There’s a certain bewildered look the customer has when entering the “tailored” section of Marshall Fields that you know exactly what they’re there for. It’s not a dress shirts. The rows of glass shelves housing those are so obvious, nobody can miss them. (And who needs help picking the color white?)
It’s not a jacket or suit. Knowing they lacked fashion sense, these men would never venture out alone for such a herculean task. Mom, sister or girlfriend would accompany them. And, the selection would always be blue. Most likely navy blue. If you’re only going to have one, that’s the safest color to go with.
It’s not shoes, those are elsewhere in the store.
Ties. it was always a tie.
I’m not sure it made sense we kept them in the glass counter cases by the registers (where you might see jewelry), but there they were, hidden from eye-level scans. You could see the sense of panic starting to set in — “do they even carry ties?!” — as their heads twisted about. Having forgotten or lost their only tie for their only suit, they now desperately needed one for some holiday function.
Having made their way to the counter to ask for help, they would pause for a second, happy they found the ties, but now further perplexed as they no idea which one to pick. Their opening sentence always had the same basic structure “I have a blue suit and need a tie that matches.” The only variation might be in the color, but even that was limited to types of blue: dark blue, navy blue, etc.
The irony was I, the salesman, knew no better than them. In fact, in prior years I had been them. So when they asked for a tie, all I knew was was what someone had told me: that they should match. Unfortunately, I remembered it a bit too literally. Matching meant matching exactly; matching the exact same color. So, blue suit, blue tie.
The first time I had this type of customer, I said that aloud & looked down in the case. We had a new line called “Beetles” ties, named as such because each song has some sort of representation of a Beetles song. One of my female coworkers had seemed excited that she finally got to see them and checked them out one by one, so, seeing a fairly dark blue one, I pulled it out and said “This one would do well. It’s part of the popular Beetles line. It’s blue, so it’ll match your jacket.” Their eyes opened in agreement & relief poured over their face. Blue tie. Blue jacket. Perfect sense. It’s amazing the authority conferred upon you by a simple name tag.
I wasn’t always placed in Field’s tailor section. I was always in Mens, but for each day, I had to check what area of Mens I’d been assigned for my shift. I was often in pants area too. We sold all types — jeans, slacks, dockers, etc. By & large, I did well over there too. The typical request was for a particular size. When you weren’t helping a customer, you where folding and stacking clothes — something that kept the store looking nice, but also gave you intimate familiarity with inventory too. A 30×34, no problem. As if by slight of hand, I would the desired size from deep inside the stacks of jeans.
Dockers did give me trouble on occasion. Once, in particular, a lady, maybe in her mid-fifties, came in and wanted me to bring her not only sizes but specific colors too. At first I thought nothing of it. I went about gathering what she wanted. Scanning the stack I returned with, she remarked “You forgot tan”, so I went off & brought her another pair. Looking up briefly from the others, she said simply “No, that’s khaki. Tan. I said I want tan.” I stood there stumped for a second, thinking What the fuck is the difference between tan & khaki?! Aren’t they the same thing? I went back to the stacks, asked for help from one of the older associates, who confirmed they are, in fact, different colors, and brought back a pair that finally meet with approval.
The craziest thing about working at Fields was the discount. By being an employee you got 20% off. For a lot of my fellow seasonal coworkers (in particular, the middle aged housewives) that was the biggest perk. I know my mom loved it. She strategized on how to best use it. Discounts at Fields where stackable, meaning if there where multiple promotions/coupons you could combine & use all the discounts. So, my first year, she came up with a plan. She waited for their annual X-hour <whatever%gt; sale, where everything was 30% off, had me use my work 20% discount, sign up for their credit card (another 10% off), and used some other coupon for another 20% off. I don’t remember the exact savings but I do remember a huge mountain of clothes at the register and a bill that went from well over $1,000 to well under it.
As a kid, one of annual traditions was trekking up to the Marshall Fields store on State Street in Chicago to look at the window displays. They where animatronic, elves decorating trees, Santa reading names, reindeer moving their heads about. That kind of thing. Not on the level of Chuckie Cheese, but still pretty damn cool for a five year old. The sidewalk would be filled with other families doing pretty much the same thing, eventually going inside after it go too cold, typically then waiting inline to see Santa.
It’s sad to hear that Marshall Fields is going away, all their locations being re-branded over to Macy’s. When first announced, it raised a general uproar, and now, at the time of the switchover, small protests are underway. It seems a bit silly really to want to change the name. I have to imagine most marketers would drool over having a brand that people care so much about.
In the end, I supposed there’s bigger things to worry about. But, still, I have to imagine the next time I visit the 12 story Marshall Fields on Michigan Ave, riding the escalator floor to floor, something will feel different. A bit like visiting the house your family used to live in. The walls, the rooms, the steps are the same as they always where, but something, the heart of soul of it perhaps, have changed.
As for those ties, I sold over fifty of those suckers.
And I still can’t tell the difference between khaki and tan.