Henri Bendel: The fall of an icon

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How long will it be before we see the last brick-and-mortar luxury department store close its doors? This is a question I asked myself this past week when it was announced that Henri Bendel, a 123-year-old luxury department store, is shuttering all 23 locations including the iconic Fifth Avenue Store. This is just another case of a once iconic brand failing due to shifting consumer wants and online shopping. There is more to Bendel’s failure than simply the rise of technology and changing times.

Bendel’s pioneered many firsts in the luxury emporium industry: the iconic branding of their brown-and-white striped packaging, being the first on famed Fifth Avenue, holding semi-annual sales, offering in-store makeovers, staging fashion shows, designing their own fragrance, and the icing on the cake was that Henri Bendel was the first store to bring Coco Chanel to the United States.

What Bendel’s really pioneered was the shop-in-shops

At Bendel’s these shop-in-shops were for new and emerging talent that was given the chance to succeed when no one else would give them a chance. Bendel’s is responsible for launching the careers of some of the most notable designers like Ralph Lauren, Stephen Burrows, Perry Ellis, Jean Muir, Sonia Rykiel, Carlos Falchi, Mary McFadden and more.

So why is Bendel’s closing?

The news reports say it’s because of the parent company L Brands wants to put more time and effort into their moneymakers, Victoria Secret and Bath & Body Works. But they let Bendel’s die a slow death. It started when they stopped being innovative when it came to emerging designers and you would end up walking into there store seeing the same clothes as everywhere else. The worst was when they started slapping the Bendel’s Logo on any type of poor quality accessory from handbags to jewelry and tried to make it their bread and butter. Other department stores such as Bloomingdale’s have done this in the past but in a manner where the outcome was genuine because it made sense for the brand.  Bendel’s should have known this would never have worked as they were just turning an iconic brand into a fast food brand. Coupled with these negative changes and the death of customer service it’s no wonder that Bendel’s is closing.

How do we change the shopping experience now in the luxury brick-and-mortar retail environment?

I know for a fact Henri Bendel will not be the last luxury brick-and-mortar to close. There are many reasons why retail has changed when it comes to shopping in physical stores. And most of the time you leave the store feeling like your experience was less than memorable.

Technology is key. Most everyone has a smartphone these days so instead of the client coming to the store take the store to the client. This can be done by texting your clients about future events and sales, emailing photos with styling tips from their favorite designers, and even doing a virtual fitting room. Retailers need to look at this new way of giving their clients what they need in a customer service experience by more than just having them in the store. With customer service being a dying industry, retailers need to think outside the box and be innovative about the client relationship. Merging technology with customer service could only be a winning combination and could be a huge boost to other struggling luxury brands such as Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Because if a retailer isn’t willing to change with the times it’s only a matter of time till that next luxury retailer will be shuttering their windows and doors, too.