Retail in flux: When Macy’s closes, who fills the void

Mannequins and fixtures are grouped in areas of Macy’s in the Eastridge Mall on Feb. 12, 2019, as stock is reduced during its closing sale. Macy’s corporate parent announced in late December that it was leaving the Casper market. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

Casper native Jayme Grange felt a sense of melancholy as she picked through the racks at Macy’s in the Eastridge Mall last month.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, Macy’s corporate parent unexpectedly announced it was closing their Casper location..

“I was like, why? Why do that? I was so sad,” said Grange.

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“I’ve been shopping here since I was an adult,” said Grange. “I feel like for our area they get some of the more trendy things…I don’t know of anybody (in Casper) that would fill their niche.”

The store was one of four anchors when the Eastridge Mall opened in 1982. Originally known as The Bon in this region, it was rebranded as Macy’s after a series of corporate mergers. Sears, one of Eastridge’s other original anchor, closed in December.

With their historic New York store and annual Thanksgiving Day parade, it’s no stretch to call Macy’s an iconic American retailer.

While other local retailers overlap on some levels, Macy’s carries a number of mid to high level brands that will no longer be available in the Casper market when the store closes at the end of March.

After years of growth on Casper’s east side, a number of national retailers have left the city. Sears, The Gap, Kmart, Shoe Carnival and Dress Barn closed just in the past year.

Empty storefronts greet a visitor who strolls through some sections of the Eastrdige Mall, a far cry from the traffic seen one or two decades ago.

Eastridge Mall management and its parent company, Chicago-based Brookfield Properties, did not respond to multiple interview requests from Oil City News.

The shift isn’t unique to Casper. Many traditional retailers are in a life-or-death struggle with online retailers, particularly Amazon.

“Obviously everything is trending online, which is why physical retailing is going downhill,” said University of Wyoming Associate Professor of Marketing Elizabeth Minton.

“So the question is what value is really being offered to the consumer, and what does a physical retail environment offer in value that is different than an online virtual environment.”

According to Minton, the clothing market still has an advantage over other situations because consumers still prefer to see, feel and try what they wear. However, online retailers are aggressively pushing into that market with free return shipping, faster delivery and lower prices.

One of the main draws left in traditional retail is what Minton describes as a “physical community.”

“Downtown environments, what they’re doing is supporting local businesses and that’s a huge trend,” said Minton. “If Casper is saying ‘we want to have some physical establishments, we want to support our local economy,’ they may not feel like they’re doing that with big box retailers that are based somewhere they can’t physically see the practices of the management.”

Pete Owen co-owns Steamboat Deli & Outlet in downtown Casper and has served on the board of the Downtown Casper Business Association.

He and business partner Toni Stanley opened the deli and UW swag store in 2017, and he says business has grown month over month since.

“It feels like downtown is doing very well to me,” said Owen. “I do think it’s a shame that we’re losing companies like Macy’s and I think we’ve seven restaurants in the last six months…but I’m optimistic personally.”

Owen gives a lot of credit to the David Street Station public plaza a couple of blocks away for increasing downtown’s foot traffic, as well as longtime anchor stores such as Lou Taubert’s.

The success echoes what Professor Minton says about attractive physical spaces that attract people.

“We’ve done more (downtown) in the last two years than in the last twenty,” said Owen. “From two years ago to now, I believe most of the retailers down here are optimistic as opposed to pessimistic about the future.”

He also remains optimistic about the future of local retail. “I believe people genuinely want to see and touch and try on their clothing, because I think a lot of people have done online shopping and continue to be disappointed,” said Owen.

Mary Jane Walsh co-owns the historic Wolcott Galleria with her husband, Mike Walsh. Inside she runs a number of businesses, including the Merry Peddler Kitchen Store. Her relationship with Macy’s houseware department overlapped somewhat, but was also symbiotic.

“When a customer asked for something they didn’t have, they would send people down to me,” said Walsh, who also often referred customers to Macy’s.

Upon learning about their closure, Walsh decided to stock high quality wine and cocktail glassware that would be unavailable in Casper.

However, there’s a wide variety of items a large corporate store could carry that a small retailer simply can’t. “There’s always going to be areas where any community can’t fill, and that can be frustrating to people,” said Walsh. “Retail space in a store is so expensive, you have to select what’s going to sell in a store.”

Even so, Walsh says Casper’s downtown offers a lot of options. “Many downtowns are hidden gems for communities,” said Walsh. “I hear it all the time. Something will bring someone downtown and they’re amazed at what we have in our small downtown.”

The downtown picture isn’t entirely rosy. Many storefronts have remained vacant for decades. While some landlords have invested in properties, others show signs of neglect. Two downtown businesses have recently relocated a few blocks closer to the popular David Street Station, leaving more vacant storefronts in downtown’s core. The Wonder Bar, a decades-long downtown signature, closed abruptly last week.

Still, Casper’s downtown has rebounded dramatically from its near-extinction when the mall opened almost forty years ago.

Locally-owned stores that sell records, books, clothing, kitchen supplies, sporting goods, souvenirs and house-made candies are within a few walkable blocks, as are a number of eating and drinking options.

“Everything ebbs and flows,” said Minton. “I do think mass retailers are definitely decreasing, the trend is towards local and thinking more about sustainability and how that fits into sustaining the local economy.”

Minton adds, “I also think that in harsher (weather) environments like Casper, they have to be thinking about how to create a communal environment that consumers actually want to be out in, that’s the challenge of downtown.”

Macy’s shopper Jayme Grange isn’t feeling the optimism just yet. “I’m going to go online,” said Grange, “which is sad because there are no other stores that carry what they carry.”