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  • Jennifer Marks

Lots of Pop in Department Stores

Have you been watching the numbers lately? Somebody apparently forget to tell department stores their channel is dead — because some of those dinosaurs are looking pretty frisky. At least, that's the case when viewed from a distance.

For three consecutive months, department store comps have been percolating on the Johnson Redbook Index. Over the first four weeks of November, department store comps rose an aggregate 4.2% — besting discounters' 2.5% gain. In October, department stores racked up a 4.1% jump — besting the channel's target of 3.8%. In September, department stores comps recorded a 3.8% bounce.

Regarded on an individual basis, however, results are less stellar. Federated scored a hearty 8.5% leap in comps last month — but then, the lagging May doors are not yet included in its calculations. Kohl's clocked in with 3.7% and JCPenney, not so hot at 1.4%.

Gottschalks was essentially flat, saved from a worse fate by a record-breaking Black Friday and strong Thanksgiving weekend.

Dillard's lost air, its 3.0% decline attributed to significantly weak performance in children's, juniors' and furniture. Bon-Ton did an absolute belly-flop, with comps off 10.5% as it digests the boatload of Saks Inc. nameplates it acquired several months ago.

Still, while it may be too early to declare department stores the hottest old channel in retailing, it might also be time to stop chiseling epitaphs on the tombstone.

No other sector has experienced as much of a shake-up over the past 24 months. There has been consolidation, expansion, horse-trading, store closing and name re-plating. Clearly, the turmoil will continue for at least another year as acquirers sort themselves out.

But if in the end all this ruckus serves to revivify a channel not long ago written off as all but dead — so much the better. Too much of what passes for "quality" at the mass market level isn't anything of the kind. Is it better than it was a decade ago? Sure. Does it qualify for the quality label? Occasionally.

The challenge for the resurrecting department store sector will be how to leaven the better goods with the obligatory, promotional dreck. And away from the coasts, there are a whole lot of mall stores crying out for big doses of charisma, not to mention a differentiated merchandising point of view. You can't make those kinds of changes by peering at spreadsheets.

In the meantime, here's to the dinosaurs pulling themselves out of the tar pits. Welcome to evolution, guys.

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