Sunday’s announcement that Le Tote, owner of the famed Lord & Taylor department store, had filed for bankruptcy protection under mounting losses came with little fanfare and even less surprise.
On Monday, the parent company suggested it would close all of the iconic brand’s 38 stores, while at the same time looking for a buyer for its more successful locations.
Already struggling prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic, America’s oldest department store has been on the ropes for years. Founded during the presidency of John Quincy Adams back in 1826, the retailer closed its flagship establishment on Fifth Avenue in early 2019.
If difficult news is best communicated in degrees, the demise of brick-and-mortar retail is playing out according to script.
Lord & Taylor joins Brooks Brothers, Neiman Marcus, J. Crew, J.C Penny and several other long-established retailers who have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection recently in their quest to survive the cataclysmic shift in consumer purchasing habits.
I worked for Lord & Taylor in New York all throughout college, a job that felt more like a calling than a part-time gig to make the ends meet. I loved the work and especially the company’s mission, which was to serve and not just sell.
It was easy to know what to do because taking care of the customer was king. If someone was dissatisfied with a purchase, we were to accept the return on their terms.
Did some people take advantage of the policy? Sure – but it was the exception and our patrons returned regularly out of loyalty and appreciation.
Change in life as in business can come quickly or slowly – but it always comes, and retail is no exception to the rule. It’s unreasonable to think that a department store like Lord & Taylor would last forever, but when something has been around for almost 200 years, it’s usually safe to assume it will at least see tomorrow.
Ironically, I was drawn to work for the company for many of the same reasons so many retail stores are no longer viable or deemed essential.
One of my favorite tasks in the men’s department was helping customers, especially women, match shirts and ties to suits for their husbands or sons. With countless available possible combinations, it was more art than science and it was fun to meet sometimes urgent needs.
Today, there are apps to accomplish the same task – and the job can be done far more quickly with modern technology than even the most qualified or experienced salesclerk could ever do by hand.
If a particular size suit, shirt or coat wasn’t available, I prided myself on working a special tie line phone we had that connected our chain of stores – from across New York to Long Island to clear across the country. I had colleagues in all the time zones and I came to know many of them by name. If something wasn’t on the rack, I was determined to find it somewhere else.
Who needs a salesclerk to call around to a dozen stores for a 42 long suit when you can search online for it in a matter of seconds – and get it delivered to your door, often for no additional charge?
Ever prior to COVID-19, yearly reports about disappearing jobs were common, shifts in the employment landscape due to technology or plain old decreasing demand.
It’s nothing new.
My father set pins in a bowling alley back in the 1930s and my mother-in-law was a phone operator in the 1960s.
Some will argue there is still a need for physical retail stores, and I wouldn’t disagree. But it’s clear that need will be met by smaller establishments as opposed to grand-scale department stores that cater to everyone’s needs – with lunch or tea available in a café on an upper floor like we had in Lord & Taylor back in New York.
I mourn the loss of the familiar and especially the high touch the stores of my younger days provided.
I can picture myself holding two blue suits and hustling between the racks as I waited on Mr. Williams, a man of the old-school who always shopped with his wife because, he said, all his taste was in his mouth.
Big George, a gregarious first-generation immigrant from Greece would then be summoned from the tailor shop. The suit would be sized, chalked and pinned. We’d set a date for pick-up, shake hands and then hug. It was like saying goodbye to my aunt and uncle.
I miss the Williamses and I miss Big George but time marches on.
The beautiful blooming red rose that once adorned the Lord & Taylor white boxes has now wilted and the petals have fallen from the long green stem, one by one – until there were none.
Requiescat in pace.