“Nordstrom Fetishists” Have Wrong Ideas About Center City Shopping

Philly has to get realistic about retail dreams.

No sooner did HughE Dillon post this on Philly Chit Chat than I heard hearts racing from the Delaware to the Schuylkill:

“I hear that the Bloomingdale folks are interested in the Burlington Coat Factory location, which is on a year to year lease. They’ve been here four times; the last time, they brought their lawyers and design team with them.”

Bloomingdale’s in the Gallery! Be still, my heart! It’s safe to go back to Market Street at last!

That reaction, folks, wasn’t mine. But I’ll wager it might have been yours, especially if you belong to that claque of anguished Philadelphians I call the “Nordstrom fetishists.”

These are the people who lament the parlous state of Center City retail because none of it consists of high-end department stores.

For these people, Rittenhouse Row just won’t do. Never mind the fact that the tony shopping district is losing most of its homegrown merchants as national chains, most but not all of them upscale, take over spaces because they can afford the rents the building owners now want.

Never mind that Chestnut Street—even the long-down-at-heels stretch from Broad Street to Independence Hall—looks like it’s on its way back from the undead as local retailers of the kind once found on Walnut open distinctive new stores because the building owners offer rents they can afford.

Never mind that historically, Market Street has never been Philly’s answer to Fifth Avenue or the Magnificent Mile. Most of the department stores that lined the street in its heyday catered to the middle of the market: Strawbridge & Clothier, Snellenburg’s, Lits, Frank and Seder, Gimbels. Only Wanamakers went after the carriage trade to any significant degree.

No, Philadelphia’s Main Street must parallel Michigan Avenue, not State Street. The downmarket mercantile on Market Street doesn’t belong there, these people say.

Now, I’ll grant that I’m tarring with a broad brush a group of people whose sentiments are probably not as elitist as I’ve just described them, for some of the people lamenting Market Street shopping have a point: The retail mix on the street is pretty sad overall and could use some improvement—stores with visitor appeal, for instance. But that improvement doesn’t require the Bloomiefication of the entire thoroughfare. Some of the existing stores, such as Marshalls, Old Navy and Ross, offer budget-friendly shopping that appeals to a broad cross-section of shoppers; adding more stores like them to the mix will help Market East along the path back to decent health every bit as much as a Bloomingdale’s would.

Still, the fact that Bloomingdale’s is interested in locating in the Gallery does augur well for the future of Market Street and the Gallery. It is, at least in part, an acknowledgement that the demographics of the area around it have changed: Both Chinatown to the north and Washington Square West to the south are better off than they were when JCPenney closed its Gallery store, which Burlington now occupies, and they’ve been joined by other more affluent residents living just beyond the boundaries of Center City proper. And even if, as one knowledgeable real estate industry observer said in response to HughE’s post, the store will actually be a Bloomingdale’s Outlet, that too is still a good sign, for an off-price Bloomingdale’s Outlet would also offer the same broad mid-market appeal that Ross, Old Navy and Marshalls offer—or that a Center City Target store would as well.

And let’s face it: Even that larger, more affluent Greater Center City population may not be large enough or affluent enough to turn Market East into a denser King of Prussia. This city is still not all that rich on the whole, having as it does a larger percentage of poor residents than any other of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Until we figure out how to improve their lot, Center City’s upmarket potential will remain somewhat limited.

And for those who still won’t settle for less than an actual Bloomie’s or Nordstrom, well, time may be on your side—but don’t expect Market Street to become Madison Avenue even then. After all, even King of Prussia has Sears, JCPenney, and off-price shoe stores in addition to the tony stuff.