Working retail in a department store over the holiday season one might think the most frequent refrain I would hear was from a Christmas carol being piped in from the speakers overhead. Instead with each shift I was repeatedly reminded by customers and coworkers “This is no Dayton’s”. For those in the know from Minnesota (and beyond) there is no need to explain what I am talking about, for others I will simply say that Dayton’s was the standard that epitomized a high quality department store in our state for nearly a century. A local business that was owned by the family of our current governor.
When the first fully enclosed and climate-controlled mall in the country was opened in 1956, Southdale in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina was anchored by a Dayton’s. When neighboring communities followed suit with malls of their own; Brookdale (’62), Rosedale (’69) and Ridgedale (’74) got their Dayton’s too. In actuality it’s not that they got a store, the malls themselves were developments of the Dayton (later Dayton-Hudson Corporation) Company. It really all began with George Draper Dayton building a six story building at the corner of Nicollet Avenue and 7th Street in downtown Minneapolis. Though Dayton himself did not own the first department store to take up tenancy after the 1902 construction, it was only about a year before he bought out the tenant and then his own partners and Dayton’s Dry Goods Company was born. By 1911 it was simply the Dayton’s Company. Our capitol city of St. Paul got a downtown Dayton’s in 1964 as part of an urban renewal project.
While growing up in a household where clothing and other purchases were typically garnered from the Sears catalog and Montgomery Wards, going to Dayton’s was a special event. The Southdale Dayton’s was a place where my grandfather and his wife would take me for my birthday lunch, followed by the purchase of a new outfit. I typically ordered a cheese burger, despite him telling me to “order anything on the menu” because I feared getting something unfamiliar I might not like. My 1973 wardrobe selection was the misguided purchase of an ill-fitting pantsuit in my favorite color. A purple pantsuit on a chubby fifth grader with a bad haircut was forever captured in my school picture that year. I looked a bit like a Viking’s linebacker, at the time I loved it! My aunt/Godmother also had a fondness for taking me to the Valley View restaurant on the top floor on special outings. Lunch at Dayton’s felt very grownup! More on that in We All Have to Grow Up Sometime (http://wp.me/p4kcbr-vF).
The downtown Minneapolis Dayton’s was a store less visited in my youth, though the street level exterior window displays were lovely and I recall a childhood visit to Santa there. The real reason to go there was for the 8th Floor Holiday Display, an annual fantasy based on a children’s book or a theme, it was a delightful spectacle unlike any other childhood experience I can remember. Dayton’s was synonymous with Christmas to the point where going through family slides with one of my brothers last week we noted the Dayton’s boxes under my father’s childhood Christmas tree in the 1940’s. Later it would be the Santa Bear that lured shoppers in at the holidays. A pre-Beanie Baby collectible stuffed animal (first available in 1985) that was in high demand and still keeps auctions going on eBay despite 2007 being their last year of production.
Dayton’s was a clean and fashionable store with knowledgeable and helpful sales associates who were likely dressed and accessorized with Dayton’s merchandise. When I did venture to Dayton’s with my own parents it was typically to purchase shoes. The Southdale children’s shoe department featured a glorious gazebo in the center (sort of Howard Johnson’s orange and aqua painted bent steel) where after a professional had slipped your heel into the shoe of your choice with the aid of a shoe horn, you were able to ascend the stairway and “model” them. A nice way to be sure the shoes were neither too big or too small and allowing the salesman to view the child’s foot and press the toe of the shoes without needing to stoop over. I recall the painstaking selections at various points throughout my childhood; white patent leather for Easter, a black patent leather for church, a brown leather and suede for my cousin Suzy’s wedding (to go with my Maxi dress) and the first time I recall requesting anything by brand was my navy blue Jack Purcell “bumper” tennis shoes, which I’m sure cost a lot more than the Sears equivalent that did not say Jack Purcell on the heel.
Now that you have been regaled with all of the things that Dayton’s was, it is time to share with you why the repetition of “This is no Dayton’s” filled my holiday season. While Dayton’s purchased Marshall Field’s in 1990 and eventually re-branded their own stores under the Marshall Field’s moniker in 2001, little changed in the traditions of the stores with the exception of the addition of Frango mints. I was not working for either Dayton’s or Marshall Field’s this holiday season, I was working for Macy’s at Southdale which is the company which took over a decade ago. For anyone familiar with the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street it seems clear that Macy’s has a Christmas tradition as well, parts of the film are even used in their training videos. Despite their own legacy they have not only eliminated the Santabear, in 2008 the tradition of a new theme annually for the holiday display at their flagship store ended and ushered in a Santa Land that is the same every year. As I read an article this week in which Macy’s announced the closing of forty of their stores, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was some of these choices (likely made by corporate heads that did not grow up with these traditions) that ultimately impacted sales. I will acknowledge that none of the stores closing are in Minnesota but with a large company it’s unclear if this is an attempt to stop the bleeding or will ultimately be the beginning of the end. In Minnesota when weather can be foul and it’s just as easy to shop online it seems that having a novel display or item to draw customers into your store, perhaps even remind people of their childhoods and develop traditions to share with their own children would be an economic advantage.
Despite my musings and observations, those are not even the factors that garnered the unflattering comparisons to Dayton’s. What customers and employees cite are the same things I have experienced over the years as a consumer. Before I get to those observations I would prefer to share some of the positives that I experienced during my seven week holiday schedule. The managers at Southdale were kind, friendly and helpful people, they knew their stuff and empowered me as an employee to make decisions in the customers best interest at every turn and call upon them as needed. Many members of the team were young and relatively new, I am hopeful they are gaining skills to use in other management positions down the road. It is also my hope that they don’t burn out, the staffing needs and other limitations appear to have them working truly crazy hours. With that disclaimer I will share my insights, the first one being there is not enough staff, a customer should not have to hunt for a person to sell them something, a recent Star Tribune letter to the editor made the same commentary regarding the downtown Minneapolis location. The fixtures are tired, in need of replacement or repair, most dating back to Dayton’s. The new Backstage racks which gathers final clearance items into several locations strikes me as disastrous. Customers and I both prefer to shop a clearance rack in the location of the brands we are accustomed to shopping. The “final” pricing on such items means coupons do not apply, coupons being one of the greatest frustrations to shoppers in the first place! It is only compounded when trying to get to a total purchase price of $50 or $100 to use an applicable coupon, only to find out that the last season’s tank top you added to your pile from Backstage can’t be applied to the total. Cleanliness is perhaps the biggest complaint I heard about. Since most of my buying over the last several years has been for my kids I have not spent much time in the fitting rooms. Use of fitting rooms has changed dramatically from the era when I shopped with girlfriends and one of us rehung the garments and returned them. I had one woman tell me she will not buy clothing because she fears it has been on the floor at some point. The worn carpets, pins, tags and general need for vacuuming and dusting of the dressing rooms, wrap desks and displays reflect a different (lower) standard than what Dayton’s customers were accustomed to.
As an extrovert I enjoyed interacting with the customers and while I recognize it’s impossible to train seasonal help in all areas I often felt that there were simply things I had not been made aware of. While I would seek out the information I needed I noticed many of my peers simply avoided dealing with things, often using their shift as a personal shopping opportunity. As a “global associate” I had scheduled shifts in twelve departments, few of the regular associates were familiar with what I meant when I would arrive and say “Hi, I’m Nancy. I’ll be working here today.” they would ask where I normally worked and I would respond with “I’m global.” Many of the men and women I worked with had been with the company since the Dayton’s days and were surprised when I was not busy ringing up sales or doing returns that I was folding clothing, returning items to racks or asking how I could be of assistance. Most noted that seasonal help were often less than helpful. In several departments coworkers asked that if I came back as part time that I work in their department. A lot had changed in work ethic since my last stint working retail in a department store which ended with the birth of my oldest, over twenty years ago. Even the attendance policy seemed designed not to encourage a sense of commitment to the position or foster team work. It’s my understanding that other businesses also use a point system now which grants an initial number of points, allows you to gain points for fulfilling your work schedule as planned and deducts points for no-shows. The point value varies depending on if they are weekend shifts or consecutive shifts. I called in to explain that I would not be in when I was sick prior to a shift but that was because I was totally uncomfortable with not needing to. When I arrived at 7:30 a.m. on Black Friday and was told that one department had four no-shows and several others were shorthanded as well, I simply thought “why would someone show up on the busiest day of the year to work if the only thing keeping them from sleeping in or going out shopping themselves was the repercussion of losing points?”. Since retail is often an entry level job for many I worry that this is setting employees up with the wrong idea of what being a loyal employee consists of.
Employee expectations were not the only thing that had changed since I last worked a cash register, customers have changed too. While I met some really delightful people and helped some very appreciative patrons, I also met some overtly unkind, mean-spirited people and simply rude people. The most shocking customer was one who brought a specific brand item from a neighboring department. Having worked in the department it came from earlier in the week I knew there was no clearance rack and I was also aware that while the brand would on occasion have a 20% off sale that coupons would not apply to it. When I scanned the item it came up as $99. The item had a tag on it that read “Original Price $89” and the tagged sale price was $39.99. I did not feel comfortable overriding it since the price the tag was generating exceeded what the clearance tag indicated was the original price. I said “It will be a moment, I need to contact a manager.” at which point she pulled out her phone and shouted “I’m taping you, I want that for the price on the tag. I have never been treated this poorly in my life.” My thought was she must have had a super easy life if this was the worst thing she had ever experienced. I would personally rank getting home from a trip to a drive-thru an order of fries short as a much higher infraction. The situation escalated when I was unable to reach a manager. She kept repeating LOUDLY that she wanted the item for the price on the tag. I suggested that the department (one register over) the item was from might be the quickest way to override the discrepancy. “I’m not going anywhere, I want it for the price on the tag. I’m taping you.” By then I wanted to reapply my lipstick in the unlikely event that a recording of me being the most patient Macy’s employee being harassed by a customer were to go viral. So I walked the item over to the next bay myself and asked the seasoned veteran I had worked a shift with what to do. She acknowledged that it was not a sale item and then saw a manager who I was able to pass the situation on to. Ultimately the manager just sold it to her for the incorrect price, perhaps less enthusiastic than I at the prospect of becoming an internet star. This practice lent itself to some of the other situations I least enjoyed, customers who tried to goad me into making price reductions by saying insulting things “What does it matter, they don’t pay you well anyway.” What matters is my integrity and the fact that I’m not a thief and that if everyone simply reduced prices for customers that would be an unsustainable business model. While I do believe that a flexible return policy is an important factor, I think that kowtowing to cheap and unreasonable customers who are ripping the company off is neither beneficial to the store’s employees or the bottom line. If tighter policies were to prevent customers of that ilk from returning, perhaps a more refined clientele would again enjoy shopping there. On the occasions I dealt with this sort of unsavory shopper the next customer in line would inevitably shake their head apologetically and murmur “This is no Dayton’s”.
So my work there is over (for this season anyway) but I will return for the occasional One Day Sale (which ironically lasts two days) but there will be no Daisy Sale or Jubilee Sale because if you know anything by now it’s that Macy’s is no Dayton’s and it’s no Miracle on 66th Street* either!
*Macy’s Southdale is located at the corner of 66th and France