Phila. Hurdle Remains For May The Company Has The Market. It Must Win Over The People.

Posted: April 07, 1996

The May Department Stores Co. may as well open up a zoo, now that it has an eagle and a pig in its Philadelphia retail menagerie.

On Thursday, just a little over eight months after the St. Louis retailing company took the John Wanamaker eagle under its wing, it agreed to acquire the Strawbridge & Clothier boar, along with 13 department stores and a life-size statue of an elephant in the Burlington store.

Thursday's unanimous vote by the Strawbridge & Clothier board will move May, which operates Hecht's and Lord & Taylor, from being a major Philadelphia retailer to being the major department store retailer in the region.

And, ironically, Strawbridge & Clothier, with different ownership and a shortened moniker, Strawbridge, will achieve what it so deeply desired under family management - market domination.

Except for the Center City Hecht's store, which will become a Lord & Taylor, all Hecht's stores will be renamed Strawbridge.

(The Strawbridge & Clothier store at the Christiana Mall in Delaware will become a Lord & Taylor, and the King of Prussia mall will house two Strawbridge stores - one in the Plaza and one in the Court.)

Despite its dominant position, May still will face challenges in the Philadelphia market. May doesn't break down its sales by region, so it's impossible to tell just how well Hecht's has fared here since it took over the John Wanamaker stores in August.

May spokesman Jim Abrams said, ``We've had a terrific impact.''

But the word on the streets from retail observers in Philadelphia is that Hecht's has yet to win the affection and loyalty of area consumers, despite massive advertising.

Certainly, Hecht's can't count Harry Anderson among its fans.

The self-described Center City computer geek got so angry about the way Hecht's handled a mistake in his billing that he asked to see the manager of the Center City store. ``When the manager came out, I was a little frothing. I asked her if she had a scissors. I handed her my credit card and made her cut it up,'' he said.

``By and large, it's significantly lower quality than Wanamakers.''

Mercia Grassi, emeritus professor of marketing at Drexel University, said customers in general haven't ``responded to Hecht's.''

Grassi applauded May's decision to change the shingle on the store to Strawbridge.

``They were not doing well as a Hecht's,'' she said. ``They don't know that what they did was wipe out Philadelphia history, and Philadelphians don't like it,'' she said. ``They had best keep that Strawbridge name if they want any kind of business out of Philadelphia consumers.''

Ordinarily, May comes into a market and changes the name of the department stores it has acquired to the name of its closest division. That's why John Wanamaker stores became Hecht's, which is based in Arlington, Va.

But, in this case, ``Strawbridge is a premier name in Philadelphia,'' Abrams said. ``It has terrific brand equity.''

``From a marketing stance, it doesn't make any sense to give up a name that has a loyal cadre of customers,'' said Rolph Anderson, Drexel marketing and retailing professor. ``If a store is doing badly and its brand name is losing value and seems to be eroding, then just as you switch out of a poorly performing stock, you move in with a new image and new management.

``There's not much brand equity in Hecht's,'' he said.

If shoppers expect to go into Strawbridge stores and find, well, Strawbridge & Clothier stores, they won't, Abrams said. Hecht's will still handle all the buying out of its Arlington offices.

The stores will have more merchandise in them, because the May store philosophy is: Why have four shelves of blue jeans when you can have five? Or why just put merchandise on a table, when you can build shelves under it and put merchandise there, too?

Brian Ford, who follows retailing for Ernst & Young in Philadelphia, said that one advantage to having so many Hecht's/Strawbridge stores in one region is that there will be enough critical mass in the marketplace to prompt management's complete attention.

``It's large enough [for management] to devote special attention to it instead of trying to manage it like it was a suburb of Washington or a suburb of California,'' he said.

That attention was lacking, he said, when Woodward & Lothrop tried to manage John Wanamaker stores from Arlington.

In Hecht's Springfield store, Susan Schrader and her mother, Arlene O'Brien, took turns pushing Schrader's daughter in a stroller.

It took a tag team of two to keep the tot entertained so that the day's business - the purchase of a blanket - could be completed.

O'Brien, of Glen Mills, likes the furniture at Hecht's.

Schrader, of Ridley Park, gave Hecht's points for its children's department and for its service. ``I called six stores, looking for an electric blanket,'' she said. ``This was the only one [that had the blanket], and the lady was pretty helpful.''

But Strawbridge & Clothier is still her favorite. ``Nothing is too much trouble at Strawbridge & Clothier,'' she said. ``They're always well-supported with their staff. The returns are great. My aunt once returned a mattress. I'm so upset that they're sold. They have the best stuff, and the `Clover Days' are pretty good.''

Right now, the two women can comparison-shop simply by driving less than a mile to the Strawbridge & Clothier on the other side of Baltimore Pike. May spokesman Abrams said Hecht's plans to operate both stores.

``Undoubtedly, they'll look at some stores and say there's an overlap,'' said Ford, at Ernst & Young. Indeed, May announced that it would shut Hecht's Jenkintown store, only a few miles away on Old York Road from a Strawbridge & Clothier at Willow Grove Park Mall.

``It's possible, they [set stores up] so one store has certain lines of business and another store carries other lines. That is a possibility in this circumstance,'' Ford said. ``The redundant stores don't tend to be the largest of the stores, so that concept can work.''

It may seem that soon there'll be a Strawbridge on every corner and little else, but Ford points to the new entrants in the Philadelphia department store mix - Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom at the King of Prussia mall and the feisty Boscov's from Reading, which has been steadily adding stores in the suburbs.

``Everything about retailing is an evolutionary process. This is one of the natural ebbs and flows that occur,'' Ford said. ``One way or another, retailers will rise to meet consumers' demands.''

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