That is not just boasting. In a remarkable reversal of fortune, the performance of department stores has quietly overtaken that of specialty clothing retailers like Gap and Limited — scrappy, mall-based stores whose emergence over the last 30 years forced many regional department stores, like Marshall Field’s in Chicago and B. Altman in New York, to shut or be sold to competitors.
Over the last 12 months, sales at department stores open at least a year, a widely used measure of a retailer’s health, have grown 4.1 percent, compared with a 1.3 percent increase at specialty apparel chains, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group. This holiday season, the gap is expected to grow even wider. At the same time, profits are surging and executives accustomed to cutting back are dusting off old plans for new stores.
Executives attribute the resurgence of the department store to well-laid plans, drawn up several years ago, at chains like Kohl’s, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Saks to develop stronger store clothing brands, carry higher fashions and to tidy up cluttered aisles and grimy restrooms.
In the midst of all that, consumer tastes evolved away from basic apparel at chains like Old Navy toward name-brand clothing and accessories, the very merchandise department stores have sold for years.
The most popular apparel categories over the last five years — premium denim and handbags — have been dominated by labels like Diesel and Coach that, for the most part, cannot be found at the specialty clothing chains that line the corridors of the mall.
Relying on national brands, a hallmark of the department store, was once considered a disadvantage, saddling chains like Macy’s and Kohl’s with the same piles of Liz Claiborne woven shirts and Dockers pants.
But now, department store executives say, it is the specialty clothing stores, which design most if not all of their own clothing, who are struggling to stand out, their aisles chock full of roughly the same fur-lined puffer jackets and hooded sweaters.