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There was a good piece in the Chicago Sun-Times the other day by film critic and Illinois native Roger Ebert about the decision by Federated Department Stores to convert Marshall Field’s stores to its Macy’s banner.

“Terry J. Lundgren, the three-headed chairman, president and CEO of Federated Department Stores, came to town Tuesday and informed Mayor Daley that he is changing the name of Marshall Field's to Macy's,” Ebert wrote. “I thought the day would never come. I am looking at my Field's charge card, which I have cut up into tiny pieces. They look like little tears the color of money.”

Ebert went on, “In every corner of America that has lost a little of its soul to heartless corporate bean counters, the decision will have an echo.

“Sure, sell Macy's merchandise in Marshall Field's. They have a lot of brand names already. Even call it ‘Macy's at Marshall Field's.’ But why slap the faces of Chicagoans who love the World's First and Greatest Department Store? There was never one day in the entire history of Macy's when anyone, in New York or anywhere else, thought it was the equal of Field's.”

Federated’s decision, Ebert writes, “is a form of imperialism. The new corporate executives see their companies as empires and colonize new lands like the imperial powers of history. If Columbus could claim America for Queen Isabella, if America could plant its flag on the moon, then why can't Terry Lundgren wade ashore in Chicago, plant his flag at Randolph and State, and tell the natives they only thought it belonged to them?”
KC's View:
We love reading Ebert’s film criticism, and it occurred to us when reading this piece that he has in the past decried the fact that movie companies often program theaters around the country without consideration of local tastes and demographics…which essentially is the same argument he is making here.

Now, it is important to keep the issue in perspective. After all, the Chicago Tribune noted yesterday that “many shoppers with fond memories of browsing Field's and lunching at the Walnut Room don't spend their money there anymore - or do so rarely.” Many of these shoppers are, in fact, dissatisfied with the Field’s shopping experience, or what it has become in recent years.

But that doesn’t mean that Federated isn’t tone deaf.

And MNB user who wrote a letter to Federated expressing displeasure at the announced charge sent us a copy of the email that she received back from some guy named Matt in “Guest Relations.”” It said, in part:

“The Federated Department Store Company has great respect for the legacy and traditions of Marshall Field's and have carefully researched consumer preferences and studied alternatives before making the decision to incorporate Marshall Field's into the nationwide Macy's brand. To better serve our guests in this highly competitive retail environment, we must concentrate on becoming a national brand so we can deliver outstanding value to our visitors.

“While the store's name will change, much of what our guests love will stay the same, including Marshall Field's traditions and our outstanding record of community and charitable giving. As part of this name change process, everything possible will be done to honor the Marshall Field's heritage, particularly in its Chicago birthplace.

“Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. We look forward to continue serving you in the future.”

It’s like the old joke. It probably is easy to tell when this fellow Matt is being insincere; he moves his lips.

It seems to us that there are a number of important lessons being played out here that a lot of retailers should pay attention to. The importance of local loyalties and community ties, and why they must be factored into business decisions that should not be made by men wearing eyeshades. The importance of understanding the local customer, not just the balance sheet. And the inherent risks of centralization that, played out in inevitable fashion, can distance the store from the shopper rather than create a sense of intimacy, understanding and appreciation.