December 10, 2005

Farewell Filene’s: The Homogenizing of America?

Globe columnist Robert Kuttner mourns the passing of Filene's as another symbol of the homogenization of America. I'm not so sure.

Like Kuttner, I'm unhappy that every shopping center in America is starting to look like every other one. Shopping areas in Florida, Kansas City or Alaska are becoming barely distinguishable from those of Massachusetts, and that's unfortunate. Travel is simply less interesting if you see too many of the things there are back home.

But Kuttner is awash in nostalgia in claiming "Filene's is in a special category" of retailer as a local institution. 21st century Filene's was part of the homogenization problem, not a solution.

First off, after saturating the malls of a 6+ state region with its stores, the uniqueness of the landmark Boston Filene's was by definition diluted. More importantly, though, there isn't all that much to differentiate Filene's from other upper midmarket department stores besides the name on the door. Is there really so much "special," "local" or even distinguishable between Filene's and Macy's now? At least Marshall Field, the regional Midwest chain he also laments, has its signature chocolates and other well-known foods.

Swedish retailer H&M has the right idea -- its stores' merchandise are substantially different, not only from region to region but even between city and suburb in the same area. As a shopper, I wasn't disappointed to see H&M stores in Geneva just because they're also in Boston and Cambridge; despite the name on the door, the stores are different enough to still be worth exploring.

The only thing "special" about the downtown Boston Filene's was the building's ambiance, not the merchandise (although yes, because of the larger size, selection is more ample there than, say, in Natick). And the building will remain.

I agree with Kuttner that it would be a lot more fun to see a local, one-of-a-kind retailer anchoring Downtown Crossing than another national chain. I just think Filene's stopped being one of those a long time ago.

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