Farewell To Hecht's Familiar Brand

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By Michael Barbaro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 29, 2005

The 148-year-old Hecht's name will disappear within a year, the chain's new parent company said yesterday, becoming the latest casualty of a decades-long shakeout that has killed off homegrown retail kings such as Garfinckel's, Woodward & Lothrop and Lansburgh's.

Every Hecht's store will be renamed Macy's, the marquee brand of Federated Department Stores Inc., which has purchased May Department Stores Co., the owner of Hecht's. A single Hecht's store, in Wheaton Plaza, will close to avoid competing with a Macy's in the same mall, while Lord & Taylor will keep its name, for now.

The impending death of the 61-store Hecht's chain will wipe out a defining feature of the region's landscape -- and a partner in a long-standing love-hate relationship with consumers. Hecht's, which held on tightly to the idea that a store could be everything to everyone, selling couches, coats and cameras, was not, consumers say, the most exciting place to shop. It was not the cheapest or most fashionable, either.

But in an era of rootless-feeling, cookie-cutter national chains, Hecht's had the virtue of being, above all, local -- snatched up by out-of-towner May in 1959, to be sure, but founded here. Hecht's took its name from the chain's Bavarian founder, Samuel Hecht, who opened a furniture store in Baltimore in 1857 and a department store in 1885.

Plenty of retailers could make that homegrown claim over the past century -- Raleigh's, Peoples, Hechinger, Crown Books and Fantle's drugstores -- but they're all gone.

And now its Hecht's turn.

"I can't say that it's all that sad," said sporadic Hecht's shopper Martha Zeiger, who has lived in the area since 1937. "But it will take some getting used to, that's for sure."

"There is no question," said Mark Hirschfeld, a Silver Spring resident shopping at the Wheaton store, "that people around here are going to be mad about this. All the neighborhood chains are vanishing. Now Hecht's has bit the dust."

Retail analysts said it was all but inevitable. Mall-based department stores, sandwiched between convenient and cheap discount chains such as Wal-Mart and fashionable, high-end department stores such as Neiman Marcus, have struggled for relevance and profits over the past decade.

To survive, said Lois Huff, a senior vice president at Retail Forward, regional department stores must band together to attract more customers, more fashion and more clout -- with their suppliers and with the newspapers, radio and TV stations in which they advertise.

The name changes, most of them expected, represent a key step in Federated's effort to integrate May's sprawling collection of regional department stores, allowing the Cincinnati-based retailer to market roughly 730 stores under the Macy's nameplate.

Besides Hecht's, Federated will rename nine other chains as Macy's, including Filene's in New England, Famous-Barr in the Midwest and Meier & Frank in the West. In all, 330 May stores will take the Macy's name. At the same time, Federated will sell off 68 stores -- including three Maryland Macy's, in Owings Mills, Glen Burnie and White Marsh -- to avoid competing against itself in a single mall.

Federated said it expects to employ all managers from closed stores and offer jobs to the vast majority of employees.

Two May-owned chains will be spared, for now. Federated said it has not determined the fate of Lord & Taylor, which has eight local stores, and Marshall Field's, which operates in the Midwest. Both are widely regarded as the most prestigious May chains, with a reputation for upscale merchandise.

At Hecht's Ballston headquarters, managers gathered employees by department and read aloud from a press release outlining the changes, considered inevitable since the sale was announced in February. "It's beginning to hit home," said one manager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing company rules. "Actions are being taken. It's not just speculation anymore."

The deal, worth $11 billion, is expected to be completed in the fall if cleared by regulators. May's stock price rose 18 cents, to $41.08, yesterday, while Federated's rose 47 cents, to $76.24.

Federated has made no secret of its desire to operate a national department store chain under the Macy's name, arguing that its image, captured in films such as "Miracle on 34th Street" and promoted in events such as the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, is more prestigious than those of its regional department store chains.

"Customers have told us they want the fashion and affordable luxury they find in Macy's stores," Federated's chief executive, Terry J. Lundgren, said in a statement.

Sharon Bateman, a spokeswoman for May, called it a "bittersweet day." The name changes "will give Federated a powerful national presence," she said, but will wipe out "so many long-standing names in retailing in this country."

The Macy's conversion strategy holds potentially serious implications for Washington area media companies who rely on advertising from Hecht's.

Together, Federated and May spent more than $41.2 million on advertising in the Washington market in 2003, the last full year for which data are available, according to TNS Media Intelligence, a company that tracks ad buying. May is responsible for the vast majority of that spending, and the loss of the Hecht's name could trigger a substantial reshuffling of the advertising funds, analysts said.

The only Hecht's slated for sale, in Wheaton Plaza, was renovated just five months ago -- in an effort, ironically, to compete with a new Macy's about to open across the mall. The remodeled store features wider, brighter aisles and hip brands such as MAC cosmetics and Mavi jeans.

"Aw, shucks. I was hoping this wouldn't happen," Betty Folz, of Rockville, said after learning the Wheaton store would be sold.

Staff writers Michael S. Rosenwald and Jenalia Moreno contributed to this report.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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