Being Different—Bloomingdale’s Transformation
The seeds of Bloomingdale’s transformation from a fifth-ranked store with little personality into a store that later defined fashion trends were planted by Jed Davidson, then the Chairman of the company. Davidson’s vision of the store was quite unique at the time; instead of stocking merchandise based on the income level of its regular customers, Davidson felt that Bloomingdale’s goods should reflect the tastes of the customers it wanted to attract. So the store, in his mind, would become a creative force that attracted customers rather than just a place that sells products.
By the early 60s, retailing was growing across the United States and the list of quality stores was getting longer—Saks, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus and others. And while the seeds of change came from Davidson, it was Marvin Traub who took those ideas to the next level and made Bloomingdale’s bloom. “In those years, from 1962 to 1991, Bloomingdale’s was very much something that I had enormous influence on. It was an opportunity to evolve something. The country was changing, people were moving from the city to the suburbs. The Upper East Side of Manhattan, with the 3rd Avenue El coming down, was flourishing and there was a change in lifestyle, an enormous interest of people and young families in fashion and in new ideas. I believed that’s what Bloomingdale’s should stand for.”
From his early days in retailing, Marvin understood that in order to succeed you need to differentiate yourself from the competition. So, the question is how do you set yourself apart from the other stores? For Marvin and Bloomingdale’s, there were four interlinking parts to the answer: designers, cosmetics, distinct products and, probably most importantly, building a reputation…
If home furnishings is where the Bloomingdale’s transformation began, it’s safe to say that apparel is where the store really took its stride. Clothing is probably the single most important department for any department store, with sales accounting for up to two-thirds of a store’s business. So, the level of success in apparel can make or break a store.
In the early 60s Marvin felt there was a hole in the New York retail market because all the famous designers were selling their goods in the Fifth Avenue stores. Bloomingdale’s was forced, by reason of competition, to find a way to define themselves differently from a Saks or Lord & Taylor. So, Marvin and his team made the decision to go with what they felt was an upcoming fashion trend; fashion for the young… or young at heart.
That decision was right on the money because the 60s turned out to be very much about feeling young. The country had a hip, young President in John F. Kennedy, the Beatles were the music craze and Ford launched the Mustang to cater to people’s need for style and speed. All of these things became part of the popular culture and influenced how people dressed. Even if they weren’t young, people wanted to feel they were. So, Bloomingdale’s began to sell fashions that were casual yet chic and started to become a store with fashion influence.
As the 60s progressed and Bloomingdale’s started to be known as a trendsetter in fashion, a group of young designers that Marvin felt had a strong view of American Sportswear and American clothing were emerging. Marvin anticipated the importance of several then unknown designers, and Bloomingdales’ was one of the first stores to carry designs by Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan. “We quickly set up ties with all of them and when they grew, we grew with them. That was the kind of decision that set Bloomingdale’s apart from other stores.”
For many years, cosmetics played an important role at Bloomingdale’s, just as it had for most department stores—it probably always will. Cosmetics, including fragrances, generate the highest sales dollars per square foot in the store. It’s an area where you buy a product, but thanks to the positioning, packaging and advertising of the brand, you also buy a dream.
When Marvin took control of the store’s merchandising in 1962, he quickly realized the growth potential in cosmetics. Back then, only about 20 percent of the female clientele at Bloomingdale’s were in the workforce. As years passed, that number more than quadrupled and the importance of how a woman looked, and what scent she wore, were about to the drive the cosmetics industry’s sales through the roof.
By the late 60s, the cosmetics industry was about to be revolutionized, and once again Marvin and Bloomingdale’s were on the cutting edge. Unlike today, cosmetics companies were not brands; they were companies that marketed brands like Estée Lauder for women or Aramis for men. As Marvin tells the story, he had lunch one day with a friend of his, Leonard Lauder—then the President of Estée Lauder, his mother’s company. Lauder felt that his company was in need of a change and he had an idea that had never been tried in the cosmetics and fragrance industry. “I’ve been looking at General Motors,” Lauder said to Marvin, “I know that’s crazy—we have two very different companies—but General Motors is successful because they have set up different divisions. They have Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and all the divisions compete with each other. They don’t have one salesman; they have a marketing and sales staff for each of the brands. Wouldn’t my company be bigger and better if we set up a series of separate brands and companies so that when they came to Bloomingdale’s, you would have someone from Estée Lauder, someone from Clinique, someone from each of the brands. How would you deal with it?” he asked. Marvin understood the eventual significance of the answer to Lauder’s question when he answered, “I’d probably have to have more cosmetics buyers so that we could find a way to give you more space!”
What transpired was a major fork in the road for Estée Lauder, which today is a $5.5 billion company. But it was also the beginning of a major change for Bloomingdale’s and the entire cosmetics industry. Today, Bloomingdale’s has a Vice President and a half-a-dozen cosmetics buyers because of the way the industry is now structured.
Through the 60s, 70s and 80s, cosmetics and fragrances played an increasingly significant role at Bloomingdale’s as Marvin and his team went to great lengths to add excitement to the cosmetics area and build solid relationships with the cosmetics vendors, as they had with the apparel companies. And as time went on, if a new fragrance or cosmetic was being launched, Bloomingdale’s was the place to be.
The first step in adding distinct merchandise came from Bloomingdale’s home furnishings departments. It was in 1954 that Marvin, then the merchandising manager for the department, set out to Italy and Scandinavia in search of furniture. In later years, he took teams to Spain, where they bought different styles of wood furniture, and to Yugoslavia, where they specialized in Bentwood furniture. In those countries, Marvin found items that Bloomingdale’s would sell profitably for years to come.
In fact, he fondly remembers a trip he took to Italy when he met a chicken farmer named Guido Zichele who made furniture on the side. In Marvin’s office is a set of chairs designed and built by Zichele. “I saw those chairs and fell in love with them. So, we bought them to sell at Bloomingdale’s. Back then they sold for $39.95… today they sell for $400.”
Perhaps more than it seemed at the time, that trip to Italy was the start of a very important furniture business at Bloomingdale’s. It also was the start of a successful series of trips abroad to find new and exciting merchandise—a concept Marvin would take outside of the home furnishings department and apply throughout the store.
Continue to Part 5 – Retailing is Entertainment