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Do we really need department stores? Is shopping still an all-day endeavor, where we roam from men's over into women's and then into the kiddie section? No, at least not for everyone. But that doesn't answer the first question.

Honestly, I'm still a mall fan, and by the way, that's where the department stores are. To me, and at least to the many people I still see in malls across the country, frequenting a mall is more of an “experience” than a practical way to buy goods. Maybe it has something to do with the climate-controlled atmosphere, which is still such a marvel of modern technology.

Still, going to mall-land is just not an everyday trip one takes. The mall is an increasingly infrequent destination for many time-strapped consumers. So aren't Kohl's, Wal-Mart, Target, etc. enough? They're convenient, affordable and offer enough selection to calm the savage shopper. Or do they? Whatever happened to one-stop shopping? Isn't it still a viable retailing concept for somebody other than a supercenter or warehouse club?

“Not in the strictest sense, no, and I'm not sure it ever really was,” says Bill Fullington, vice president of marketing for Cleveland-based Richard E. Jacobs Group. “We've always had a minimum of two different shopping trips when you add the grocery and the dry cleaners to your list of things to do.”

No question, today's consumer demands value. “Shoppers don't brag about where they bought a particular pair of shoes or a suit. They don't crow about how expensive that new bracelet was. They brag about finding good quality at a value. That mindset alone means that shoppers are willing to work a little bit to feel ‘smart’ about what they buy — to comparison shop. Malls have always been the best place for that,” says Fullington.

Now, when somebody trots out a tired line like “department stores are dinosaurs,” I'm reminded of something I came across in researching our cover story (see page 16):

“The discount store has filled a retail commercial vacuum in two respects. First, the discount store is relieving an ‘under-stored’ situation in the suburbs. Conventional retail outlets have not kept up with suburban population growth and consumer demand. Second, consumer purchasing power has been held constant during the past few years. Therefore, the consumer has attempted to find ways of making his spendable dollars go further. Discounters, recognizing this factor, introduced innovations to capture the consumer's attention and dollars and to increase his purchasing power. Thus, the discount store has become a formidable force on the retail scene.”

In a nutshell, that speaks to the present-day situation. Only thing is, the quote, from a report by the American Society of Planning Officials, was actually written in, get this, 1963. Talk about your retro-perspective.

Can something old (like the department store concept) become new again? You bet. But is it still too early to tell who will survive the contest to come? Uh, yes.

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