On Saturday, Lord & Taylor quietly closed the doors at all its remaining locations. Once locked, the department store officially ended its 195-year run and transitioned into just another piece of retail history.
The retailer, once known for classic merchandise, personal service, and its American Beauty Rose symbol, concluded its 26-week liquidation sale on Saturday at 5pm.
The Chevy Chase Lord & Taylor, located at the Washington, DC district line, was one of 19 locations that made it to the company’s last day of operation. There wasn’t much left to buy on Saturday, other than some buckets of cosmetics and a few racks of clothes, all at 90% off regular prices.
The only activity inside the store centered around a selection of fur coats, specifically brought in by the liquidation firm, also sold at 90% off.
Most employees were extremely tightlipped about the 62-year old store’s final day. Only one salesperson confirmed that there would be no special dinner or gathering Saturday night. “We’re just going to lock the doors at 5pm,” quipped the worker.
The exterior of the Chevy Chase store has deteriorated over the past year. Its windows have remained covered in plywood since demonstrations hit the area last June. Its grounds are unkempt and the covered parking garage is rusting. Several sections of its white brick exterior have been tagged with graffiti. It hints of the vacated structure’s possible appearance months or years down the road.
It was a far cry from the location’s September 1959 gala opening celebration when First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and Nina Meyers, wife of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, snipped the ribbon and welcomed the first New York fashion department store to the Washington retail scene.
“I am most pleased to have this opportunity to welcome to Washington one of our country’s oldest and finest stores…Lord & Taylor is [now] truly a part of our nation’s capital,” stated Meyers.
Saturday also marked the final day at the 80-year old Lord & Taylor store in Manhasset, New York, along with its popular and profitable 74-year old Eastchester location in Westchester County.
The Eastchester store became the de facto flagship after Lord & Taylor’s former owner, Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company, officially closed the legendary Fifth Avenue flagship on January 2, 2019.
HBC, Lord & Taylor’s owner since 2012, seemed unable to define and properly market the Lord & Taylor brand and preferred to concentrate its energy on its Saks Fifth Avenue division.
In November 2019, HBC sold Lord & Taylor to Le Tote, a clothing rental startup firm. Le Tote wanted to transform Lord & Taylor into a tech savvy retailer with rental boutiques and other amenities. However, Le Tote ran out of time and money, and that was before COVID-19 collapsed the retail industry.
Lord & Taylor and Le Tote filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on August 2, 2020. The company stated in bankruptcy court that it hoped to maintain 19 of its 38 stores and keep the retail brand alive. However, the reorganization became too daunting for the retailer and Store Closing signs appeared at all locations on August 27.
Samuel Lord and George Washington Taylor opened their initial dry goods store in April 1826, located at 47 Catherine Street in Lower Manhattan. Over the following nine decades, Lord & Taylor slowly expanded and worked its way uptown. By the time it opened its location at Fifth Avenue and West 38th Street in 1914, Lord & Taylor was already billed as “America’s Oldest Store.”
Much of Lord & Taylor’s success and reputation is rightfully credited to Dorothy Shaver, its store president from 1946 until her untimely death in 1959. She joined the store’s comparison shopping bureau in 1924 and worked her way up the ranks until she became the industry’s first female executive.
Shaver’s flair for style and her commitment to American fashion designers helped transition Lord & Taylor from a store “rich in dignity but poor in dazzle” to an exclusive Fifth Avenue fashion destination. Its animated window displays, often cited as the first of its kind, were a New York holiday tradition up until the location’s final year.
Shaver insisted that women “loved to shop” and wanted to make shopping as “happy, comfortable, and exciting” as possible. This included several in-store dining rooms, modernized elevators, enhanced parking facilities, and multiple lounges that combated “shopper fatigue.”
After Shaver’s death, the retailer carried on with her mission of selling “updated fashions with good taste” and employing sales personnel with “good manners.” It also continued with Shaver’s expansion program and established stores in Boston, Atlanta, Texas, Chicago, Detroit, and beyond.
By the 1970s, Lord & Taylor made a conscious decision to eliminate many of its couture lines. It decided to broaden its customer base and carry merchandise at multiple price points. The move improved sales figures but its exclusive fashion image became tarnished.
The retailer insisted that the move was necessary and allowed the company to maintain profitability and expand into new markets. The company stated, “[We know] what we are, who we are. We just don’t believe in trendy, funky kind of styles.”
When May Department Stores purchased Lord & Taylor in 1986, it embarked on an aggressive expansion program that took the retailer to distant markets and midsize communities. May discontinued the retailer’s home and furniture departments and concentrated on dresses, career wear and accessories. By 2003, Lord & Taylor lost its luster as it swelled to 86 locations.
Lord & Taylor brought in new executive talent who trimmed the store count and updated its product lines. The change helped lift the store’s image but it failed to attract younger customers.
There was a sense that Lord & Taylor’s days were numbered after its Fifth Avenue flagship closed in January 2019. But its loyal customers in the suburbs and other communities knew otherwise. They still stood by Lord & Taylor. It was “their store” – a comfortable place to shop and a part of their routine.
Retail consultant Jan Rogers Kniffen worked as an executive during May’s ownership of the firm and has extremely fond memories. “[Recently] I have considered heading down to the old 38th and Fifth location and placing a wreath or something… I guess I could just play the Star Spangled Banner and serve coffee from a coffee cart with silver service, as L&T did every morning for many, many years when the doors were opened. Or maybe I could throw a “ladies who lunch” party curbside in remembrance of the many “ladies who lunch” groups that regularly met at L&T.”
“Lord & Taylor was a business we all loved, says Kniffen. “Gosh, I guess the legendary Dorothy Shaver is spinning in her grave. There was never a store as good at selling dresses (literally L&T was the best dress seller in America), nor was there ever a store that exemplified Country Club dressing like L&T.”
“I guess what I will really miss the most is the windows for the holiday season…and the magic,” recalls Kniffen.
Former Retail Senior Manager and owner of the Facebook Department Stores Matter group Ken Allan says that Lord & Taylor was “the pinnacle of the industry.” The retailer always encouraged “the best of the best” to serve on its team.
Allan says, “The air of civility continued right to the end of regular operations there, and L&T was a great bridge between mid tier stores and those focusing on the very top tier. We bid a sad goodbye to the Signature of American Style.”
When asked for a comment regarding the store’s final day, Lord & Taylor leadership reflected on the store’s legacy.
“Over almost two centuries, Lord & Taylor has long stood for affordable luxury. It built a reputation as an innovator in fashion, community engagement, and customer experience and service.
Although our physical locations are closing, Lord & Taylor’s history and contributions to the retail community – and the communities that it served – will not be forgotten. Lord & Taylor was always a community-focused shopping experience, and the loyalty to, and from, its customers has always been its greatest asset.
We want to thank all of the Lord & Taylor team members for their tireless contributions, especially over the past year, in ushering out this historical brand with the grace and integrity it deserves. You are truly what made this brand so special.”
Lord & Taylor may have ultimately sealed its fate back in 1980 when the company’s president stated, “We don’t change. We’ll stick to our personality. That’s the way to run a company.” But successful retailers always need to evolve and change. It’s amazing that it made it as long as it did.
In the end, it is rare for people, businesses, or most things to last one hundred years. Lord & Taylor lasted for 195. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. Saturday’s final closing of Lord & Taylor is a cause for reflection as another iconic piece of history heads to the retail graveyard.