Department Stores: A New Home for Indie Booksellers?
May 31, 2005
By Rachel Deahl
A shopper walking through the main floor of Marshall Field’s flagship department store on Chicago’s State Street will pass a number of branded boutiques, ranging from high-end clothing shops, like BCBG and Max Azria, to one less-expected carve-out: Barbara’s Bookstore. While a decade or more ago, many department stores had in-house book departments, few, if any, indie booksellers—of which Barbara’s is one of the Chicago area’s most beloved—have ever taken up residence in one. But now, as the department store business attempts to reinvigorate itself, more branded storefronts are being invited into large retail centers. Should Barbara’s prove successful on State Street, indie bookshops may just show up all over, wedged between Crate & Barrel and The Gap.
Barbara’s owner, Don Barliant, explains that, at his operation, which opened in Marshall Field’s in 2003, the chain takes the bulk of the profits. Customers actually pay the department store for every purchase, with a percentage of each sale going to Barbara’s, which provides the staff and stocks the store. (Barbara’s staffers, after being trained by Field’s, are added to the department store’s payroll and benefits plan.) Barliant says the arrangement is doubly advantageous: It helps build awareness of the Barbara’s brand and—despite the revenue-sharing agreement that favors Field’s—the number of dollar signs tends to be high. “If there’s a book at Marshall Field’s, we provide it,” Barliant explains. In addition to the strong sales coming from the high-traffic downtown location, Barliant now provides books for other departments in the company’s local and non-local locations. Thus, Barbara’s inventory can appear everywhere from a cookware display to a storefront window.
Barliant, who is currently in discussions with Marshall Field’s to open another location in the chain’s planned Minneapolis outpost, says his shop’s presence in Marshall Field’s ultimately does what all small booksellers need to do: Bring books to the places where the customers are. The key, Barliant says, is getting books to non-traditional locations.
The partnership is promising for Field’s as well, since department stores—suffering many of the same woes as bookstores—need to find unique ways to battle back into a marketplace dominated by mega-retailers like Target and K-Mart. The department store business has been stuck in “a no man’s land” for the past two decades, says Amanda Nicholson, director of the Retail Management & Consumer Studies Department at Boston College, losing business to discount retailers and specialty chains like Banana Republic and Ann Taylor. “On one end, you have the powerful discount chains which in the last 20 years have really taken a lot of the market share and then, at the other end, you have the specialty store chains like The Gap and Banana Republic,” she says. “People used to go to department stores to buy all their clothes, and that’s changed.”
In fact, Marshall Field’s has “added or invigorated” 500 new vendors and brands at its State Street store since 2003, says Jennifer McNamara, a Field’s spokesperson, with the goal of creating “an environment unlike anything in retail.” Marshall Field’s, says Bart Weitz, director of the Miller Center for Retailing at the University of Florida, “wants to have something that’s unique and different, so Barbara’s is ideal for that. People can go to a Borders anywhere.” And what’s happening at State Street likely points to imminent changes at the store’s 62 other locations throughout the Midwest, and, perhaps, at Macy’s Bloomingdale’s and other department store chains. “If the Barbara’s location is working for Marshall Field’s,” says Nicholson, “then another company will be looking for similar deals.”
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