Is the Death of Downtown Department Stores Nigh?

Need a few dozen clothing racks?

Need a few dozen clothing racks?

It's hot in the dressing rooms. The warmth hangs in the air settling over the walls of each mirrored stall, along with the distinct aroma of people who've dressed for the outdoors in puffy jackets and are now disrobing after sweating it out among the racks indoors. This is the smell of a department store in its death throes.

In January of 2013, Neiman Marcus closed its doors in Gaviidae Common, still brimming with discounted designer merchandise. Now, exactly two years later, Saks Off Fifth is following suit and shuttering its golden doors for good.

Folks have known since mid-2014 that Saks was on the outs when the store announced it wouldn't be renewing its downtown lease in the coming year. Unofficially, that place has been kind of a retail dead zone for years.

After nixing the more-lux Saks Fifth Avenue, and ushering in its sibling Off Fifth in 2005, it seems like that spot has been slowly drifting into obsolescence. With semi-dingy dressing rooms and carpet along with chipping display fixtures and mannequins, the atmosphere at Saks Off Fifth was a certainly a little off. And desperate, too.

Case in point: A while ago, my mother accompanied me at Saks Off Fifth's downtown location while there was a deal on all clearance items. Shoppers could get three items for the price of one. "Buy one, get TWO FREE?!" my mom couldn't believe her eyes and she just about shouted it to the heavens.

The deal seemed too good to be true, it was as if we'd walk out of the store with half their stock in our arms. After perusing the goods for a couple hours and only buying a few things, it was clear that this was mostly an attempt to get customers into the store and look at stale merchandise.

Prices have dropped even more now.

Prices have dropped even more now.

And Then There Was One

While it's a decent enough store, the downtown Macy's will never shake its former lives as Dayton's or Marshall Field's for many local shoppers. Regardless, Macy's now stands on Nicollet Mall as the last true department store in downtown Minneapolis, replete with Mary Tyler Moore's statue tossing her hat and inviting shoppers into the store.

But if you've been past the fourth floor, you'll see the skeletal remains of what used to be even more departments. Remember when there was actual furniture there? Yeah, it's a fuzzy memory as distant as those green and white Dayton's bags.

In years of shopping downtown, the busiest that I've ever seen any of the department stores was during the holidays (duh, obvious). But the busiest days during the holiday season downtown never seemed to rival how hectic the stores at say, Southdale, Ridgedale, or the Mall of America are on regular old coupon-and-sale weekends.

So why aren't these stores ever as full as their suburban counterparts?

The Internet

Shopping has never been easier than sitting on your couch or even in your office, clicking a few buttons, and waiting for the delivery to arrive. Shipping costs aren't that high, and you can usually get items in under a week. Plus, you're probably more likely to get better deals online through retailers like Amazon and their partners than you would in-store.

Sifting through racks? Forget about it. You can scan through an entire store's-worth of merch in two minutes without having to deal with other consumers. Need a different size? Chances are you'll be able to find another online store to suit your needs, and you won't need a sales person to call other locations and deal with getting that thing shipped to you after having already stopped by that store.

Now, there are plenty of places -- including the downtown Minneapolis Macy's -- that offer the option to shop online and pick up your stuff in the store later that day. It's a smart move to attract people who want something right away and don't have time to walk around a maze-like floor plan.


Maintaining the overhead for a four-floor strong department store costs way more than that of a street or skyway-level boutique with fewer employees and less square footage. While Saks has been slowly eking out its last days, smaller stores like Len in City Center have thrived and set up permanent locations complete with brand-new renovations.

Plus, the concentrated selection of merchandise at those stores caters to the specific needs of downtown foot traffic and window shoppers more so than the vast stock of stuff you'll find at a department store. You know what you're getting when you stop by Brooks Brothers.

And if you're really looking to shell out for something to wear to So-and-So's wedding, chances are you're more likely to stand out in an outfit from a local designer, who creates cooler pieces that cost just as much as a mass-produced ready-to-wear item from two seasons ago.

Quality and Quantity

Even with an extra 80 percent off of the red-sticker sale prices at Saks right now, your best bet for say, a Moschino dress will still run you about $250 -- and that's for a dress from Spring 2011 that's been through the ringer in the dressing rooms, collecting dirt and dust. (I've had my eye on this one for more than a year, okay?) A Helmut Lang leather jacket ends up coming out to $160, and a pair of Rag & Bone leather pants will set you back about $80.

Behold, the clothing rack graveyard.

Behold, the clothing rack graveyard.

By industry standards, all those prices are an absolute steal, but you've got to be willing to sift through racks and racks of sometimes store-worn clothing with rips or foundation stains after a long time on the sales floor. And if you're springing for designer goods at a department store (even with mid-level department store prices) don't you want them to be at their best?

If you don't really care about initial quality, then you can head over to one of Opitz's suburban locations and snag a near-perfect Alice + Olivia tuxedo jumpsuit for less than $50 -- something that would have cost more than $200 (even with discounts) at a place like Off Fifth.

Skyway Culture

Suburban malls are a destination. Shoppers go there to, well, shop. Teens go there to hang out. Whoever's at the mall made the conscious decision to spend their time and money there.

Most people in the skyways on a regular basis either work somewhere in or around its labyrinthine depths or they're just trying to get from Point A to Point B. Unless you've spilled coffee on yourself and need a new sweater, it seems like killing time with a little browsing is one of the main reasons potential shoppers are in skyway retail stores anyways.

With the influx of condos and rentals in the downtown area, maybe skyway culture will change and consumers will spend their paychecks while walking around in the city. Or maybe they'll just click a few buttons on their laptop and wait for their packages while enjoying the view of yet another store in the area go under.

So long, Saks.