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Authors: Michael J. Lisicky

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Despite the mall’s general success, several community groups frequently demonstrated at the Center City location. The City of Philadelphia spent millions of urban renewal dollars on the mall rather than the city’s many beleaguered neighborhoods. Although the Gallery served many African American shoppers, the mall contained no African American businesses. Hundreds of demonstrators frequently protested both outside and inside the complex during 1978 and 1979. The protests occasionally hurt business, but more importantly, they tarnished the center’s image.

Late in 1977, Gimbels announced the sale of its Harrisburg store to Hess’s of Allentown, Pennsylvania. The store had struggled from the beginning. Harrisburg was Pomeroy’s territory, and people in Harrisburg were reluctant to try something new. Gimbels management said the Harrisburg store was just too far away from its home base to be successful. The store pulled in a pitiful $4 million in annual sales. The other central Pennsylvania store in Lancaster didn’t fare much better. Industry analysts expected Gimbels to announce that branch’s closure. Instead, in October 1978, Gimbels opened a new location at the Echelon Mall in Voorhees, New Jersey. A former Lit Brothers branch, it was Gimbels’ second New Jersey branch for the Philadelphia market. Some store employees felt the Echelon branch was located too close in proximity to the Moorestown branch. Regardless, the Echelon Mall Gimbels was the final branch location to open in the Philadelphia area.

Workers begin to demolish the old Philadelphia Gimbels store in November 1979.
Courtesy of the Temple University Libraries, Urban Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The New York stores continued to struggle with their image and their sales figures. One prominent retail consultant said, “I think [British American Tobacco] made a mistake when they purchased Gimbels, which I am not sure has a real role in the New York market.” The Thirty-third Street store was plagued by customer and employee shrinkage problems. The once-prized Gimbels East store on Eighty-sixth Street was covered in scaffolding in 1979 as workers repaired parts of the granite façade that had fallen off the building. Other than the Eighty-sixth Street location, Gimbels hadn’t opened a store in the New York suburbs since 1965. By 1979, the New York stores were losing about $12 million a year. An article in
Business Week
asked, “How long can Brown & Williamson and its parent, British American Tobacco sit and watch Gimbels lose money?” Efforts to upgrade the merchandise backfired when Gimbels’ traditional “lower middle and middle” customers took their business to stores like Stern’s, Gertz, Alexander’s and J.W. Mays. “Plain old Gimbels” image was its massive, dowdy flagship store. The store was huge and overwhelming. Philadelphia manager Bob Di Benedetto remembers the Thirty-third Street building becoming more dark and dingy with each higher floor. Di Benedetto recalls, “There was a homeless guy that lived in the Thirty-third Street store, but store officials could never find him. He always found a way to get in and out of the store without being seen. It was like
The Phantom of the Opera

He continues, “[By the 1980s], Thirty-third Street was a disaster. It was so old, and it wasn’t kept up. The people that ran it didn’t have the sense to keep it valid.” Gimbels’ Connecticut stores also faced serious issues. The small Stamford branch, formerly a Saks–Thirty-fourth Street store, never received the enlargement that it desperately needed to remain competitive. After receiving sharp sales declines five years in a row, Gimbels began a closing sale at its Bridgeport store in August 1981. Reports said, “[Its closing sale] may well have been Gimbels’ greatest moment in its Bridgeport history.”

Just when the company’s image in New York couldn’t get any worse, Gimbels management made a huge mistake. In 1972, Jack Gimbel opened a curio shop in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, under the name Gimbel & Sons Country Store. Jack Gimbel was no relation to the Gimbel department store family. His store carried “candy, film and raincoats to tourists.” In late 1981, Jack Gimbel received a letter from British American Tobacco’s lawyers requesting that he destroy “all labels, tags, signs, prints, cartons, packages, and containers” that had the Gimbel name printed on them. British American Tobacco insisted that Jack Gimbel “irreparably damaged Gimbels by his use of the trademark name.” Jack Gimbel was baffled and scared. Originally, he thought it was a joke. “Can you imagine any sane man standing in front of my store and thinking it’s Gimbels of New York?” said Jack Gimbel.
New York Times
reporter Fox Butterfield, a summer resident of Boothbay Harbor, got wind of the story. On February 8, 1982, an article titled “Gimbel v. Gimbel: A Merchant Defends His Name” appeared in the paper. Many newspapers across the country picked up the story, and irate customers quickly barraged Gimbels and British American Tobacco’s management in New York with angry letters. Gimbels realized it had made a huge mistake and tried to repair the ill will. Jack Gimbel’s son, Mark, recalls the events of the dispute:

In 1981, we received a cease and desist letter from Gimbels’ management in New York. Realizing that they were receiving harsh publicity, Gimbels thought, “Gee, I think we made a mistake.” We received a call from Gimbels and they told us that they wanted to drop the lawsuit. We said that we were going to put a disclaimer on the store and that we wanted Gimbels to pay our lawyer’s fees. But actually we didn’t have any lawyer’s fees so, on advice, we asked for $5,000

Jack Gimbel never intended to create any confusion between the two stores. He only called the store Gimbel & Sons because “he wanted his kids to get into the business.” The dispute created tremendous support and publicity for Jack Gimbel, but it gave Gimbels in New York a black eye. Mark Gimbel does recall visiting the Gimbels flagship in New York. He was interested to see the store that carried his namesake. He says, “Gimbels [New York] actually felt like a small-town store. Even though each department was tastefully done, the store had no glitz. It didn’t feel like a mass-merchandising retailer.”

Although Gimbels was the number three store in terms of sales in the Pittsburgh area, its stores enjoyed a small profit and a loyal customer base. In 1975, WTAE sports commentator Myron Cope encouraged Pittsburgh Steelers fans to show their support and wave gold or black towels at a playoffs game with the Baltimore Colts. These towels became a Steelers tradition, assuming the name the Terrible Towel. Bernard Pollack, Gimbels’ divisional merchandise manager, consulted with Myron Cope about issuing the Terrible Towel logo on hand towels. Gimbels became the official sole distributor, and the towel sales benefited the Greater Pittsburgh Area Chapter of the National Society for Autistic Children. The first towels hit the market just a few days before Christmas 1978, and they immediately sold out. The following year, Gimbels was the exclusive dealer for over seventy Terrible Towel items.

The Terrible Towel was a popular item sold exclusively at Pittsburgh-area Gimbels stores.
Collection of the author

August 1, 1980, marked the opening of Pittsburgh’s Century III Mall store. The Century III location was the final store that the entire Gimbel organization ever opened. It was Pittsburgh’s first new Gimbels in eleven years. The Century III store was originally intended to house a Joseph Horne branch, but Gimbels won the slot when Horne’s couldn’t meet the timetable. It wasn’t the largest Gimbels store in the Pittsburgh market, but it was the glitziest, featuring “marble, mirrors, and featured masks.”
Gimbels admitted that many of its traditional departments were not offered at Century III, only “the ones that we think are important.” So much for the retailer that once boasted that it carried everything for everyone. Gimbels Pittsburgh claimed that it was the most profitable of all the Gimbel divisions because it did “not have much unprofitable selling space.” Its sales per square foot numbers were among the strongest in the country.

In 1978, Milwaukee officials decided they needed to improve and upgrade their downtown shopping district. City leaders noted the success of Philadelphia’s new Gallery at Market East in Center City. Initially, the plan called for roof construction over a three-and-a-half-block section of Wisconsin Avenue that linked the Gimbels store and the Boston Store. The Rouse Co. came on board and designed an enclosed shopping mall that incorporated the historic Plankinton Arcade building into its plan. On August 27, 1982, Milwaukee realized its dream as the Grand Avenue shopping complex opened its doors. In a nod to the name change of 1926 that renamed Grand Avenue to Wisconsin Avenue, the
Milwaukee Sentinel
proclaimed, “It’s really Grand Avenue again!” At the opening, 100,000 anxious Milwaukeeans greeted the $70 million, four-block project. Developer Jim Rouse told the crowd not to refer to Grand Avenue as a mall. “It’s more than a mall, it’s an urban center! Malls are usually associated with suburban centers,” said Rouse. Gimbels had completed a $2 million renovation of its Milwaukee flagship, which was connected to Grand Avenue by a second-floor skywalk. On opening day, sales at Gimbels were up 50 percent. Director Barbara Markoff remembers, “Grand Avenue had a huge impact on our business. It created a sense of community downtown. The opening was ‘a grand event.’”

A choir gathers on the steps of the Grand Avenue shopping complex in downtown Milwaukee in 1983.
Courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Library and the
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The year 1982 was also when British American Tobacco, now operating as Batus, purchased Chicago’s legendary Marshall Field & Co. store. The $310 million merger occurred on March 16, 1982, and Batus became a national retailing powerhouse overnight. In addition to Marshall Field’s, Batus also acquired Frederick & Nelson of Seattle, the Crescent of Spokane and Ivey’s of Charlotte and Florida. The company established the Batus Retail Division, which took over most of the autonomy that the different store divisions had enjoyed. Marshall Field continued to operate its popular store in Mayfair in Milwaukee, but Batus stated there would be “no effect on the bulk of its retail operations in Wisconsin.”

Batus maintained the ever-growing, ever-popular Kohl’s department stores in the Milwaukee area. Kohl’s diverted some of Gimbels’ middle-market customer base, and Marshall Field’s support staff made many of the marketing and merchandising decisions for Gimbels. Former Milwaukee executive Cary Silverstein says:

What surprised me was that prior to the combination with Marshall Field’s, we
[Gimbels Milwaukee]
were doing well. Only Saks Fifth Avenue had better profit numbers than us. They made a big mistake with the combination. They assumed that by eliminating the management team and the buyer group, they could flow that money to the bottom line. What they missed was that the Marshall Field merchandising team could not provide the merchandise needed to keep the traditional Gimbels customer. Many of the Gimbels team went to Kohl’s and took their vendor contacts with them

Former director Barbara Markoff agrees. As Field’s buyers missed the mark with the traditional Milwaukee Gimbel customer, Kohl’s just became stronger. “Kohl’s was a more challenging retailer and they aggravated Gimbels buyers,” says Markoff. Analysts viewed Kohl’s as a “marketing force with which to be reckoned.” It was once on par with Target and Kmart, but its “fashion image, pleasant atmosphere and reasonable prices” made the company more competitive with JCPenney.

BOOK: Gimbels Has It!
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