposite of the feeling Mr. Marcus had led me to believe I would feel in his store ....

So now I knew the modern day Neiman Marcus did not care if I was their customer. And that made me indignant. And also not a little bit confused, because I knew that Stanley Marcus DID want me to be his customer. And therein lies the beginning of a retail relationship fraught with cognitive dissonance.

It was like the folks that worked there had never read his book! This idea flabbergasted me - how could you work there and NOT read it!? It's like when we went to Cheers in Boston last summer and the young host admitted he had never seen an episode of Cheers.

They'd definitely lost a potential customer for life. But because I'd personally met Mr. Marcus, they'd also gained an observer from afar and a critic - an appreciator of the founding principles and a marketer and shopper who wished they would honor the Neiman Marcus legacy. Someone who knew that it was meant to represent the best of the best. But to find it, I would just head to Marshall Field's. Whose lovely salespeople were always happy to see me.

Still, I had never actually been to the original downtown Dallas store. Maybe this would be different. Several years after graduation, still living in Denver and with a feeling of nostalgia for the "Big D," I finally found myself in the second original headquarters for luxury (the first had burned down in 1913). I still have the classic YSL lipstick I bought that day (no, I do not still use it). It was neither a good nor bad experience. But it should have been exceptional.

Like I said, while I may have appreciated the store - I could not and still do not count myself as a loyal shopper there. I love the brands, I love the luxe and I love the idea - but I just don't have it within my logical and practical shopping psyche to be a regular.

All because it was very clear in 1990-something, they did not want my business, nor did they think I had the potential to bring them any in the future. So I shop at places that actually smile when they see me (see: Bergdorf Goodman - yes I know that BG and NM have been the same company since the 70s; and Bloomingdale's - and yes I know they are part of Federated). What's a girl to do?

As I paint this picture, I would be remiss not to mention several of the many milestones achieved by Neiman Marcus.

First specialty store in Texas (and in the south)
First store in Texas to advertise in fashion magazines - Vogue, Bazaar
Showed a profit in its first year of operation
First to welcome Dior to the United States
Realized record revenue and profits during the last year of the Depression

That last point is particularly noteworthy and timely.

Now, in April 2020, the definition of "luxury" shopping is that most non-essential shopping is truly, really, actually - a luxury.

If it's a non-essential good - clothes, makeup, giftware, home decor, etc., and regardless of whether it's from Target, Amazon, Walgreens or Sephora, I know people are thinking twice before they put it in their basket and have it packaged and delivered by those on the front lines of this pandemic.

Of course, the writing on the wall has been there since the dawn of the term "clicks and mortar" and many of us have seen the struggle meted out in real life. Indoor shopping malls, long before the pandemic reared its vile, indiscriminate head, were hanging by a nostalgic thread and taped together with "70% off" signs.

Target, Old Navy, H&M and Uniqlo have not only become the staples of the long-lasting "high/low" fashion trend, they've become the limit to which GenZ might be willing to invest in non-experiential "necessities."

Shopping was once an actual experience. Now, from our collective family rooms, it is all too easy to 1)pour wine 2)shop 3)purchase 4)repeat (current environment notwithstanding).

The retail picture, regardless of whether luxe brands like Neiman Marcus or mid-range, specialty retailers like the Gap or J.Crew survive, will look vastly different on Black Friday this year. And, I imagine, by another factor all together one year from today.

While I must stop short of saying I personally will feel the loss of today's Neiman Marcus, I do feel awful and terrible for its many employees, suppliers and everyone affected by something of such magnitude. Likewise for those of Gap, JC Penney, Sears, J. Crew .... 

And I feel a loss for the great promise and principles on which each of these entities and the many legendary - uniquely American - retail stores were founded.

*An update on this as of 4.21.20 from the New York Times 

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