All sorts of reasons have been given for two once-great retailers, Sears and Macy’s, closing scores of stores and rolling out the pink slip carpet for tens of thousands of employees. Most of those reasons have to do with changing consumer habits, competition from lower-cost chains and the fact that malls now seem to attract more annoying kids hanging out than actual shoppers buying things.
Here’s my take. All that is nonsense. I think it all comes down to following your nose. I grew up in the New York City borough of Queens, or as Manhattanites would derisively call it, the suburbs. Indoor malls didn’t exist in the early to mid ’60’s so we schlepped from department store to department store. The nearest Macy’s was in the Roosevelt Field shopping center in neighboring Nassau County. The center started as an outdoor mall and was later enclosed. It’s the first department store where, as a nice, Jewish five-year old boy in a bright lemon-yellow sweater, my mother plopped me on Santa’s lap. A couple of times a year, though, we’d venture into Manhattan and enjoy the magnificence of Macy’s flagship on Herald Square–the biggest department store in the world. I especially loved it’s narrow, wooden escalators and hope to catch someone in a pair of spiked heels getting stuck on a tread.
Now Sears. We never bought any clothes at a Sears. That was where my dad bought car stuff and hardware. There were big Sears department stores and smaller Sears auto and hardware centers and we never called them “Sears.” They were always Sears and Roebuck. Less elegant than Macy’s but cool for tools and tires.
What did those stores have in common? Distinctive smells. They were intoxicating for different reasons. Macy’s smelled high-class. Maybe it was the extensive cosmetics department with puffs of perfume being spritzed at any living thing passing through. I always thought there was some sort of “luxury” fragrance they piped through the ventilation system that made the stores smell like a rich guy’s mansion. Whatever it was, when you were in Macy’s you suddenly felt as if your socio-economic status rose with each floor your reached on those old escalators.
At Sears, the odors were completely different. As you walked in the store you smelled the luscious lubrications coming from the auto center and the pungent, dank smell from the long, stacked racks of tires. I would take in the metallic tang from rows of Craftsman tools and a perceived puff of outdoor freshness from the garden tools, athletic equipment and patio furniture. Sears was hard stuff. Macy’s was soft. I paid no attention to Sears clothes, except for a pair of overalls I bought in 1984 from their catalog.
I can’t imagine this olfactory theory of retail is simply a whiff of imagination. All these years have gone by and those smells remain as fresh as an open can of paint at Sears and the 100 percent cotton of a fine white shirt at Macy’s or the cologne splashed on every inch of the salesman in the men’s department. I would follow those fragrances the way cupcakes fresh out of the oven always led me through the door of our neighborhood bakery. But now the bakeries are mostly gone, and so are distinctive vapors that let you know you were in Sears or Macy’s. They now have the smell of failure. The frigid breezes blowing from the vents, with no shoppers as buffers. Now when I enter a Sears, I’m as likely to find myself among racks of bargain-basement clothing as I am in their shrinking hardware department. What tires they sell are over in some corner of their auto service centers. At Macy’s what were once gentle perfume puffs are now staffed by aggressive employees who wield atomizers like fire extinguishers. The once courtly captains of haberdashery in the men’s department have given way to quick closers who make you feel like you’re buying a Suburu, not a suit. Their cologne is more akin to pesticide.
Yes, it all stinks now, and for me, at least, it explains in part why so many shoppers have now turned their noses up at these two once distinc-tive chains.