A Happy Heart At Bloomingdale’s

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Though I found much to admire in Rosenberg’s essay, I also found much to question, and my questions began at this point in her argument. Is it really so difficult to find contemporary examples of department stores that play active roles in their communities and help out in local emergencies? An official at NeimanMarcus was happy to provide me with the names of a couple of dozen charities that it supports—everything from the Dallas Ballet to the Texas Coalition for Juvenile Justice, from the Salvation Army to the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce. In recent years Rich’s has contributed to the creation of a new zoo in Atlanta, acquired art for regional museums, renovated a shelter for the homeless, initiated a Meals on Wheels program, and established in its downtown store an alternative high school, the Rich’s Academy. What difference does it make if tax deductions encouraged these activities?

The department stores of our own era make Rosenberg sad, she says, because everything about them reflects an obsession with short-term profit. “Unique merchandise, individual attention, and special services have become highly unusual. … The ambience of comfort, luxury, and beauty that was inextricably bound up with respect for the customer and the desire to cultivate lifelong loyalty has been sacrificed to a marketing technique that foists on the buyer huge quantities of merchandise as a substitute for real variety, and manipulation of prices as a substitute for quality.”

These tactics have led to the loss of the trust so diligently cultivated during the golden age. Shoplifting and employee theft have also become huge problems. By the mid-1970s such “shrinkage” had reached 5 percent of sales in many stores, and experts estimated that one out of ten department store shoppers was a shoplifter.

The first department stores offered customers something most merchants thought insane: a money-back guarantee.

The stores have fought back in predictable ways: “Silent security guards stand at entrances where uniformed doormen once greeted regular customers by name. Plastic chains … rivet highpriced sportswear and coats to the racks on which they hang. Every item of clothing bears a large plastic tag with a miniature transmitter that will trip an alarm if the article is stolen.” The whole scene is deplorable, and it’s not the fault of the people who steal, Rosenberg claims; they are merely responding to an “essential repudiation by the store of its responsibility to its customers.” The fault lies not with the shoppers but with an “increasingly powerful managerial class that prospers at the expense of the gross national amenity.”

I’m willing to accept Rosenberg’s description of the inadequacies of our department stores, but I find it impossible to share either her rationalization of the causes of theft or her indignation at the management. I don’t believe that contemporary executives are as incompetent as she claims, but even if I’m wrong about that, I’m confident that we can rely upon the marketplace to punish their incompetence.

As consumers, most of us buy what we want to buy and shop where we want to shop. If something costs more than we’re willing to pay, we don’t buy it. In every discretionary transaction (to borrow the language of economists ), we’re exercising our sovereignty as consumers; we’re choosing what to buy and when and where to buy it.

Choice shapes the economy. People who find department stores intolerable will cease to tolerate them. They will decide that they prefer to stay home and make purchases out of mail-order catalogs, or that they prefer to shop out of the electronic catalogs now beginning to be available through cable television, or that they are willing to pay a little more for the amenities available at some other store. The department stores that fail to satisfy their customers—like the Gimbels in my neighborhood in Manhattan—will go out of business.

On the other hand, if people continue to shop at department stores, it must be because, all things considered, they prefer to do so. Rosenberg blames executives for the decline in what she describes as the “gross national amenity,” but she might as well blame free enterprise, because in a market system, amenities are bought and sold, not given away. The preferences of more than two hundred million consumers decide what goods and services will be available, and at what price. When all is said and done, I suspect that Rosenberg is sad because the amenities that especially appeal to her cost more than most of her contemporaries are willing to pay.

One consolation is available. If enough people share Rosenberg’s preferences, then it won’t be long before some bright lad or lass opens a store that caters to their desires. The customers will get what they want, and the enterprising youth will get rich. That is the beauty of a market system. If enough people set their hearts on something, other people can make money by selling them what they want. It’s a brilliant way to organize economic activity. On your next trip to a department store, take a moment to think about it that way. It may make you happy.