Identity Crisis, Part 2: Macy’s Class Struggle

One of the best thing about working at Macy’s was its flexibility. I could swap shifts or pick up extras through the internal website. The Handbags department always had open shifts. Fifteen minutes into my first experience there, I learned why.

I’ll call her Lana. She was the department manager. She was a tall, impeccably dressed women in early seventies who seemed to think she worked at a different store.

In a way, she was. Handbags included all women’s accessories, but it had a section specifically for designer merchandise, mainly Michael Kors and Coach. Lana ruled this little island and never left it. Every detail had to be just so; every rule had to be followed to the letter. If the clutches were not constantly arranged from darks to lights or if I didn’t tie a security tether with an aesthetically pleasing knot, she reprimanded me quietly but sternly. Playing The Devil Wears Prada for eight hours sometimes took as much energy as my actual job did. The customers didn’t fare much better. Lana was a very knowledgeable saleswoman, but she was often dismissive too.

Lana personified everything wrong with Macy’s relatively recent upscale aspirations. Her perfectionism and snooty attitude would work on Fifth Avenue, but not in a middle-class mall. Likewise, the $500 Coach purses don’t fit in with the $25 Karen Scott cat sweaters being sold a few feet away.

In recent years, the retail industry has faced a more divided consumer base. There are the shoppers looking for deep discounts and the ones looking for pricier status symbols. (This happens to coincide with the rise of income inequality.) This divide doesn’t leave much room for middle-market prices. Macy’s “social climb” can be traced to its “Project Runway” sponsorship from 2006 through 2011. It was a smart decision. The reality show makes high fashion conceptually accessible to a mass audience. Michael Kors was a judge on the show, so it made sense when Macy’s made a deal with his brand to sell its (relatively) more affordable merchandise. It looked like a good way for Macy’s to ease into its new identity. The trouble is that it hasn’t completely committed to the makeover, and that confuses customers.

My experience has shown me that Macy’s customers love coupons and sales, no matter how little money they save them. It’s what keeps them going back to the store. Michael Kors, Coach and other high-end brands do not accept coupons and they only go on sale during Macy’s quarterly Friends and Family promotion.

Compare that with Target, which sometimes has a well-known designer’s brand create a limited-time collection for its stores. (Former participants include former “Project Runway” judges Zac Posen and Isaac Mizrahi.) The price points go with Target’s other merchandise. The limited quantities make it look like the brands just did it on a whim while working on their “real” projects. Michael Kors, on the other hand, cheapened his brand (according to Lana, anyway) while remaining too expensive for many Macy’s shoppers. According to her, the rumor was that Michael Kors was ending his deal with the company, and I believe her.

Despite the way she treated me, Lana liked me. She even told me that. I know that deep down, she’s a good person. I just couldn’t put up with her personality. She wasn’t well-suited to work with the general population. Not unlike the merchandise on her little island.

Image Credit: SPERA/Wikimedia Commons.


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