Shelley Femia, who once found the right kind of simple black, but unusual dress at a Macy's West Palm Beach, is among the Western New Yorkers who long for Macy's to bring in its stock of big city fashions this summer.
"When we lost Jenss, we lost all of that," she said in a reference to the Amherst chain that closed five years ago.
To find the clothes she likes at the local department stores that are left, Femia always heads to the same spot. "Basically you go to the Ralph Lauren section," said Femia, of Williamsville, as she walked out of the Kaufmann's at the Boulevard Mall, the store Macy's is soon to occupy. She held a bag with a pair of black espadrilles she settled for because she couldn't find the navy or gray shoes she really wanted.
As news of the switch by four area Kaufmann's to Macy's spreads -- official nameplates appear in September and some new fashions will hang on the racks in July -- people say they look forward to the prospect of more choices and a new, less crammed look inside.
Until the change begins this summer, it's impossible to know exactly what the racks will hold, but the prospect of change divides some shoppers.
Some say they'll miss Kaufmann's stable offerings in the four local malls. They're also curious about Macy's idea of New York City glamour, and they worry that clothes with more fashion and style will cost more. The local Kaufmann's, part of a chain of stores sold to Macy's corporate owner last year, had a reputation for good coupon deals.
"I don't know that Macy's will ever produce the kind of sales that Kaufmann's does," said Liza Abraham, professor of fashion merchandising at Buffalo State College. A Macy's spokesman tried to soothe concerns, dismissing such fears of higher prices. Store locations will be studied to be sure the merchandise inside represents the desires of local shoppers, said Orlando Veras from a Macy's New York City office.
"We are a little bit higher end than Kaufmann's, but it's not going to be a great deal of change," said Veras of the prices. "The Macy's mantra is to bring fashion to those who want fashion." And for the rest, he said: "Affordable luxury."
A survey of shoppers in Niagara and Erie counties found that Kaufmann's is a popular local mainstay, attracting more than half of department store shoppers. And compared with a mix of discount and department store shoppers, 43 percent went to Kaufmann's, putting the store in seventh place behind Wal-Mart and Target, which ranked in first and second place, according to a 2004 Scarborough Report survey.
Abraham said she goes to Kaufmann's to find great deals for her 5-year-old twins. For herself, she has shopped Macy's in Manhattan, buying simple tunic sweaters that fit her 5-foot-10 frame. "They were very, very basic and the kind I would not find in Buffalo," Abraham said of clothes styled for tall women.
To help make up for fashion-deficits at the big local stores, Abraham said, smaller boutiques have cropped up. Macy's may be a new challenge for them. "I see it more as competition for the Lords & Taylor's and the trendier stores," Abraham said.
Part of the buzz and expectation of upscale grandeur comes because, unlike Kaufmann's, Macy's has a national image, cultivated with ad campaigns in the pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar that have Abraham associating the Macy's brand with photos of polished, sophisticated looking women.
Veras said that while Macy's has long advertised in fashion magazines, it was an advantage the company couldn't make full use of before because some metropolitan areas didn't have stores. "This is the first time we'll truly be able to leverage a national ad campaign," said Veras.
A new series of ads, to be launched in September, will finally promote stores open in 49 of the 50 states. "We are a fashion leader. We are fun and fresh and these are the attributes that make Macy's so exciting," said Veras in a description of the focus of the advertising ahead.
The national reputation was already working on shopper Erin Whitehead last week. She got a wide-eyed, happy look on her face when she heard Macy's was coming. The Niagara Community College freshman was at the Boulevard Mall in search of a simple black wedding-guest dress when she paused outside of Kaufmann's.
To be able to check out Macy's, a store she'd never been in, but examined with interest in fashion magazines, would help her quest. "Oohhh. I wish we had a Macy's in Western New York. I could stop by," she said.
The deal that allowed the Macy's to make plans to finally come here happened last summer, when the historic New York City retailer decided to go after an expanded coast-to-coast national retail market. In August, its corporate owner, Federated, bought Kaufmann's corporate owner, the May Department Stores Co., for $17 billion. The purchase means Federated's current stable of 423 Macy's stores will grow by another 330 once assorted May stores switch over.
Department stores, from Filene's to Marshall Field's to Kaufmann's, will take the Macy's name sometime after Labor Day weekend, said Jim Sluzewski, a company spokesman. To prepare, mall signs will change this summer. Until the official September debut, the new nameplates will be covered with banners that keep the name "Kaufmann's."
Macy's New York City staffers say shipments of Macy's clothes will start this summer with designer brands and its own labels, which include the Charter Club clothes and Hotel Collection towels and sheets.
The interior look of the stores will gradually shift to wider aisles and nicer dressing room seats. This way, shoppers' companions can be comfortable and watch plasma screen TVs. "There's a great area to hang out and wait," said Veras.
Winsome White, who lived in Brooklyn for 15 years, knows Macy's and the power of its name. As the owner of two fancy dress boutiques, she hopes the flush of Macy's shoppers will help to drive more shoppers into her Bella store in the Eastern Hills Mall.
She spoke from her second, year-old Bella shop at 1451 Hertel Ave. in Buffalo, where she has created a boutique look, of the kind New York City stores favor. She leaned back in an upholstered chair, her feet on an oriental rug and racks of silky, sparkly, velvet trimmed dresses between her and the doorway. Her collection includes $225, $190 and $125 dresses with the designer labels of Kay Unger, Bill Blass and Ralph Lauren that she buys at discount a month or two after department stores, such as Macy's, buy to sell at full price.
White, who once worked as a manager at the Boulevard Mall Kaufmann's, said she opened her stores to attract local women who she says are fashion and price conscious. "They don't want to see themselves coming and going," she said of their desire for a unique look. "They want good quality, but it has to be at a good price."
White, who was in the Macy's flagship store on 34th Street about a year ago, is a fan. "The designer pieces were amazing," she said of her last visit. The store had special sections devoted to nicely arranged clothes by Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman, Tahari. "You get to see the full line," she said.
Yet to White, the store name doesn't matter as much as the merchandise the company chooses. Selections can be modified at each chain store, as Kaufmann's did by selling some lower end merchandise at the Eastern Hills mall. "To me, Kaufmann's, Macy's, they're the same except in Buffalo you don't get the great stuff," she said of the difference corporate stocking choices can make.
At the Boulevard Mall, Mary Grace Lops didn't know what to make of the change. A Western New York native, she has moved back to Williamsville from Long Island, which had Macy's.
"I thought Macy's was going down hill," she said. "I consider Kaufmann's very high end for Buffalo, and I'm concerned."
She is five feet tall, a petite size, and fond of those offerings, well-presented to her tastes at Kaufmann's. "It's neat. Macy's was never a neat or organized store," said Lops.
Even so, she's missed her old downstate life that was infused with New York City's energy. The local shopping fare here is more staid, and she'd like something new.
"Everyone says we're shopping deprived," she said. "I think people get depressed. I mean how many dollar stores can you have?"