If the legendary Christmas displays do appear in Lord & Taylor's historic Fifth Avenue flagship windows this year, they will be the store's last. After selling the actual building to the voracious real estate consumer WeWork, the department store's parent company Hudson's Bay Co. announced last week that the store would be vacating the premises by the end of this year. To clarify, the chain is not folding, but this location (pictured above) along with a few other underperforming ones will be shuttering to try to stem some of HBC's recent losses.
While it is easy to get nostalgic about the departure of another of New York City's great retailers, one would have to note that this has not been as beloved a shopping destination as it's various owners over the years would have hoped it could be. The original plan was for HBC to simply maximize the building's value by selling it and leasing it back, a scheme that over the years has been frequently implemented. The Goodman family still owns the building that houses Bergdorf's where Neiman Marcus has paid its rent for decades. A similar arrangement exists at Bloomingdale's, and the initial plan for Lord & Taylor was for the store to be downsized, and for WeWork to lease out upper floors. In fairness, the mammoth store could easily have lost a few floors and consolidated its offerings for a more concise presentation and shopping experience, but, in the end, even that plan apparently didn't seem viable. While many retailers have been challenged by changing customer habits, this particular branch of Lord & Taylor also suffered from the same problem it has had for decades: Location, location, location.
One could argue that if the store had been situated a few blocks south at 34th street, which remains a teeming shopping corridor, it might have been able to survive, even thrive. By the time you get to 38th and Fifth, however, the crowds dissipate dramatically. For many years, Lord & Taylor had a genteel fellow anchor in B.Altman at 34th and Fifth, but that store has been gone since the late 80s early 90s department store bloodbath that also took out Gimbels, Bonwit Teller, Stern's and A&S. For a long time, shopping on Fifth Avenue was primarily concentrated in the stretch between Saks Fifth Avenue at 49th Street and Bergdorf Goodman at 58th. Thanks to chain stores like Zara, H&M, Urban Outfitters and others, the past decade has seen a resurgence that extended south to the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, but not to the one block further that would have brought shoppers to Lord & Taylor. It didn't help that the store's longtime owner, The May Co., seemed to have had a conflicted attitude toward what was supposed to be the crown jewel in its fleet of regional retail nameplates which have since been converted into Macy's branches. While they attempted to maintain the store's prestige with a continuing department of high-end designer women's apparel that was mostly ignored by its customers, they didn't bother to keep the store's interiors updated, allowing it to become increasingly dilapidated and outmoded. May was actually forced to sell the store when it merged with Macy's, and subsequent owners including HBC made commendable efforts to modernize, including major renovations that finally brightened the store's ambiance. Renewed emphasis on younger skewing merchandise and novelty departments would not, unfortunately, be enough to save the location, and by year's end, Lord & Taylor customers will have to make their way to Paramus, or Yonkers, or maybe Scarsdale, Manhasset or Garden City —New Jersey or New York, take your pick.
Lord & Taylor's historic store is not the only troublesome property that HBC unloaded last week. It also sold the flash sale retailer Gilt Group to its main competitor Rue La La. The once pioneering website had already fallen far since its heyday of discounted luxury designer goods when HBC bought it a few years ago. The hope that making it a more prestigious adjunct to its Saks Off Fifth outlet division did not pan out as the increasing scarcity of the prized designer labels it once sold in abundance made it hard to attract those wealthy customers that once descended upon the site at noon for its daily release of new merchandise. It seems unlikely that Gilt will be able to do that for Rue La La, but its new parent claims that it will maintain the two brands as distinct entities. Best of luck to them.