Macy’s Vs. Nordstrom

During Christmas time I used to occasionally shop at Nordstrom. A few things immediately jump out at you when you visit Nordstrom:

– The stores are immaculate

– The clothing is well organized

– The staff is extremely helpful and competent (and often extremely attractive)

The last thing that you’ll notice is the dent in your wallet. Nordstrom does have sales if you follow them, and for deals you go to Nordstrom Rack, where their clothes from last year (still mostly better than my current year) reside.

On the other hand, there’s Macy’s. In Chicago Macy’s took over Marshall Fields, so they have a giant, iconic store on State Street. I can’t speak for Macy’s elsewhere, but the Chicago store is quite impressive, but not nearly as nice as Nordstrom (the cool old architecture is better, but that’s about it).

However, at Macy’s, I’ve found something else – if you find someone there that can help you, there are amazing bargains to be had. I bought a suit and some men’s clothes and found a saleswoman who helped me and got her card and I now know where to find her when I visit.

She doesn’t even bother to show me items that are less than 60% off, and there are always complex sales and deals atop other sales that she finds, as well. Paying with a Macy’s card often gets another 10% off. She might tell me to pick up something like a suit after a certain date in order to take part in an upcoming sales event. Routinely items that are $650 on up with price tags end up “out the door” for $200 including tax (Chicago is at 10%+, remember) and alterations to boot.

This article in Business Week talks about JC Penny’s moving away from a “sale” strategy like Macy’s to more of an “everyday pricing” strategy like Wal-Mart. This is going disastrously for JC Penny’s, because unlike Apple, where they had a de-facto monopoly, JC Penny pretty much sells the same stuff as everyone else. Since the executive who runs it came from Apple, he just instituted what worked for him there, and now it is failing.

So, big chains like J.C. Penney and Lowe’s are trying to wean sale-addicted customers off of sales in favor of everyday low pricing. It’s the biggest shift in pricing in decades, but retailers have a long way to go to convince shoppers that predictable pricing is better than the temporary promotions that they’ve grown to love. In fact, early this year, nearly three-quarters of 1,000 shoppers surveyed by consumer research firm America’s Research Group said it would take discounts of at least 50 percent to get them to buy a given item. That’s up from 52 percent in 2005.

From my perspective, I will just keep riding the Macy’s train for everything as long as this woman keeps helping me. Her motivation is likely easy commissions (I pretty much buy anything she lays out for me) and I am very helpful for her time (probably lots of other customers complain). Whether or not this is “net” good for Macy’s, is another question altogether. Macy’s goal is likely to lure you in with off-price or on-sale merchandise and get you to buy some items that are full-price, where the profits per unit are astronomical by comparison. But that isn’t happening with my strategy. If it did start happening, I’d leave. So I guess I am one of those people “addicted to discounts” and some of the smarter employees recognize me as that (but one willing to buy) so it is a good relationship for both of us, perhaps less so for Macy’s.

Retailers – good luck getting people to change and go back to full-price attitudes once you’ve linked them with discounts. For me, at least, it isn’t happening.

Cross posted at LITGM

19 thoughts on “Macy’s Vs. Nordstrom”

  1. I like Kohl’s. They employ the strategy of typically taking a discount off of the price when you ring it up so it is sort of like a nice surprise. They have no helpful staff so that part isn’t factored into the price so I only use them for easy stuff like jeans, work shoes, etc. If I needed a suit I am not sure if I would go there but I imagine they have staff in that section.

  2. My mother worked in retail for awhile – at Bollocks in Los Angeles – late 40s – and does she have some stories. Said that with a young Elizabeth Taylor you noticed the eyes.

    But to the subject: She considers Macys to be like the death star of retail – not because they are “good” but they take over iconic companies – like Marshall Fields, and turn them into generic up-scale Wal Marts.

    Had a girl friend who worked for Macy’s jewelry dept – she saw its decline as she was there – a big change in the commission structure – lowering of wages – consideration of putting all registers in a line – like your generic box store –

    BTW she could sell ice to an eskimo. I came in wanting a pair of socks (won’t go though the difference of female vs male shopping here) – anyway my gf says to her boss “Mind if I help Mr Brandt with his shopping?”

    – well, 30 minutes of going around the store with “This will look good on you I come out with about $200 worth of stuff from an umbrella to a the socks.

    Of course the fact that wshe was my girl friend may have had something to do with it but point is – that was when there was service.

  3. Interesting comparison and illuminating too. But I HAVE to go to Nordstrom’s for the over-the-calf wool socks – can’t find them anywhere else. Was looking for some jewelry and the lady at Macy’s said “Come back on Friday; it will be 60% off.” Thanks lady!

    Nordstrom Rack is still my first choice though – I’ve twice found Allen-Edmonds dress shows for $100 a pair (list is $325!)

  4. That is funny. I hate clothes shopping but would go out of my way for Allen Edmonds shoes if the price were right.

    For casual clothes I used to shop at Penney’s during sales. I disliked having to monitor sales (same problem as with buying Dell computers). However, the sale prices were good, so it made sense to go there once in a while and stock up. Then they went to their new pricing strategy. Subsequently I tried buying online but the price wasn’t great and it’s not a good way to buy clothes. Lately I’ve been buying clothes at Costco. Selection is limited and variable but what they do have is good and it’s cheap. When I find something that fits I buy many pairs. This is a bad way to do it if you like to shop, but if you hate to shop it’s great. Dockers pants in your size? Put five or ten pairs in the shopping cart with the chickens and you are done. Very efficient.

  5. I like Home Depot more than Lowes. The guys at HD are much more likely to know more about a given subject and there is, overall, a greater aura of sturdy professionalism in the materials.

    Despite the above the fact that Lowes is on my way everyday and a 5%-discount Lowes credit card in my wallet make me a loyal Lowes customer.

  6. I actually worked retail for a while – at the Marshall Fields in San Antonio just before it closed, and then for a while part-time at Talbots. I really liked Marshall Fields, because the larger part of the sales staff were on commission. That really does bring out attentiveness in sales staff, BTW. A lot of the old-line upper crust in San Antonio really loved shopping at Marshall Fields just for that.

    Talbots was fun, also – although they didn’t offer sales staff working on commission – though you had a minimum in sales you were supposed to meet. I honestly didn’t stick with it long enough to find out if having consistently exceeding your requirement got you anything special. And the employee discount at Talbots was meagre; 10% IIRC. Marshall Fields’ was %25 off. If the item was on sale anyway, the employee discount was still %25 off. The old line salesladies said that anything less than %20 was hardly worth taking the job for.

    My favorite customers in Talbots were the crusty elderly ladies who knew exactly what they wanted, and who could often be tempted by being shown something that matched or accessorized it. Fifteen or twenty minutes, and they would be walking out the door with several bulging shopping bags. My least favorite were the terminally indecisive and insecure ladies who wound want to see everything, take up better than an hour of your time, witter endlessly about how they couldn’t make up their minds … and then walk out having bought nothing at all … and you had to fold it up and put it all away. (Oh, and if you ever shop Talbots, the staff usually preferred to find your size for you in among the neatly folded stacks, rather than have you paw through them and make a mess. This might have changed, however.)

  7. The death of the department stores began back when I was a high school and college student with the advent of the discount stores. White Front was on of the first. Later came FEDCO, supposedly for federal employees only, although that seems to be a large group. Marshall Field’s was an icon for Chicago just as Bullocks and Robinsons were for Los Angeles. The really iconic store for LA was Bullock’s Wilshire, an art deco tower that carried a more elegant line of merchandise than the downtown store.

    They are all gone now, like the drive-ins with waitresses on roller skates and other cultural ephemera. Gone like the old west

  8. The one thing these stores had – was service – and upper-tiered items. And each city seemed to have one iconic store – San Francisco had – I think – the White House – on Union Square. Nordstroms bought them out I think.

    Dallas had/still has Nieman-Marcus.

    One thing that distinguished them was service . The particularly well-heeled client could expect a floor to be closed with absolute personal attention.

    As to why they disappeared – obviously lack of business – but why? Fewer well-heeled people I would think –

    Of course these days people want top quality but don’t want to pay for it – hence the disappearance of the top dept stores – I Magnin – J Magnin (2 brothers who started their own – swallowed up by Federated

  9. Carl from Chicago Wrote:

    ” Since the executive who runs it came from Apple, he just instituted what worked for him there, and now it is failing.”

    The executive never learned from Apple’s experience when Steve Jobs hand picked his successor, who had done very well selling Pepsi. After Jobs & Wosniac were thrown out, Apple tried to sell Macs like Pepsi. It didn’t work, and Apple almost didn’t recover before Jobs was allowed back and revived the company. Perhaps that’s why Penney’s CEO Ron Johnson doesn’t work for Apple. It isn’t about following another leader, it’s about J.C. Penney finding it’s own way, whatever that is.

  10. I would be happy to continue buying from Penney’s with their new strategy if they hadn’t torpedoed their quality. Their current stock is nowhere near the quality of last year’s stock.

  11. I think W.T. made an important point. Penney’s isn’t Apple…the products are different (especially, they’re non-unique), the margins are different, the logistics are different (value per unit of weight or cube is surely much lower), and the demographics of the buyers are different (lower income, more female).

    I’ll be very impressed if he can pull it off, but so far I’m not convinced enough to put any money on JCP.

  12. Jonathan – Ginny – funny you remember the Dockers and shopping habits. Of course Jonathan’s way is usually the guy’s way – get what you came for, pay for it and leave. Get it over with!

    But your remark (Jonathan) reminded me of something Jay Leno said when asked where he got his famous denim shirts and jeans (if you ever see him in public – as I have at the Monterey Historics) he is always in that same denim short and jeans outfit) –

    Anyway Jay said once a year a staffer goes to Banana Republic, picks up 20 sets of each – and he is done for the year.

    But I will remember the Nordstrom Rack – whatever people say about “Nordy’s” they don’t criticize their quality –

  13. “She considers Macys to be like the death star of retail – not because they are “good” but they take over iconic companies – like Marshall Fields, and turn them into generic up-scale Wal Marts.”

    Similar to what happened in Maryland. Macy’s bought out local icon Hecht’s (The Hecht Co). Hecht’s sold really nice, generally well made clothing and beautiful but expensive furniture. Ten years on, it’s hard to tell their product from JC Penny but they charge a lot more than Penny’s.

    More and more I do my shopping online. Especially when I know what I’m looking for.

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