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The Farmers Market vs. Macy's

What Macy’s could learn from a trip to the farmers market

Excerpt: Where I contrast my Macy’s and farmers market shopping experiences.  Delightful vs depressing. Tempting vs. boring … As a consumer, please enlighten me as to what my reasons might be for shopping at Macy’s anymore?


We could hear a collective – though anticipated – sigh when Macy’s announced the closure of 100 of its stores last month. It seems that the real estate is more valuable than the business itself. Is that a surprise?

The accelerating decline of department stores is attributed to all sorts of factors. The most often cited rationalizations include:

  • Department stores do not understand millennials and thus cannot attract them as customers.
  • Everyone is shopping online. Blame Amazon.
  • The weather has been seasonally too hot/too cold.
  • Consumers have shifted their spending and are buying less clothing, spending their money on experiences like travel and dining…

But, have you walked into a Macy’s store lately? Sure, the above points are true but the problem is much bigger (and at the same time, basic) than not selling summer apparel because spring still feels like winter.

Farmers Market vs. Macy’s

A back-to-back shopping experience of Macy’s and then, the local farmers market, made for an interesting way to frame my observations. This is a study in contrasts. Certainly, fundamentals like scale, permanency, resources and budgets cannot even be compared between the two entities. However, comparisons in manners of doing business can be made. The David wins over Goliath.

Great experience: It’s exciting. It’s a treasure hunt for fresh produce, meats and cheeses and artisan-made products. It’s a discovery. What will we have for dinner tonight? Many items found at the farmers market are actually conversation starters as well as ingredients. Experience? Nil. I don’t walk into Macy’s to browse or shop or linger. Macy’s is where to go when I need to find products in specific categories, like socks or tights or a new set of pots and pans. I’m lucky if I can find what I need and then find a clerk to ring me up.

Buzzing energy. There are not too many shopping destinations that can claim to be able to get people out of bed voluntarily early on a Saturday morning. Farmers markets are one such place. People want to be there. Everyone is wearing a smile. And SPF.

Farmers Market is abuzz

Ghost town. Where is everyone? Granted, this is a Friday evening but there wasn’t a soul in sight in the once legendary Macy’s store on State Street (previously Marshall & Fields). Yes, still a couple hours to closing. Depressing.

Macy's empty ground floor on State St.

Expensive. This is usual cause for consumers to keep their wallets shut tight. In the case of fresh produce, it’s more of an affordable luxury that people are likely to indulge in. On the majority of items, farmers market pricing is definitely more expensive than at the grocery store. Except that in this case, we feel like we are getting our money’s worth. We are willing to pay for freshness and high quality products. Hard-to-find – and delicious – artisanal products also have great appeal.

20% off. 30% off. 55% off… The major department stores have definitely dug a hole for themselves with this one. As they trained customers to expect a discounted price, department stores have also eroded customer trust in the process. At this time in the ongoing discounting game, consumers feel that the merchandise can only be purchased at discounted price to reflect its actual value.

Because, consumers know that a business cannot sustain these discounted margins. We feel like we are being sold off-price merchandise without being told that is was off-price to begin with. We feel manipulated.

Sales and discounts at Macy's


Product Experts. The farmers themselves are available to explain how to prepare the Romanesco cauliflower, or to tell us how white radishes taste. Or explain, what the heck is garlic scape? They care, want you to care and are there to help and answer all questions. Service? Try finding a salesperson on the floor to save your life (cosmetics department doesn’t count since it’s not staffed by Macy’s). Lack of service is especially aggravating if you are undressed in the fitting room needing another dress/bra/pant size. Good luck. And, regarding product expertise? Not likely unless the actual product rep happens to be in the store.
Pride. It’s simple. Organic (yes, perfect pun) merchandising in its most primitive form: the artful and colorful stacking of produce. It’s appealing. Inviting product that screams “Instagram”.

Turkish eggplants found at the farmers market

Disrepair. This photo shows the decrepit elevator floor. It’s pretty much symbolic of the state of the entire store which now wears a run-down appearance.

Macy's on State St
It’s quite sad, considering that this was once a glorious shopping destination. As a shopper, this state of affairs sends me the message that the store is broke and is not making any capital investments. That and all the sales signs would lead an outsider to feel like the store is about to file for bankruptcy.

I read that there is a campaign to bring Selfridge’s to take over this particular store. We can only hope.

Multi-generational appeal. Farmers market are a draw for people of all generations. It’s a vibrant place to be. People of all ages need vibrant! And, it’s not just because it’s food. Young or old, everybody eats. Old-fashioned. Everyone also needs clothing and housewares – as sold by Macy’s… This should be multi-generational too. Yet, as a woman in midlife even I find that Macy’s is “old”, uninspiring. Imagine what the younger generation thinks.
Fresh & new. The variety of products and vendors varies from week to week keeping the offering always fresh. Product is tempting, inviting. Something new is to be discovered with each visit. Generic. The product selection is stale and bland. There is nothing unique about the offering. I can go to 5 different stores to find these brands (Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Vans, KitchenAid…). Or, I can find exactly what I need online. So why would I bother trekking through this depressing store?
Experiment. Every trip to the farmers market is an opportunity to try something new: a new vegetable, a new herb, a new cheese or sauce. And sampling product, interacting with farmers and other shoppers is a delightful part of the discovery process. I always leave the market having learned or tried something new.

To run errands. The “customer experience” has been completely removed from shopping at Macy’s. There is no discovery to be had here. Certainly no experimentation. Ok, well maybe at the makeup counter. Again, no credit to Macy’s on that one.

Shopping at Macy’s is good for running errands like “I need a white shirt/underwear/coffee maker”. Get it at Macy’s. Or, get it online. Maybe online at Macy’s but probably not given that this store is not top of mind for online shopping.


It’s as if Macy’s forgot to look outside its once glorious windows for the last 15 years. It didn’t seem to notice that, with the advent of all things Internet, customers have released themselves from the tyranny of retail stores telling them how and when to shop. I hope it’s not too late for Macy’s and that they get the message that we would really want them to give us a reason to drop by again.




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