THE BLOG

Retail Reflections: Thanksgiving Day Sales -- a Sign of the Times

11/25/2013 04:51 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

They said it was the beginning of the end. The year was 1988. My employer, Jacobson's Department Store, was terminating a long-time tradition of handwriting sales slips.

Proponents argued it was necessary to "get with the times." They believed the electronic age of computers would provide better inventory tracking and the ability to exceed customer expectations.

The truth: It was the first of many events that ended the "golden age" of retail.

I worked for Jacobson's and Burdine's (now Macy's) during the late eighties into the mid-nineties. These years were marked with the biggest changes in how department stores operated and how our culture chose to value them.

The recent news of department stores being open on Thanksgiving reflects back to the "ruin of retail" that was led by greedy investors. It was a shift from entrepreneurial leaders like who believed passionately in building stores in city centers and creating experiences for customers that featured a social, shopping and dining destination.

In a Black Monday moment, the local department store became a dinosaur. Although it is easy to blame big corporations for killing family institutions like Jacobson's, the truth is that there were other factors. The crumbling of downtown areas like Detroit and other larger cities didn't help. The reality was that the middle class no longer wanted to travel. Instead they opted for nearby mega malls. The take overs also forced out seasoned retail leaders and brought in less capable managers. Tenured sales people and merchants departed as the big box stores, with extended hours, stampeded into suburban areas. Hand carved wooden doors, which welcomed you home, were replaced with sterile glass and chrome entryways.

One of my first positions, with Jacobson's, was serving as a Sales Promotion Manager. My job was to get customers to spend their entire day with us. We had couture fashion shows,special luncheons in the restaurant, and beauty treatments in the salon. We were where the ladies "lunched." Our customers were our family. We took care of them like our own.

The end of handwritten sales slips lead to another radical change for Jacobson's -- we opened on Sundays. Customers were divided. Many wrote emotional letters. Employees feared it would lead to the unthinkable -- being open every night until 9:00 p.m.

Like a run-a-way train the future seemed out of control. Gone were the days of lavish fragrance launch parties and Channel trunk shows. The influence of the villainous financiers was bringing new changes in operations and expectations in employee performances. We no longer closed for the day to do inventory by hand. It seemed to be an unstoppable invasion that required us to start accepting Visa and Mastercard.

It was as if my beloved Jacobson's department store was gasping for air. Change was imminent. My family unit of merchants, managers and salespeople just wanted to cover their heads in the signature silver foiled boxes and satin ribbon bows.

As it all began to crumble -- my own life took a turn. My husband's employer, another family-based business, transferred us to Florida.

Convinced I could never find that nurturing retail family again, I did what anyone would do, I started networking. I learned that a Florida-based company, Burdines, was founded and operated on many of the same principals.

I did go one to become an assistant store manager and regional trainer. I learned from some of retails' greats: J. David Scheiner, Michael Osborn, and Russell Schutte. They taught me many lessons. I still think about their passion for one thing - exceeding a customer's expectation. They also had a heart for making a difference. Their influence prepared me for the next chapter of my life, helping others, through non-profit management.

On the surface these industries may seem different, but at the core, they are the same. We are committed to giving people what they crave - a rewarding experience.

This holiday season, I will do what they taught me, appreciate your family, and thank a salesperson for helping to make the holiday bright.