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Changes in Store : A Metamorphosis in Comfort Shopping as an Old Fixture Bows Out of L.A. Scene


The dapper, mustachioed retired dentist looked downright grief-stricken as he emerged from I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire for perhaps the last time.

"What are we going to do with this store closed?" Foster Bens wondered, shaking his head.

A La Mirada resident, Bens has frequented the store and its legendary tearoom two or three times a week since the 1950s. On this hazy Saturday afternoon in late March, he was paying a visit to feast on bittersweet bargains as the store held a going-out-of-business sale, 40% off everything in the joint. The Mid-Wilshire District store--known for most of its 64 years as Bullocks Wilshire--is expected to close any day now.

Bens' sort of loyalty is rare in this era of mini-malls and mega-malls, Gaps and Guccis, Limiteds and Loehmanns, Montana Avenue and Marshalls, Nordstroms, Price Clubs and Wal-Marts.

It's not enough that Southern Californians have had to cope with defense cutbacks, layoffs, state budget madness, riots, earthquakes and mudslides. Now, the very bedrocks of retailing in this material-minded place--the stores people counted on for comfort shopping--are undergoing a metamorphosis as well.

In March, troubled R.H. Macy & Co. said it would shut eight I. Magnin and Bullock's stores in California, including the landmark I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire--a onetime jewel that attracted the cream of Los Angeles and Hollywood society. The Broadway has cut back. Robinson's and May Co. have merged and closed stores.

What does it all mean? Have we shoppers in this market--still one of the wealthiest on Earth--forsaken big department and specialty stores? Are they doomed? Will we really miss them once they're gone?

"It speaks a lot more to the follies of retailers and overexpansion than to the changing habits of shoppers," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist of Management Horizons, a consulting firm in Dublin, Ohio.

Foolish debt loads taken on in the merger and takeover wars of the 1980s helped create crises for Macy's, owner of Bullock's and I. Magnin, and Carter Hawley Hale Stores, owner of The Broadway. Macy's is reorganizing under Chapter 11 of U.S. bankruptcy laws; Carter Hawley Hale emerged from Chapter 11 last October, with new owners and management.

Hard economic times helped finish off Buffums. Behemoths like Sears, Roebuck & Co.--which for years has been closing stores and reducing personnel--have been slow to react to changing markets and savvier rivals with better-defined niches.

In the last decade, the amount of retail square footage per U.S. resident has nearly doubled, to 18 from 10. Retailers say the nation is "overstored."

Fast-changing customer bases--particularly in the Los Angeles area--have kept even the best-known merchants hopping to try to keep pace with fashion whims. The neighborhood around I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire has gotten rougher in recent years, causing many shoppers to shy away. During last April's riots, looters broke every glass case on the first floor and made off with every scrap of merchandise. Some say it was the beginning of the end.

And, of course, the sour economy has had lots to do with retailers' ills. To shoppers whose neighbors have been laid off and who fear the same fate for themselves, Target, Wal-Mart and K mart start looking very chic indeed. A year ago, the sales volume at discount department stores surpassed the combined volumes of conventional and national chain department stores.

The free-spending spirit of the '80s seems to have vanished.

"The customer has definitely changed," said Elizabeth A. Germeroth, director of retail relations for NPD Group, a consulting firm in Port Washington, N.Y. "They're going to continue to be value-driven, and I don't see that ever changing."

But retailing experts say stores would have been in far better shape to handle the downturn had they not counted so heavily on suburban expansions to boost sales growth through the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1980s, growth in sales per square foot--a key measure of stores' health--did not even keep pace with inflation at department stores.

Lulled by the hot economy, stores failed to invest in new technologies that would have speeded transactions and kept better track of inventories. Fleeter specialty stores stole customers.

Following Nordstrom's lead, many stores tried switching to commission-based selling, but the experiments failed.

Now, with personnel cutbacks continuing and sales associates having no special stake in making a sale, shoppers grouse that they must chase down someone to take their money.

Change has been a fixture of L.A. retailing, even if the big names have stayed around for decades.

The first department store in downtown Los Angeles opened in 1878 at Temple and Spring streets. It was known as B.F. Coulter, Dealers in Gents' Furnishings and Dry Goods.

The next year, Asher Hamburger opened A. Hamburger & Sons at Spring near 1st Street. The popular store twice outgrew its location.

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