Nowadays, it is surprising when a common product isn’t available on the store shelf. Most grocery stores, supermarkets, and big box stores have a wide variety of offerings in a multitude of options – a level of convenience that the modern consumer takes for granted. Even when a brick-and-mortar store doesn’t quite have what you need, the product can be purchased online with just a few clicks, and delivered within a couple days or even within hours.
This wasn’t always the case. In fact, the “one-stop shop” is a relatively new development for retail stores, with their policies and practices greatly influencing current retail customs today. While many stores adopted policies at the same time or had similar developments, one subcategory of retail stores rose above others to push retail’s boundaries: department stores. From phrases like “the customer is always right” to favorable return policies and the wide-scale adoption of escalators, department stores have changed how we shop, and department stores in DC tell a unique story about the city’s relationship with them, demographic changes, and of course, its shoppers.
While shops and stores, broadly speaking, have existed throughout history, most stores were locally-owned, small, and specialized in specific goods, catering to the shopper’s exact need, rather than offering a wide variety of products and services to purchase. In addition to stores, indoor and outdoor marketplaces, traveling vendors, and local exchanges were common places and practices for how people bought and sold goods. By the late 19th century, however, numerous changes in the country prompted interest in a more unified and convenient shopping experience. Stores began offering more than one category, product, or specialty, but were still too small to offer entirely new ranges of products and merchandise; local stores and traveling vendors also had limited access to new goods.
Enter the age of the department store: beginning in the mid-to-late 19th century, businessmen and entrepreneurs who worked in retail in the nation’s major cities noticed the need for a modernized shopping experience, including future department store moguls Alvin Lothrop and Samuel Woodward of Washington, DC. This new generation of businessmen had dreams of establishing stores that could serve any purpose their customers needed with a high-level of service that could not be beat. Matching their dreams was the acceleration of industrialization in the United States, making it easier to manufacture, advertise, and distribute goods quickly, thanks in large part to the railroad. In order to make these dreams a reality, the stores needed to be bigger, better, and more strategically located – typically in downtown areas where they could attract the most customers. For these reasons, department stores would begin their long histories in the urban centers of cities across the country.
Adding to the growing retail business was the rise of the mail-order catalogs that would bring merchandise right to the customer’s doorstep. Retailers like Sears capitalized on this market by offering a wide variety of products, advertised in its popular catalog, that customers could order at reasonable prices. This expanded the retail opportunities to people residing in rural areas or areas that did not yet have many department stores or other specialty stores. Increasing mass production made purchasing more convenient as well; customers did not have to wait long periods of time between their purchases and delivery anymore. These stores expanded customers’ eyes to the possibilities of all that retailers had to offer, with expanding transportation and shipping networks supporting their goals.
As department stores popped up in many major cities, each store created its own unique identity based on their customer base, where they were located, and the resources available to them. New York City had Macy’s, Pittsburgh had Kaufmann’s, and Chicago had Marshall Field’s, just to name a few. In Washington, DC, the city’s most popular department stores operated under three different price-points: the affordable “budget” store, the middle-class full-service store, and the high-end luxury store. While a shopper’s favorite depended on how much they could or wanted to spend on an item, many still held deep loyalty to the department store they felt best matched their needs. Additionally, the services and accommodations that stores offered left customers with a feeling of reciprocated loyalty, something that would keep them coming back.
With a large, loyal customer base and growing urban population, department stores had to literally build on top of themselves in order to keep up with growing inventories and expansions. The first department stores to establish themselves in a downtown area often bought and absorbed the surrounding businesses on their block, or built new floors on top of existing ones. However, with increased attention paid to the aesthetics of the store’s layout and design, department store architecture and interior design became its own niche. Stores continually updated their exteriors and interiors to stay in-trend as much as possible. Their appeals to aesthetics and design created a new market that accelerated design trends within cities that matched their products’ pace.
The first store in DC to replace its flagship store and create a streamlined, purpose-built department store was Garfinckel’s, with others like Woodward & Lothrop joining soon after. These buildings consisted of multiple floors for their merchandise and services, and even featured restaurants and travel agents’ desks. These new buildings cemented the commercial core downtown and kept shoppers coming back to the area.
Competition was stiff amongst department stores, with each debuting new attractions to gain the upper hand. Stores offered a plethora of attractions to their customers, including restaurants, tea rooms, seasonal activities, and of course, dazzling window displays. By the mid-20th century, however, department stores faced a new problem: suburbanization. While many people had moved into cities for job opportunities during World War I, the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s, and World War II, the tides turned against urban living by the 1950s. Droves of families – typically White – left the nation’s cities during the postwar period, leaving a major gap in the once-thriving customer base that department stores depended on, especially their massive flagship stores.
To combat the loss in urban residents, department stores, such as Lord & Taylor, mirrored their customers’ movements by opening branch stores in new suburban areas. While department stores had operated branch stores for many years, these earlier iterations often curated their own unique inventory with separate product buyers. The inconsistencies between stores had always bothered some shoppers who wanted the same experience at the branch store that they received at the flagship store downtown, but at a more convenient location to their homes. With the development of branch stores in malls and shopping centers, suburban customers could finally access the same products at these new stores.
Their construction and expansion across DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia mirrored the growing suburban population. Many middle and upper class residents moved away from the city centers to new homes in the suburbs. Shopping centers, which had first developed in the 1920s and 1930s, also offered a new way to shop, with multiple stores in one plaza and, most importantly, dedicated car parking that made the experience even easier. Shopping centers typically included a grocery store, specialty services (such as insurance or banking), a dry cleaner, a gas station/garage, and restaurants, thus catering to a number of different needs. Because many developers owned large tracts of land in these suburban areas, it made it easier to cultivate a retail hub within the neighborhood that matched the surrounding residential spaces. These new shopping centers and their convenience further threatened department stores’ dominance.
Therefore, despite department stores’ best efforts with expansions, new branch stores, and the advent of the indoor shopping mall in the 1950s, department stores found it increasingly difficult to stay afloat amongst their competitors. One of the biggest setbacks turned out to be the thing that made them attractive in the first place: the flagship store’s size. The massive buildings’ operating costs cut deep into the company’s net profits, especially in combination with the constant renovations and interior design changes that were required to stay current. On the other hand, the stability of opening new stores was rocky; depending on the store’s location and when it opened, the market for another department store was either nonexistent, over-saturated, or, at best, developing at the same time as the store’s opening. Taking such risks meant securing the market or missing opportunities for growth, and many stores had mixed results with these ventures.
By the 1960s, most department stores had also lost much of their local, “home-grown” aspects. Because of the financial blows that many stores took in their expansion efforts, the need for economic stability and backing became more and more essential. Many stores had taken on mergers and acquisitions in order to secure their assets. These mergers often came from bigger, national corporations, but also stemmed from multiple local companies of a region banding together.
Sadly, these preventative measures could not stop what customers and companies feared most: store closures. Throughout the 1970s and into the 2000s, numerous local department stores shut their doors for the last time. In Washington, DC, store closures felt like losing a friend; customers had grown up with the stores and seen them through every change. Some employees had worked at the store for decades, with shoppers creating relationships with them over time. Many felt that the pricing and customer service could never be beat, and around the city, residents mourned the loss of their hometown staples. Washington, DC was no different than other major American cities, with Garfinckel’s closing in 1990, Woodward & Lothrop (Woodie’s) closing in 1994, and Hecht's being sold to Macy’s in 2006.
This tour follows Washington’s department stores and retailers, from downtown to the suburbs, and illustrates how these spaces impacted shoppers, retail trends, and the city’s landscape throughout the decades. While department stores provided insight into the newest trends in fashion, home goods, and much else, they also upheld social and cultural values that positively and negatively impacted different communities. The changes in shopping within and outside DC reflected where people lived, what they needed or wanted in their commercial centers, and how these retailers catered to different communities. While none of these locally-owned stores still exist in DC, their history continues to impact retail experiences and the built environment.
Please note that the order of this tour is not entirely geographically-based. While locations within proximity of each other are placed geographically, this tour extends across the whole city and are placed based on their general locations or purposes. Because of this, this tour can be completed in a number of ways depending on personal preference or accessibility to each site.
Michael Lisicky, Woodward & Lothrop: A Store Worthy of the Nation’s Capital, (Charleston: The History Press, 2013).
Richard Longstreth, The American Department Store Transformed, 1290-1960, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
The Department Store Museum Blog