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Burdines not alone in the retail boneyard

Published February 14, 2005

Floridians might feel at least a bit sentimental bidding bye-bye to Burdines: The Florida Store. I do, having been introduced in the late 1970s to what was then a remarkable department store in Miami.

I always hate to witness another piece of homegrown Florida fade away. There's not much left.

But to my Miami-born-and-raised wife, Leila, whose family boasts deep South Florida roots, Burdines still conjures fond childhood memories. She recalls the thrill of going downtown with Mom in the 1950s to enjoy the view atop the rooftop Ferris wheel at Burdines' Circus in the Sky. On special days, Mom would take her to the Burdines restaurant, which served a fancy scoop of orange sherbet in the middle of the luncheon plate.

That slice of lore and more are told, at left, in staff writer Mark Albright's look back at Burdines. Come March 6, Burdines officially disappears. Its stores become part of the national Macy's chain.

Okay. Enough with the nostalgia.

As a dwindling piece of the fickle retail industry, the overall department store business has been a money loser for a decade or more. The incredible shrinking of department store names continues uninterrupted.

In a world increasingly split between the upscale shopper and the bargain hunter, many department stores still cater to the dwindling middle-of-the-road customer. The affluent customer - and those whose credit card debt reflects their desire to be affluent - frequent such higher-end stores as Neiman-Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom. The frugal tend to favor Wal-Mart, Target, the merging Kmart-Sears and, increasingly, dollar stores such as Family Dollar, Dollar General and Dollar Tree.

Some stores like JCPenney and Beall's straddle the lean middle.

Not that this high-low retail trend should surprise anyone. Folks who paid some attention to the presidential debate last year know that the once-solid middle class is squeezed. A wealthy minority has grown richer, while a larger portion of people have seen their standard of living decline.

Along the way, many department stores have gone the way of dinosaurs. Just look at the bones of department store chains that once dotted the Tampa Bay area's shopping scene.

You might be surprised by the sheer number of chain department stores that briefly prospered here before disappearing through mergers or failure.

Many of the market forces that hurt then remain today: Too many look-alike stores still chase too few interested customers. Fifteen years ago, stores did not have to compete with the Internet for shopping. And one force - Wal-Mart - is now far stronger selling the types of merchandise that directly compete with department stores.

Let's take a brief alphabetical stroll through just some of Tampa Bay's former department stores:

* Belk's: The moderately priced North Carolina chain closed unprofitable area stores in the early 1990s, but is slowly returning to Florida's gulf coast.

* Burdines: The biggest of Florida's retail names finally ran out of steam, becoming Macy's next month.

* Gayfers: The chain store owned by Mercantile Stores Inc. was bought in 1998 by Dillard's.

* Ivey's: Dillard's patiently watched the chain struggle, then bought it in 1990.

* Jacobson's: The upscale Michigan-based chain failed and closed its stores in 2002 after many years in the area.

* Maas Bros.: After 105 years as the region's dominant department store brand, the chain was shut down in 1991. It was the victim of a cost-saving merger decision.

* Maison Blanche: Arrived from Louisiana in 1987, then faded away in the 1990s. Many of its locations became Dillard's stores.

* Montgomery Ward: Long-struggling retailer filed for bankruptcy in 2000.

* Robinson's: St. Petersburg-based chain stretched across central and portions of northern Florida. It was purchased in 1987 by Maison Blanche, which would later be replaced by Dillard's.

Bottom line? Judging by the headstones in Tampa Bay's retail graveyard, department store competition is brutal.

If we lament next month's official change of the Burdines name to Macy's, remember that it was only 14 years ago that we said goodbye to the prominent Maas Bros. brand when many of its stores were renamed Burdines.

Speculation continues that Federated Department Stores - owner of Macy's and Bloomingdale's - might buy weaker rival May Department Stores. May owns Lord & Taylor, Marshall Field's and nearly a dozen other store chains. Nobody seems sure a merger of these two behemoths is a good idea.

Another rumor suggests profit-challenged Dillard's may be a takeover target, possibly by Federated.

One thing is certain: To every department store, there is a season. In a country still overwhelmed by too many stores, retail consolidation has a long way to go.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at 727 893-8405 or

[Last modified February 12, 2005, 00:11:02]

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