Meier & Frank was founded in Portland, Oregon in 1857 -- so needless to say it's been a fixture here my entire life.
When we were kids, Marilyn mistressmarilyn and I used to love to ride the bus downtown and hang out in Meier & Frank -- often spending time in the huge staircases between floors. Later on I even worked in the store for a short time...
Goodbye, Meier & Frank. You'll be missed...
(This is the front page of the newspaper this morning...)
So long, Meier & Frank. Hello, Macy's
The stores' new owner hopes to win shoppers by showing humility, embracing local traditions and setting trends
Saturday, September 09, 2006
Since buying rival May Department Store Co., Federated Department Stores Inc. has become the 800-pound gorilla towering over the nation's department store business.
Today, Federated seals that stature by officially re-introducing 400 stores in a dozen long-familiar regional chains, including Portland-based Meier & Frank, under its flagship Macy's brand.
But Federated is carefully laboring to show local philanthropic players, fashion glitterati and rank-and-file shoppers that it is no beast.
In the Portland area, hub of the two dozen Meier & Frank stores in the Northwest, Federated has courted descendants of the chain's founding families, sent top brass to local fundraisers, rolled out regional fashion runways and read tea leaves of focus groups.
"Don't be arrogant" is what they heard, said Kimberly M. Reason, a Macy's Northwest spokeswoman based in Seattle.
For the Meier & Frank market, the humility encompasses retaining local representatives in its merchandise-buying team, preserving some Meier & Frank traditions, showcasing the company's retention of well-known sales workers, and smoothing over any hard feelings from the May ownership.
Ask Gerry Frank, a descendant of one of the founding families, about the hard feelings.
"They were cheap operators," Frank said. "They were sale, sale, sale. They had names for sales every day of the week.
"They saled the store to death."
For Frank, the battle was personal. Frank said he watched May slowly swallow alive traditions and standards of his family's beloved store chain, founded 149 years ago.
"It was excruciating," Frank said. "It got to where I couldn't even go in the stores."
Frank wasn't afraid to share his pain with the new ownership.
"If you think (Oregonians) are sitting on their hands, going 'ooh' and 'ah,' waiting for Macy's to open, you're wrong," Frank recalled telling Macy's executives in Seattle.
Federated could have ignored Frank. Instead, Terry J. Lundgren, Federated's chief executive officer, set out to win him over.
Lundgren attended a fundraiser and "pledged big dollars," Frank said, for one of Frank's favorite charities, Special Olympics Oregon. Lundgren saw that proceeds from Macy's first fashion event in Oregon -- a runway show at the Portland Art Museum on Sept. 21 -- would benefit The Gerry Frank Center for Children's Care at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.
Lundgren and Frank became friends.
"An institution reflects the kind of leadership it has," Frank said. "I can't say enough good things about Terry Lundgren."
Forging such relationships is among key steps in switching brands, experts say.
"It's a new era when a company meets with the community and engages in local community work," said Jody Turner in San Francisco, founder of trends research firm Culture of Future.
Turner contrasted the Macy's approach with the way she said Wal-Mart Stores Inc. barges into markets, then launches "massive public-relations campaigns" to soothe hard feelings.
"This is the (type of) dialogue we are looking for from larger companies," Turner said.
There's a fine line between dialogue and schmoozing. But few are complaining.
"They are taking this play-nice-in-my-sandbox strategy," said Alex Meier Goodman, a descendant of the other Meier & Frank founder.
"It's an interesting strategy," said Laura Gurski in Chicago, a vice president with management consulting firm A.T. Kearney.
Federated has a clear grasp of its "formula" for merchandise, store and business operations, Gurski said. But the company also understands that while the right merchandise and displays are important, customers' shopping habits are scattered widely and loyalties spread thinly.
"Branding is about being loyal to something, and that attachment is sometimes emotional," she said.
Macy's is trying to tap those emotions based on its research and conversations with customers.
"One thing we heard loud and clear was that it was important that we keep a number of the same faces," said Jeff Gennette, chairman and chief executive of Macy's Northwest in Seattle.
Customers will see some familiar figures not just behind counters, but also in advertisements. Macy's will feature a few popular sales associates in a campaign to show customers that many upsides of Meier & Frank will endure.
Among them: the chain's holiday window displays and Santaland in the downtown store.
"Customers have been making pilgrimages there since they were kids," Gennette said.
Honoring old, starting new
Macy's has its own traditions, Gennette noted, which it hopes Oregonians will embrace.
Many Oregonians, especially those from other states, are familiar with Macy's stores. But others know the company only as a sponsor of the annual Thanksgiving Day parade in New York and the setting for the Christmas movie "Miracle on 34th Street."
Federated also aims to dust off Meier & Frank's aesthetic allure.
"We'll try to establish ourselves in Oregon as a fashion and trend leader," Gennette said.
The company is introducing an exclusive line by Dame Vivienne Westwood. The English designer got her start dressing punk bands, including The Sex Pistols. Now, she's got a title from a queen, too.
Macy's is trying to upgrade not only its merchandise, but also its presentation. Stores are undergoing makeovers. The fashion photography in ads and glossy mailers is stylish. And Macy's has more fashion shows and special events planned for the Oregon market than elsewhere on the West Coast.
"We're hoping that we will earn back customers one at a time -- without arrogance," Gennette said.
Workers recently pried off bronze Meier & Frank plaques on the historical downtown store. But in a genteel gesture to the Oregon namesake families and a nod to the city's retail history, Federated worked with the city to decree the block that the building sits upon "Meier & Frank Square."
"Maybe it's like Stockholm syndrome," Meier Goodman half-joked. "They're taking over, . . . but they're doing it in such a nice way that you end up liking them."
So it actually sounds like this could be quite an improvement over the way the store was handled by the
It's going to take time to get used to referring to Macy's rather than Meier & Frank's, though...