Ode to Loehmanns
I read a piece in the NYX's Metropolitan Section over the weekend called Loehmanns, Out of Step, Closing Down. The article made me think about my own personal experiences with Loehmanns and how retail has changed over the last century. Loehmanns is closing after 94 years.
In high school when my parents got divorced we went from shopping at nice department stores to shopping at Loehmanns. Going from someone helping you navigate the store to being on your own was a unique shopping experience in itself. Aisles of clothing broken down by item and size. Skirts in one section, pants in another etc. You had to take your time going through each rack to find that gem. The back room was a room where they kept the really good stuff. Walls mirrored from top to bottom in a large square room. Women would just strip down and try on the clothes. There was frequent conversation. It was in that room where I realized I must have someting printed on my forehead that said "ask me". Frequently women would cross the room and ask me what I thought. I guess even then I never held back. There was also a jockeying that went on back there. You would notice that someone had found something awesome and when they discarded it in their pile people would beeline it over to ask politely if they were taking it. It was quite an experience.
I continued to shop at Loehmanns through college. When I landed in NYC after graduating college I'd take a road trip to the Loehmanns in the Bronx or Queens. Then Loehmanns changed. They grew and grew and the reality is as manufacturers got better at predicting their sales the bargains got more difficult to find. Perhaps they out grew bigger than the inventory available. The really good inventory was scooped up by not only Loehmanns but other stores who got into their game like Century 21 in lower Manhattan. The truly good stuff was usually merchandise that somehow got held up in customs or arrived too late for the department store to take it in and the manufacturers had to dump it. Loehmanns would grab it and the really good shopper who happened to be there at the right time and place got to buy the diamond in the rough.
Discount shopping has changed. One of the dirty little secrets in the 90's is that many of the top manufacturers who sold to the high end department stores like Saks would just take their best selling bodies, replace the fabrics with cheaper quality ones and slap a sticker on it for Loehmanns saying that it was the same thing. It wasn't the same thing and the customers knew it. The price they were paying was what the item was worth. It wasn't some fantastic hidden gem.
Retailers have trained consumers who are bargain hunters to wait for the sale or shop in the stores where they only hold inventory that has moved off the floor into outlet malls. The outlet malls are carrying plenty of merchandise made specifically for them and the margins are just as good as the high end department stores when they sell at full price. It is just lesser quality goods. On occasion there is the bargain waiting to be had but rarely. The merchandise is made for that store.
Through technology we are able to gauge inventories better and turn merchandise around quicker. In many ways we should be retraining the customer to buy at full price instead of creating smoke and mirrors around products that consumers believe are a deal because they aren't. JC Penney was trying to do that. They were not able to endure the pain to their stock price to change their customers thinking. The only time you really get a good solid sale is when the inventory has been on the floor too long and they need to move it out for the next shipment. Something that comes in for holiday only has so many weeks to sell at full price. I know as a buyer that after 6-8 weeks I would mark the goods down and move on.
I am not surprised to see Loehmanns close its doors. Those were the days but the real bargains stopped being available decades ago.