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.  

Comments (Archived):

  1. Debbie Stier

    Ah, Loehmanns…the childhood memories come flooding right back…. Old ladies (old, at least to my 10 year old eyes. They were probably younger than I am now!) stripping down to their granny pants in those wide open dressing rooms. I’m still scarred.I never knew that about the clothes! My mom used to go to some “special room” in the back where the “good stuff” was kept (at least that’s what she thought/told me. Was it really less good good stuff?(I’ll never tell! It would crush her to know all those bargains were an illusion.)

    1. Gotham Gal

      there was definitely better stuff in the back. some of those bargains were real but as time went on the bargains were mostly illusions. alas.

  2. CCjudy

    I disagree. Even to the end there are good bargains at L altho now it is not L – its the fund that bought their assets.

  3. ellen

    Loehmanns came to Natick, Ma., a suburb of Boston, I think in the middle 1960’s. It was owned by the Loehmanns’ family at that time. I remember being introduced to the family on opening day and they were told by my family member that I would be a future customer. I remember my sister and Mom bought wool beaver-trimmed suits that first day. For us, it was just another place to go but it was never instead of Bonwit Teller et al.I grew up and shopped the Natick store, then Burlington, and sometimes Swampscott for many years until the store was sold to the first investment group. In my opinion their best lines and deals were in sportswear. There were beautiful blouses. pants, sweaters, skirts and blazers. The accessories were interesting. I still have boxes of very outrageously “gorgeous” belts and handbags. I loved their millinery also. Why in the world did you need a blue straw cowboy hat in the Boston suburbs, but you bought it, because it was inexpensive and completed an outfit.(Since you could not return, I always had a bag of Loehmann’ s stuff to donate.)The back room had the more expensive clothes but they were still not couture or truly high, high end designers. The stuff was acceptable. I could never, ever find evening wear at that store.When Loehmanns was first sold, that was the end for me. No one was minding the store and it became shlock city. There were racks and racks of just horrible merchandize. I am very surprised it lasted so long. It was bought and sold at least 3 times so someone must have shopped there, but it wasn’t for me anymore.

    1. Gotham Gal

      We had basically the same experience. It was so great when it was great

  4. Cecelia Feld

    I grew up in the Bronx. Loeh. was only a bus ride away. It was fun and madness trying to score the designer “bargain” as a teen and college student (Hunter “63). That’s not to say I didn’t take the train to Manhatten to shop at all my favorite department stores, Macy’s, B. Altman and Bonwit Teller’s.

  5. Wabi Sabi Ecofashionconcept

    Although shocking many consumers really donĀ“t know that special merchandise is produced just for outlets and sales. I find many people who really think they are getting a bargain on best quality designer items. People are often not as informed as we asume.

  6. rachel

    my savvy late grandmother and great aunt would have their car and driver take them from nyc to white plains loehmanns. they had a salesgirl who would tip them off whenever new good shipments arrived. the times have changed!

    1. Gotham Gal

      Love it

  7. Lisa S

    I’m a fourth generation Loehmann’s shopper – my great grandmother, grandmother, mother and me. It all began in the Norwalk, CT store, but experienced White Plains and NYC. Laughing about shared (but forgotten) experience of women disrobing in the aisles, having your inside woman tipping you off to the new shipments and how long it’s been that you could really find a quality “steal!” Thanks for the acknowledgement and memories.

    1. Gotham Gal

      I still can picture the rooms ( and I had been to a lot of different back rooms ) in my head.

  8. Rachel Mount Hofstetter

    Joanne, I think you would enjoy this piece by my friend Jessica about Loehmann’s: http://nymag.com/thecut/201

    1. Gotham Gal

      aw. thanks so much for sending my way.

  9. pointsnfigures

    best bargains now are handmade one of a kind pieces that you can find on sites like Etsy