30 Years: Department store era comes to a close, new options open
Part of the 30 Years, 30 Changes series on the Pittsburgh region
October 6, 2013 8:00 AM
Saks Fifth Avenue closed in March 2012 after more than 50 years Downtown.
Though the canopies say "Kaufmann's", the windows read "Macy's" on the Smithfield Street building in 2006.
The Gimbels sign begins to disappear from Downtown in this Dec. 11, 1986 photo.
By Teresa Lindeman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the early 1980s, Pittsburghers searched for fashion in stores named Gimbels, Kaufmann's, Joseph Horne Co. and Saks Fifth Avenue. Downtown had all four, but the suburbs were starting to get more shopping options as well.
Three decades later, those ready to shop no longer have to go to the city center -- or even to the region's many malls and shopping centers. The evolution of ecommerce and then mobile commerce has made it possible to order new shoes from any office, home or sidewalk -- maybe even using a smartphone app developed by some smart Carnegie Mellon University grad.
Shopping of the traditional sort hasn't gone out of fashion but the intervening years illustrate how brutal the retail business can be. The Gimbels, Joseph Horne and Kaufmann's names no longer grace stores. Pittsburgh lost its decades-old Saks Fifth Avenue last year.
There was a period when the city threw resources at trying to shore up its Downtown department store scene, creating a Fifth Avenue store for the Lazarus chain (later given the Macy's name) and enticing Lord & Taylor to set up shop near Saks.
But the department store industry was consolidating nationally and those two stores closed. The Macy's name finally popped up on the massive Smithfield structure that had been the flagship for the Pittsburgh-born Kaufmann's operation. The new owner of the old building has consolidated its offerings on several lower floors, although the Tic Toc restaurant has survived.
Things weren't much easier in the suburbs where several malls have been built, or sold, or overhauled during the past 30 years. The Mall at Robinson was in the works for years before finally opening in 2001. The Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills (opened 2005) and Century III Mall (opened 1979) have dealt with ownership shifts and leasing issues.
Meanwhile, Ross Park Mall -- a North Hills shopping center that opened in 1986 -- has benefited from landing the Nordstrom store that officials in the region chased for years, making it the only area mall with the upscale Seattle retailer as a tenant. The 2008 opening helped convince other high-end retailers to put their only Pittsburgh-area locations at the mall.
In an age of smartphone apps, consumers still seem to enjoy checking out shops that can't be found everywhere -- and that come with free parking.