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  • Jennifer Marks

Dawn's early light

Whew! The best news coming out of May's acquisition of Marshall Field's is that not only will May resist the dumbing down of assortments that usually occurs after such transactions, but it also hopes to use Field's to scale up some of its own offerings, particularly in home.

May views Field's as a laboratory that will help its other 438 department stores operating under various nameplates learn how to identify, interpret and react to trends more quickly. Anyone who's trundled through an L.S. Ayres or Famous-Barr has to give a cheer to that one.

Perhaps the greater surprise was that May intends to extend the business Field's does with some non-May vendors to other divisions of the May consortium. Whatever happens in the way of vendor rationalization, executives said, is more likely to affect some May vendors than those serving Field's.

So what's the story here? "May gets a clue"? Not really. May has been striving to improve its trendiness, raise its shopper profile and boost unit sales for a while. Field's, if May learns the lessons well, will help give it a leg up in the process.

It's more interesting to pull back the telephoto lens and look at what May is up to in the context of the larger department store landscape. Consider May's move in the light of the changes taking place at Federated over the past 20 months or so. Consider also Saks Inc.'s plan to convert some Fifth Avenue stores to nameplates in the department store group — particularly Parisian, which is said to be coming along nicely.

Don't look now, Ma, but after years in the wilderness the department store sector could be pulling itself together.

Well, the cynic would say, the department store channel had nowhere to go but up. But pulling oneself up is none too easy, and there are scores of nameplates in the retail graveyard to bear testimony to that fact.

One could argue that department stores are making a comeback because fashion is making a comeback. The big retail news this past spring was the astonishing rebound in feminine dresses. Successful concepts from HMS to the Williams-Sonoma stable thrive on pointing consumers to fashion. And a couple of weeks ago, Wal-Mart's chief acknowledged that Bentonville has a thing or two to learn from Target on the subject.

But department stores can't benefit from a resurgence in fashion if they can't deliver it in a timely and value-oriented manner. What seems to be happening now is a shaking off of the malaise that has disconnected so much of the channel from that overriding truth for a good decade.

Does this mean the channel can kick its addiction to the never-ending series of one-day sales and weekend events? That remains to be seen. At least department stores are working to put their attention back where it should be. That's good news for everybody.

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