Macy's Seeks to Get Past Marshall Field's Spat

Two years ago, Macy's bought the retail giant May Company and started putting the Macy's name on local outlets. In Chicago, that meant the loss of the iconic Marshall Field's department store. Some shoppers are still peeved.

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Macy's isn't offering any miracles this season. The company's recently released third-quarter report shows higher profits than expected, but Macy's officials expect holiday sales to be flat. The department store chain is still trying to convince some shoppers it's time to forgive its decision to put its nameplate on local stores that it purchased two years ago, especially a traditional favorite in Chicago.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: For more than a century, the legendary Marshall Field's department store on Chicago's State Street was a destination shopping spot for residents and tourists alike. The store's holiday windows with scenes this year from "The Nutcracker" ballet continue to be a huge draw. But for the second year, now it's Macy's red and white logo that's part of the decorations - no Marshall Field's green, and no mention of Field's in the signs that tout the 100th anniversary of the store's great clock, its Tiffany Ceiling, its famous Walnut Room restaurant.

Mr. JIM McKAY(ph): It's ironic that they're trying to evoke images of Marshall Field's without mentioning the Marshall Field's name.

CORLEY: The green-and-white button on Jim McKay's coat reads: Marshall Field's forever. McKay organizes these protest rallies against Macy's. Another is in the works for next month. And the day after Thanksgiving, he and others will be passing out leaflets to shoppers.

Mr. McKAY: We want them to boycott Macy's until they bring back Marshall Field's.

CORLEY: After all, says McKay, Marshall Field's was a Chicago icon known for its service and its merchandise. But last year, Marshall Field's and about 400 other stores became Macy's after the company bought them in an $11-billion deal in 2005.

Ms. LINDA PIEPHO (Vice President and Store Manager, Macy's): Welcome to State Street.

CORLEY: That's Linda Piepho, the vice president and store manager of the State Street Macy's. Her mother used to work here years ago, selling dolls at Marshall Field's. Now it's Piepho's time to tour the store, and she points proudly to the 45-foot tall decorated Christmas tree in the Walnut Room restaurant.

Ms. PIEPHO: There's a great deal of tradition that continues here. We are celebrating this year the 100th anniversary of the great tree, along with the Walnut Room and this lovely Tiffany Ceiling. But we're on to building new traditions.

CORLEY: New traditions like a wine bar in the Walnut Room, free Wi-Fi access, and the addition of the city's only FAO Schwarz toy store. But not everybody thinks the changes are for the better.

Ms. BARBARA LEVATTO(ph): No, we don't. No.

CORLEY: Barbara Levatto and her friends Beverly and Claire were leaving Macy's after eating in the Walnut Room. They still love the food at the restaurant, but the rest is a story they can do without. According to Levatto, what was better at Marshall Field's...

Ms. LEVATTO: Probably everything.

CORLEY: Morningstar retail analyst Kim Picciola says Macy's probably needs at least another six months to be able to tell if its market strategies - like launching an exclusive line of Martha Stewart products - will work. In the meantime, it's still a struggle for Macy's to connect with shoppers who loved Marshall Field's.

Ms. KIM PICCIOLA (Retail Analyst, Morningstar): It's really about the merchandising. It's really about the store experience. And if Macy's can get that right, I think they'll have success at reconnecting with some of these costumers that do miss the Marshall Field's.

CORLEY: Macy's seems to have had enough of the naysayers, though. With promotions and exclusive product lines, it's looking to entice many of the new residents and college students who have moved into Chicago's downtown. And despite the protest rallies, some Marshall Field loyalists may decide to shop at Macy's, if Debbie Quinn is any indication.

Ms. DEBBIE QUINN: Well, I'll be honest. When they first came to town and they sent me a Macy's card to take the place of my Marshall Field's, I cut it up. But, you know, you have to accept change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: And that's exactly what Macy's hopes to hear from even more former Marshall Field's customers.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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