There’s a New Miracle on 34th Street

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It has been my habit to try to visit Macy’s in Herald Square whenever I am in the area: from the time I was a student at FIT, throughout my working career (including Bamberger’s), and now as an adjunct instructor at FIT. I always thought of Macy’s like the tale of two cities. When Macy’s believed in something, they did it better than anyone else. But at the same time, the store always seemed to miss the mark when it came to the basics — managing a huge old building, maintaining it bright, neat, and clean, keeping a unionized staff positive and customer-service driven, and making the shopping experience a positive engagement. These basics happened, but more as an exception than the rule.

Maintaining Standards

Over the last many months, I have visited several Macy’s stores in New Jersey and have been disappointed by the apparent lack of maintaining standards. The stores have been messy, presentations run on from vendor to vendor, there is an excessively full level of inventory, and I have encountered an inadequate staff that doesn’t appear to be customer-focused.

So, I decided it was time to revisit Macy’s Herald Square. I went back twice and walked each and every floor with a critical eye — just like a branch visit by a central merchant. I spoke to salespeople, some customers, and even a vendor rep who was servicing the store. I took notes as well as some pictures. And to be fair and add some reality to my second visit, I was there during a storewide sales event.

Evolution and Revolution

I am blown away by what has happened to Macy’s. From the basement all the way up to the furniture and luggage departments, there is a new miracle on 34th Street.

It became immediately obvious when I entered the store on Herald Square that something was different. A sense of visual grandeur and lightness strikes you immediately. The brightness of the lighting made you feel a sense of spaciousness and at the same time intimacy. As I passed through the various merchandise pads, there was vendor identification and personalization. I felt an overall cohesiveness to the entire first floor — everything was neat and clean and organized. Employees were smiling and engaging customers. Even the cosmetics representatives were polite and smiling as they asked if I wanted a sample stick.

Okay I thought, I’ve seen this before at the spring flower show and thought it was a one-off. How wrong I was.

Transformation

Walking the floors as a secret shopper can be withering. But each of the 11 floors exhibited the same high standards of presentation, customer service, and restraint in inventory levels. There was a flow to the merchandise supported by good mannequin displays. I felt an uplifting sense of openness.

I even checked several men’s rooms—all spotless. I looked inside the fitting rooms—no excess product waiting to be put away…as I went through the selling floors all sign holders were filled and perfectly straight. What caused this transformation? What did it take for Macy’s to reclaim its grande dame position?

Merchandising Strategy

It was clear to me that there is an operating strategy to improve sales and gross margin; sales increase by making the shopping experience easier and more positive and gross margin increases as you reduce markdowns of excess products. This takes a great deal of courage and discipline, and Macy’s should be acknowledged for doing it well. The strategy was reflected by the reduction in offerings and redundancies among departments thereby reducing inventory on the selling floor. This allowed for a more open presentation, without racks being jammed and unappealing sky-high piles of merchandise. A more refined merchandising strategy was combined with what appeared to be increased staffing who were engaged and positive. I didn’t feel I was floating in a sea of stuff. Each floor had a singular point of view but coordinated with an overall master plan.

Making It Stick

Since my positive visits to Herald Square, I have been back to two of the New Jersey stores and was disappointed to see that not much has changed. The challenge for Macy’s is to replicate the changes accomplished on 34th Street and bring that same excitement and visual sophistication to as many more stores as possible. It is always hard to maintain the same level of excitement in a flagship store in the suburban branches. Shoppers are savvy outside the city centers, and if they were to compare their stores to Herald Square, it could be a let-down. A tale of two cities, literally.

But I am an optimist, and my bet is on Macy’s. To paraphrase the song, “If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.” My money is on Macy’s providing the same experiences everywhere. That develops the customer loyalty and trust that money can’t buy.

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