Department Store Memories & How Their Past May Help Their Future

Bullocks Wilshire 1937

Bullocks Wilshire Los Angeles 1937

Recently I read an interesting post from one of my favorite style bloggers, Suzanne Carillo, on the demise of brick and mortar retail shopping.  This got me to thinking about the thousands of department stores that have gone out of business in the last 10 to 15 years.. We all know online shopping has something to do with it. But that’s only one of many reasons. Beside the rise of ecommerce, I believe, in trying to compete on price with the discount chains,  many department stores have sacrificed everything that used to make shopping fun. It’s just a race to the bottom. Writers in this Fortune Magazine article explain many of the reasons for the downward spiral of departments stores, one of them they refer to as “Death by Discount.”

Stores are now just racks upon racks of clothing as far as the eye can see, all jammed together,  bland decor , harsh lighting, horrible music and too many choices of nothing special. When you’re working on slim margins you don’t spend money on creating ambiance and paying for good customer service people.

For discount shopping there are plenty of places to go.  So if  department stores want to survive in the new retail marketplace they perhaps need to move forward by looking back as a way to differentiate themselves.  Back when they provided a destination that went beyond just shopping. Customer service was extremely important, but so was ensuring customers were entertained and had places to interact socially. They need to figure out a way to make in store shopping exciting again.

Here’s trip down retail memory lane for a look at what shopping in department stores used to be like.

Dress salon-Bamberger's, Newwark NJ 1940

Dress salon-Bamberger’s, Newwark NJ 1940

Interior design was beautiful.  The look was streamlined and elegant.

Bonwit Teller shoe department, Cleveland, 1951

Bonwit Teller shoe department, Cleveland, 1951


Selbers, Shreveport, 1960s

Selbers, Shreveport, 1960s

Many stores had tea rooms, restaurants and hair salons. They put on fashions shows and concerts.  In the 1950s Jordan Marsh in Miami had it’s own swimming pool and in the 1930s Saks 5th Ave. in New York City actually had an indoor ski slope complete with Scandinavian instructors offering lessons!

Burdine's roof deck 1929

Dining on Burdine’s roof deck in Florida 1929

Fashion show models-Burdine's Miami 1929

Fashion show models-Burdine’s  roof deck Miami 1929

Filene's Picnic Room 1957

Filene’s Picnic Room 1957

Burdine's Miami tea room 1957

Burdine’s Miami tea room 1957

Crowley Milner hair salon-1941

Crowley Milner hair salon-1941

Ladies at lunch, Crowley Milner store 1941

Ladies at lunch, Crowley Milner store 1941

If you’re of a certain age you’ll probably remember that a day of shopping with your family at a big city department store was a huge deal.  You dressed in your best clothing, as it was a special event.

I’ll never forget the time my Dad flew to New York City on business and took me with him. And after his meeting was over he took me to Macy’s and bought me a dress. It was one of the most exciting days of my young life. Macy’s was such a grand store back in the day. It’s sad to see how mediocre many of their stores have become.

Loving the mod decor in this store.

Shoppers at Hecht Department store in Virginia 1971

Shoppers at Hecht Department store in Virginia 1971

Shoppers outside Gilchrist's in Boston

Shoppers outside Gilchrist’s in Boston

I like the maxis, especially the leopard number. But I’ll pass on those hairstyles!

Shoppers at Habers Fort Lauderdale, 1971

Shoppers at Habers Fort Lauderdale, 1971

Gown shopping at Saks-1960

Gown shopping at Saks-1960

Back in the day ladies could actually sit in the department store dress salon while models showed them clothes that they could have made for them.

Model and shopper at Burdine’s Miami 1950s

Customers in Saks custom salon 1960

Customers in Saks custom salon 1960

Now I’m not suggesting that department stores will prosper if they only follow the retailing methods of a bygone era.  But I’d like to think combining modern technology with what made things work in the past might create a whole new shopping experience.  I hope the remaining ones succeed. Not only to save jobs,  but to make shopping fun again!

From another Forbes article titled “Secret of Retail Success? Give shoppers more things to do,  not more things to buy.” market researcher, Pamela Danzinger explained it perfectly.

“Retailers need to think way outside the store box to make their stores interactive and in so doing create a real experience for the customers to engage in. These core ideas – High Touch, Story Telling and Community – are key to doing that. Unfortunately too many retailers are wedded to the concept that the answers to retail stagnation lies in more data and new algorithms. Instead they need to imagine the kind of experiences people want that make them feel engaged, surprised, invigorated, and rewarded. Otherwise, retailers will be stuck in storehouses filled with stuff, but empty of shoppers.”


Wanamakers 1946

Wanamakers 1946

So what kinds of changes would make you enjoy department store shopping again?  Do you have a favorite department store you used to love shop in that is no longer in business?

Till next time……


By | 2018-09-27T09:15:18-04:00 September 26th, 2018|Nostalgia|4 Comments

About the Author:

Hi, I'm Theresa, owner and chief classy dame at the Blue Velvet Vintage online boutique. Lover of mid century fashion and home decor, classic films, Old Hollywood, pretty dresses, red lipstick, swing dancing and retro culture in general. Between my ecommere site and vintage style blog my mission is to revive the eras of classy dressing and inspire women to add more glamour to their lives! So don't be shy! I love to hear from others who share my appreciation of the styles of the past.


  1. Theresa Campbell
    Theresa Campbell September 28, 2018 at 9:39 am

    I agree Ann. Online shopping has provided a vast selection and there’s no doubt shopping from your home is enticing. But hopefully some of these stores will be able to pull customers in with experiences that you can’t get online. They need to start thinking differently. They cannot compete on just huge inventories of discounted stuff. It’s just not working.

  2. Avatar
    Ann September 27, 2018 at 2:17 pm

    Oh, how I would love to go shopping in one of those department stores of yester-year you are featuring here! Antwerp had quite a few department stores back in the day, but now only one remains, and it’s just not the same as it was before. Indeed, I remember going shopping with my Mum back in the late 60s and early 70s. Shopping in itself was an adventure, as it featured a bus ride into town, something we only did a couple of times a year. And yes, it did involve dressing up in one’s best clothes! Is it just in my imagination, or was shopping more exciting back then? I did read Suzanne’s post as well, and even though I am well aware of being old fashioned, I just don’t think that virtually adding items to one’s basket is as exciting as visiting brick and mortar shops. I think that people are so spoiled for choice nowadays, and so used to be able to get anything they want at a click of a button, that it would be hard for any department store to compete with that, even with the addition of modern technology. I for one think this is very sad, but there is really no way back. xxx

  3. Theresa Campbell
    Theresa Campbell September 27, 2018 at 9:12 am

    Yes, shopping at the big department store with Mom was definitely a special event. I’m glad my post brought back some happy memories for you and I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  4. Avatar
    Arlene September 27, 2018 at 8:42 am

    Hi! I have never posted before but this subject made me think back to when I was a young girl and my mother and I would take the bus “uptown” and go shopping together. We would have lunch too which made it a special day. The department store that I remember being very elegant was Hahne’s Department Store in Newark, NJ. It was a store where women spent an afternoon shopping and having lunch together. The store itself was very beautiful and the staff were knowledgeable and very helpful. Kids today don’t even know that stores like that existed. That’s sad. We didn’t shop as often as people do now and so it was fun to go there once in awhile. Thanks for bringing back that memory. Arlene from NJ

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