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Archive for Saturday, October 1, 2005

Taking the variety out of life

October 1, 2005

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Here's where we're headed economically and socially in America.

There will be two stores, a department store and a discounter - probably Macy's and Wal-Mart - that will compete with a million specialty stores selling each item from those stores or high-end stuff most Americans can't afford.

There will be one airline, LMS: Last Man Standing.

There will be one TV network, owned by the nation's largest corporation, with 500 partners that show reruns.

There will be one national school system of neighborhood schools, so Americans will stop using our children as tools for desegregation.

There will be one restaurant, a chain that offers 31 cuisines like Baskin Robbins and its 31 flavors. But that restaurant will compete with thousands of small single-cuisine restaurants.

There will be one national network of art museums and no history museums because we will have decided that our pasts don't matter.

Corporations will get naming rights to national monuments, because we, after all, will have stopped caring about history. So there will be the Enron George W. Bush Memorial and the Halliburton Dick Cheney Iraq War Memorial. Millions will visit the Burger King Thomas Jefferson Memorial. But not one person will sadly shake their head at the frivolity of it.

We can't fight the monolithic, monopolistic one-original-thought trend that we've embraced. The takeovers and consolidations will make us an imploding single entity, one nation under Macy's. But beneath that entity will be a splintering that will take us farther from each other.

This rant isn't totally spawned by the news that Federated Department Stores, which owns Macy's and Marshall Field's, will turn all the stores into Macy's. I like Macy's. But I lament the death of originality, of personality, of department stores.

America once had hundreds of independent department stores, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm in New York. Now it has a handful.

"For the last 35 years, I traveled the country, and I went to many department stores all over where the owner's name was on the store," he said. "For example, Mr. Gimbel owned Gimbel's. Orbach's! I knew Nathan Orbach ... Now they're basically all gone ... It's astounding to see the dimensions of this. We've arrived. We're not getting there. We're here."

Stores that didn't heed "the whisper of the consumers," he said, are either out or going out of business.

I still want the store where I could buy my special Easter outfit on one floor, sheets on another and a radio on my way out. Sears is getting there, but soon I'll have to stop at one store for the suit, a shoe store for the pumps, the gadget store for electronics, the jewelry store for the right earrings. You get the picture.

If variety's the very spice of life, as 18th-century author William Cowper said, you'll need a lot of gas to get it.

- Rochelle Riley is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Her e-mail address is riley@freepress.com.

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