Thursday, September 7, 2006

The blue awnings at the Hecht Co.’s downtown store have been rolled up and replaced with Macy’s black. The coupons and private labels are gone, replaced with Macy’s brands and its slogan, “Way to Shop.” Salespeople wear black and ask if you’ve signed up for a Macy’s card. Bobbi Brown cosmetics will be sold downtown. IPods will be on sale in electronic vending machines.

New York’s bright red star on Saturday will move in and replace the last of Washington’s native department stores. It’s the final step in Federated Department Stores Inc.’s $11 billion purchase of May Department Stores Co., the St. Louis company that has owned Hecht’s since 1959.

Though the 149-year-old Hecht’s was founded in Baltimore, Washingtonians adopted it as their own.

Area natives can recount meals in the department store cafeteria or bundling up for Christmas trips downtown to see what was in the windows at Hecht’s and the other long-gone Washington retailers.

“One of my earliest memories is taking the red AB&W bus downtown for Christmas shopping,” said John Abbott, 60, a native Washingtonian. “Window shopping, back then, meant something. You’d look in the windows of the big department stores, and it became a social outing, as opposed to cruising the Internet.”

Samuel and Babette Hecht opened their first full-service department store in Baltimore in 1885 and opened their first Washington location 11 years later at Seventh and F streets Northwest.

Hecht’s, once part of a vibrant F Street retail corridor in Northwest, was the site of the District’s first escalator. It built the city’s first parking garage, at Sixth and E streets Northwest.

The city’s first escalator drew 30,000 people in 1934 for a ribbon-cutting in honor of the “moving staircase,” according to a Washington Herald article at the time.

When the parking garage opened three years later, D.C. traffic director William A. Van Duzer estimated that Washington had 225,000 cars and he warned that if more department stores didn’t open parking garages soon, they would have to move to the suburbs to survive.

But that’s exactly what happened. As customers moved out of the city and into the suburbs, urban stores that didn’t follow them soon had to close their doors. Hecht’s is the last of the old F Street department stores to close.

The acquisition that is closing Hecht’s is also responsible for closing a number of chains throughout the country — Marshall Field’s, Famous-Barr, L.S. Ayres and Jones Store in the Midwest; Filene’s, Strawbridge’s and Kaufmann’s in the Northeast; Foley’s in the South; Meier & Frank in the Northwest; and Robinsons-May in the Southwest — as Federated tries to turn Macy’s into a dominant national brand.

As Hecht’s closes for the last time tomorrow, it will take with it the Washington Shopping Plate, a blue charge card once accepted by all of Washington’s native department stores. It was accepted by Jelleff’s, Raleigh Haberdasher’s, and Kann’s and Lansburgh’s, both of which closed in the 1970s; Garfinckel’s, which closed in 1990; Woodie’s, which closed in 1995, and the Hecht Co.

Mr. Abbott, who grew up in Arlington and now lives in Silver Spring, says now that Hecht’s is closed, he likely will buy his Dockers and golf shirts online.

“Hecht’s has always been around,” he said. “It’s like someone in the family that’s dying.”

Analysts say that many of the shoppers who say they’ll never shop at Macy’s will return.

“Some people identified with Hecht Co. over the years — bought clothes for school, one of their formal outfits, their first suit or some other item of sentimental value. But over time, things fade,” said Mark Millman, president of Millman Search Group, a Baltimore retail and shopping center consulting firm.

Like many other retailers before it, beloved local hardware chain Hechinger’s was quickly replaced by Home Depot in the Washington area, Mr. Millman said.

“People accept it, and you move on,” he said.

Clyde Hough, 67, is just grateful that a department store still wants to be in the District.

“I have been a Hecht’s customer for many, many years,” the native Washingtonian said after shopping at Hecht’s downtown store yesterday. “Overall, just to have a store still functioning is good for us because as you can see, there are no other large department stores around here.”

Nearly all of the 17 Hecht’s stores in the Washington area will be converted to the New York company’s nameplate. A Hecht’s store under construction in Chevy Chase will become Bloomingdale’s, another Federated chain.

Hecht’s Home shops in Ballston Common Mall and Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery will become Macy’s Home stores.

At Fair Oaks Mall and Marley Station Mall, Macy’s will move into the old Hecht’s spaces. The old Macy’s space in Marley Station has been bought by Boscov’s, a Reading, Pa., family department store. Fair Oak’s old Macy’s space is on the chopping block.

Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton is developing the space that used to be Hecht’s in its mall. A new Macy’s opened there a year ago.

The acquisition has cost at least 865 Washingtonians their jobs at the Hecht’s headquarters in Arlington, according to notices filed with the Virginia Employment Commission. Federated has helped some employees find new positions at Macy’s East headquarters in New York.

Macy’s plans to start running national television, local print and direct mail advertisements today in its new markets. It’s the chain’s largest advertising campaign ever and is meant to jump-start the conversion Saturday, when the number of Macy’s stores will double to more than 800.

Federated has block parties scheduled for the cities in which shoppers are protesting the New York chain, such as the Filene’s flagship store in Boston and Marshall Field’s in Chicago. Marshall Field’s loyalists have created Web sites and even plan to protest Saturday morning.

In the District, ribbon-cuttings will be held at each new store and gift cards will be distributed, but no major events are scheduled. At Westfield Montgomery, Macy’s will hold a ribbon-cutting with a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, a cooking demonstration, a fashion show of its private labels, a children’s animal show and a dance competition.

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