The elephant in the (design) room

Disaster on 34th st.

The elephant in the (design) room

In an industry that’s all about being two steps ahead of everyone, Macy’s has been for a while, falling behind everybody, way before the pandemic. During my meetings with clothing designers, as a textile vendor, I would get the occasional question of how good or bad everyone else was doing. They assumed I would know, by the number of textiles and prints they would get from me. The more they’d get the more budget they had. Everybody had the same question though: Is Macy’s doing THAT bad?

In the early 2000s, with the boom of fast fashion and the experience of shopping online, Macy’s was facing new challenges to overcome.

Fashion labels, produced 2–4 collections a year, ranging from 4–6 months between the design process to hitting the shelves. Brands like Zara and H&M copied models from the runway, send them for manufacturing, and distribution with a turn around of 3 weeks. These brands also, after seeing this was profitable, increased the number of seasons to 8 a year. In the case of Macy's, which is a department store, many of the clothing brands they sell, are designed under licensing and private labeling for Macy’s.

They had the assumption that catching up to the new rhythm, was more important than observing their customer behaviors.

Their business decisions were made to please stakeholders (more and more and more) and not their buyers. They tried to exponentially grow to compete against everybody, instead of considering options that their customers would appreciate, like online services or cheap delivery. Maybe their customer was not as loyal to want 8 seasons of Macy’s clothes every year, but they would shop there for other reasons. They tried to do what they had done for years, on a larger scale, which was not good anymore

After the whole industry diversified, the brands that carefully developed their brand identity, were the successful ones. Gucci and Balenciaga, for example, under the guide of new creative direction, took off to astronomical levels after developing their very own unique “looks”. According to the wall street journal, Gucci’s sales rose by 80% in 2017. These brands knew their customer. A direct competitor of Macy’s, Nordstrom, reinvented itself. Catering to a growing millennial market, it created a new store Nordstrom Rack, discounted items. They also released Nordstrom local, where you would shop online, then come and pick up your order, among other services. Competing also, with another growing competitor, Amazon.

In big retail spaces in America, Macy’s works as an anchor for small stores. These types of big retailers are well known, spend big on marketing, and attract shoppers to smaller businesses nearby. This means a lot of clothing brands, depend on Macy’s. I heard it first from Macys designers while in meetings, but, in September 2020, it confirmed the rumors it would close 125 stores over the next 3 years. It has every designer asking themselves who’s next?