While Marshall Field’s, like many other department store chains, continues to grapple with an identity crisis brought on by the era of the big-box stores, it has at least one edge over its rivals — it invented many of their marketing...
While Marshall Field’s, like many other department store chains, continues to grapple with an identity crisis brought on by the era of the big-box stores, it has at least one edge over its rivals — it invented many of their marketing techniques. And with a little help from its corporate sibling, Target, it’s reinventing a few of those techniques for today.
In 1852, 13 years before Marshall Field himself arrived at the company that would bear his name, his future business partners in Chicago introduced the then-revolutionary ideas of fixed, listed prices (no haggling), store credit and return and exchange policies. When Field joined them after the Civil War, he promptly created two of his stores’ signature touches — free, same-day delivery to his customers’ homes via a horse and wagon, and an embrace of the color green, which was used to paint the wagons with the Marshall Field & Co. logo until the 1890s, when the wagon delivery service was discontinued and green became emblematic of its shopping bags instead.
By then, Marshall Field’s had already established several other firsts in American retailing, including buyers permanently stationed in Europe, personal shoppers and 30-day revolving credit, all of which were touted in display ads appearing in Chicago papers like the Times (which, in the 1940s, would be owned by Field’s grandson). Thanks to Field’s high standards for craftsmanship and quality service (in the late 19th century, his motto, “Give the lady what she wants!” was coined), the store modestly claimed, “We have gained for our Ready-to-Wear Clothing the reputation of being the best in America.”
It was also at this time that Field recognized that amenities embedded in the store itself could market the store, and therefore its wares, better than rows of agate type in the Chicago papers. Marshall Field’s added a formal restaurant, the Tea Room, in 1890 to keep the city’s Ladies Who Lunch inside the store past noon. Five years later, Field’s staff began creating the lavish window displays that made the store an entertainment destination for out-of-town guests, especially during Christmastime, when, from 1907 on, a giant Christmas tree was installed in the atrium of the State Street store.Even before Field died in 1906, his philanthropic pursuits —started not long after he joined the company — cemented his store’s iconic status in Chicago society. Field was a charter member of the corporation formed in 1878 to create the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1890, he donated the land for the original campus of the University of Chicago. Three years later he gave millions to build a natural history museum for that year’s Columbian Exposition world’s fair. That museum became the core of the eponymous Field Museum, which sits next to the Shedd Aquarium, another Field-sponsored institution.
After his death, the company continued to break new promotional ground with the first in-store book signings in 1914 and, starting in the same year, its own quarterly magazine, “Fashions of the Hours” — which preceded today’s magalogs by Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. Illustrations of gowns by Lanvin ran side by side with store advertisements, travel articles and fashion advice for parlor activities. “Short sleeves are in again,” one 1924 story announced, “and very well suited are they to mah-jongg.” Field’s published the magazine for more than 60 years until finally closing it in 1978.
Other gimmicks failed to last, though. The store created a holiday mascot, Uncle Mistletoe, in 1946, that became popular enough to star in its own TV series for four seasons in the early years of television. But it was eclipsed by Montgomery Ward’s own spokescreature — one Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Over the next 40 years, Marshall Field’s continued to burnish its image as Chicago’s most luxurious merchant and a city institution through its advertising and through annual benefit parties for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the city’s museums. But as the city center department store gradually gave way to the burgeoning mall culture, Marshall Field’s lost some of its edge.
After 1990, the store’s image and the messages it sent to shoppers began to change, and not necessarily for the better. After Dayton Hudson purchased the Marshall Field’s chain for $1.4 billion in 1990, the new owner terminated Field’s’ in-house ad agency and handed the task to its team at its Minneapolis headquarters. As the merchandise mix changed to reflect department stores’ new economic realities — bridge and better lines were in and high fashion was out — slogans like “More low prices. Same high standards” began to appear in the stores.By the mid-Nineties, press reports showed Marshall Field’s customers revolting at a perceived “dumbing down” of the chain and the Chicago flagship in particular, but that sentiment began to change by 1997, when Field’s rolled out the tag line, “Where else? Marshall Field’s,” followed by campaigns informed by the cheekiness of Field’s corporate sibling, Target.
Field’s arrived on the Web three years later with an e-commerce site, and returned to publishing last year with its Marshall Field’s Direct line of home, apparel, jewelry and gift catalogs. Customers are also still eligible for the store’s Regards effort, its credit card incentives program established in 1993.
This fall, timed to the renovation of the State Street store, Field’s has launched a campaign that reembraces hunter green and introduces a profusion of stripes modeled on a certain red bulls-eye. The latest slogan, “Marshall Field’s &…” lends itself to just about everything the store carries, while the ads themselves feature merchandise on plain white backgrounds, the better to splash them across newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, billboards and TV.
The State Street store has even gone so far as to reintroduce delivery service for all customers within a five-mile radius via London-style taxis painted in green stripes. And the capstone event was a “vertical fashion show” on Sept. 18 by a troupe of European athletes suspended in harnesses descending down the 11-story facade of the store.
“We’re positioning ourselves to own the color green,” said Michelle Mesenburg, director of special events and publicity at Field’s parent, Target Corp. “We’re lighting the flagship store in green. We’ve redone our shopping bags in green.” And yes, “there is cross-pollination with Target,” she said. “We’re very fortunate to be learning from each other and maximizing these opportunities when we have them.”
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