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It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is about department stores that feels so outdated. Is it the fluorescent lighting? The irritating layout that forces you to weave in and out of racks just to find the item you’re looking for — or locating a cashier, for that matter?
Maybe it’s the shoe department, where you must rely on a suited man to come slip a heel on your foot like a suburban Cinderella.
One store that’s finally catching onto the fact that the department store model is antiquated is Macy’s, a company in an existential crisis. Earlier this week, CFO Karen Hoguet said on an investors call that the store is testing “open-sell” for footwear, which means customers can grab their own shoes instead of waiting on a sales associate to bring out the right size.
Hoguet said this decision came down to how people shop today.
“The shoe experience requires someone getting it for you. People like self-service today,” she said. “Many think, ‘If I get a human being to service me, that's ideal.’ But lots just say, ‘Leave me alone. Let me just do it, get the shoe I want, and move on.’”
It’s unclear if this “open-sell” plan will help an ailing store like Macy’s. But at least Hoguet is on the right track. The department store sector has been struggling for some time now, and while these companies would like to blame e-commerce giants like Amazon — and the internet in general — the fact is that the department store space feels stale.
One particularly stale mainstay of the department store model is sales associates, who shoppers increasingly view as obsolete. According to a Retail Dive poll on shoppers from earlier last month, only 13 percent of shoppers felt store associates were a compelling reason to visit a store. (Probably because they are impossible to find, amirite?) Shoppers would much prefer to grab their own stuff without the hovering “help” of a formally-dressed assistant.
You see the trend with beauty. Sephora’s layout, which allows shoppers to try on makeup and pick products themselves, has compelled department stores to reassess how backwards it is to have makeup behind the counter and out of reach. In 2013, for example, Nordstrom began rolling out an open layout similar to Sephora’s featuring “the Core,” which offers trending and travel-size products in open bins, and a “Play Bar” where customers can try makeup.
Switching up how a department store like Macy’s sells shoes seems like a necessary move. While thousands of companies are closing doors in the US, the fact remains that 85 percent of customers still to prefer to shop in stores — just not poorly designed, outdated ones. As Racked has pointed out before, in-person shopping isn’t dying; it’s changing, and stores must adapt to keep up with customers’ desires.
It’s for this reason that Nordstrom has been rolling out boutique-style shops-in-shop over the last few years, and why Saks Fifth Avenue has been experimenting with a new layout for its men’s sections that feels like a walk-in closet.
When it comes to the shoe department, it should be noted that Macy’s open-sell plan would make the store feel an awful lot like a T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s. This may very well be on purpose. While Macy’s sales of apparel and accessories dipped from $23.6 billion in 2014 to $22.8 billion in 2015, TJX Company apparel and accessories sales have grown from $18.6 billion to $19.8 billion in the same period. At a time where foot traffic is dying, shoppers keep visiting TJX stores — for the low prices, certainly, but also because of the store itself, and self-service definitely has something to do with it.
As Racked’s Cam Wolf wrote, “We don’t need to ask other humans how something should fit or what the latest trends are, because there’s this vast well of information at our fingertips — I believe it’s called the internet.”