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Macy's turns up the charm to court Chicagoans

Macy’s has all but given up wooing the Marshall Field’s faithful. Instead, executives are mounting a full-fledged campaign to bring in new shoppers — especially those who lack a deep-rooted Field’s connection — to its flagship State Street store.
Image: Macy's sgin on Marshall Field store
Some Chicagoans were angry when Macy's took over their iconic Marshall Field's chain. But Macy's efforts to woo the Field's faithful has now turned into a full-fledged campaign to bring in new shoppers.Brian Kersey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Macy’s Inc. expected resistance when it began putting its name on the door of local favorites like Kaufmann’s and Filene’s after it bought the May Co. more than two years ago.

But nowhere has the switch proved harder than Chicago, where anger at the loss of the iconic Marshall Field’s chain stubbornly refused to recede.

“There are a lot of people who just can’t get over the Marshall Field’s name change,” said Frank Guzzetta, the former president of Marshall Field’s who is now chairman and CEO of Macy’s North, one of seven regional division of Macy’s Inc. “Those people, no matter how hard we worked at it, have continued to be detractors.”

That’s why this holiday season, Macy’s has all but given up wooing the Field’s faithful.

Instead, executives are mounting a full-fledged campaign to bring in new shoppers — especially those who lack a deep-rooted Field’s connection — to its flagship State Street store.

The changes include a wine bar in the store’s Walnut Room — hallowed ground for generations of Chicagoans who have meals served by tuxedo-clad waiters part of a holiday tradition. There’s also free Wi-Fi, the city’s only FAO Schwarz toy store and college nights featuring denim fitting clinics and a “shoe diva” shopping party — designed to target children, college students and young professionals that are flocking to new downtown condos.

“You have to, at some point, stop and say, ’I apologize. I’m sorry you feel that way’ and move on,” Guzzetta said. “We wanted so hard to not disappoint the old Marshall Field’s customer that we put an excess amount of energy on that and not enough on making sure the store was what everyone wanted.”

Macy’s won’t say how much it is investing to turn around its Chicago business, or how much sales have dropped. But Lord and Taylor CEO Jane Elfers says her chain scored a 12 percentage point bump in sales since the Field’s-to-Macy’s switch last year.

For Macy’s, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“This has to be one of the most critical markets for them to gain acceptance from the shoppers,” said Jim Okamura, a senior partner with the retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group. “There’s the sheer size of what we’ve got here, but also it’s just such a key proving ground for the Midwest. It has that ripple effect across a pretty broad region of the country.”

Executives say they’re aiming to double foot traffic in the State Street store over the next three to five years, though they acknowledge holiday sales across Chicago may be flat this year thanks to drooping consumer confidence.

Critics aren’t making the transition any easier.

There were more protesters at an anniversary rally outside the store this fall than there were during the initial switch in September 2006, organizers said.

“We’re not acquiescing,” said Jim McKay, the founder of the anti-Macy’s group Field’s Fans Chicago, which organizes protests. “It’s part of our civic identity, it’s part of our history.”

Chicago began its love affair with the dry-goods store that eventually became Marshall Field’s in 1865. Over the decades, the retailer built its reputation on customer service, eventually becoming as synonymous to the city as the Bears and deep dish pizza.

But by the time Federated Department Stores bought May Co. for $11 billion and started shifting stores to the Macy’s brand, Marshall Field’s reputation eclipsed its reality. Cincinatti-based Federated later renamed itself Macy’s.

This holiday, as Macy’s caters to new clientele, it’s redoubling efforts to convince old shoppers it can still have a uniquely local flair. Holiday windows will be decorated to feature the Joffrey Ballet’s “Nutcracker.”

Macy’s is also revamping the State Street layout — sprucing up its plus-sized women’s sections and expanding young men’s offerings while moving junior apparel to a large space to accommodate what it hopes is a growing legion of fans. At its store on Michigan Avenue, Macy’s is beefing up its popular private label brands like Alfani and I.N.C. It’s also remodeling some suburban locations while changing layouts at others.

So far, once-tentative shoppers seem pleased.

Marge Chastain, a receptionist who works in downtown Chicago, cut up her green Field’s credit card to protest the switch, but has since become a regular. She scours the sale racks looking for deals for her daughters and grandchildren.

“Even though there was the transition, it’s still Marshall Field’s to me,” she said.