My earliest memories of Lord & Taylor are from holidays when I was very young, when my Nana would have a crisp white L&T box for each of us, meticulously packaged and tied with a bow. Inside would always be a fantastically luxurious sweater. My Nana worked there in the Men’s department for more than 20 years in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. Every holiday brought another sweater.
The very best salesperson on the Lord &Taylor’s Men’s floor
My Nana, Jeanne May, was my great grandmother, born in 1887. The fact that my Nana worked outside the home is so inspiring. She was born in New York City, and stayed there her whole life. Before she worked at Lord & Taylor she worked for a local millinery selling hats to women. She decided to shift to L&T for a better career opportunity.
She worked in the Mens department, and rose to become a well respected salesperson with a clientele who would often come in and ask for her because she knew the stock and fashions so well. She had many friends at the store, and would often get together with them after work.
She always told Lord & Taylor she was 10 years younger than she was so she could continue working. Apparently they never verified this, so she worked well into her 70s. Now that they’re closing, I feel OK letting this slip.
Visiting the Lord & Taylor “Soup Bar”
I remember visiting her there, and having lunch at the in-store “Soup Bar” on the 10th floor, especially getting a slice of apple pie with ice cream. My Grandma and Nana would get a slice of cheese with their pie. She died in 1980 at 93 years old.
But that’s not the only reason I’ll miss L&T. Decades later, and now decades ago, when I was preparing to propose to my [now] wife, I spent months searching the jewelry stores of Manhattan for just the right ring. We couldn’t afford anything extravagant at that time, but I was sure it had to have a very specific charm to it. I was searching for something not too fancy, but not too shabby either.
A ring from the 1920’s
I was looking for a vintage ring that would have the elegant style of my Nana without the over-sparkly, and over-faceted, Tiffany brilliant cut that at that time, for my downtown sensibilities, seemed all wrong. I wanted what the trade calls an old European cut diamond, and a vintage setting to hold it, ideally that had been crafted to fit together.
After literally days of walking through jewelers and peering in counter after counter I took a break, and while walking home down Fifth Avenue I passed by the flagship L&T store.
Lord & Taylor to the rescue
Thinking of my Nana, I stopped in, not really expecting to find a ring, or really anything else that I would buy. I was really just stepping in to browse. But right by the entrance there was a small side area with a sign for Vintage and Estate Jewelry. After a quick look I immediately found exactly what I had been searching for!
It was a few dollars more than I had planned to spend, but exactly what I was seeking. Lord & Taylor had pulled me in as a customer after all these years by having just what I needed exactly when I needed it.
Once a customer, always a customer
While I could never quite bring myself to be a regular full-price Lord & Taylor shopper, after delivering the perfect ring I gave them a chance every time I was nearby on Fifth Avenue. And after a move to the suburbs, any time I was in a mall I would walk through L&T and look at (and sometimes buy) what was on sale or better yet what was on clearance.
The Story of Lord & Taylor
Lord & Taylor was founded in 1826. Samuel Lord was born in England, and upon arriving in the relatively young United States he moved around and eventually settled in New York City. In 1824 he started his own business, and in 1826 he opened the dry-goods store that would become Lord & Taylor.
His wife’s cousin, George Washington Taylor joined the business in 1834 and they re-named the store Lord and Taylor, and eventually Lord & Taylor.
Myths and reality
There are wonderful myths around Lord & Taylor’s founding. One story tells of how George Washington Taylor apprehended the criminal who had stolen the crown jewels of the Netherlands.
Taylor had apparently worked as a warden in Bridewell prison, and learned there that the thief would be headed by boat to New York. The myth has it that he apprehended the criminal, recovered the jewels, and then used the reward money to stake the very first Lord & Taylor store.
Lord & Taylor stores
The first store was located in downtown Manhattan, first in 1926 at 47 Catherine Street, and then in 1932 they expanded into the building next door at 49 Catherine. By 1938 they moved to even bigger space up the Street at 61-63 Catherine.
They found great success over the years and rapidly expanded from one location to another. And they moved north each time, following the migration of their customers further north on the island of Manhattan.
First they moved uptown to the corner of Grand and Christie Street in 1853. They then opened a second store at Broadway and Grand. In 1870 they moved the business to 20th Street and Broadway. The new building had one of the earliest steam powered elevators in New York. They are reputed to be the first elevators used by any retailer in the world. Of course, this is hard to validate.
Finding a home on Fifth Avenue
Finally in 1914 they moved into the Fifth Avenue location between 38th and 39th. The architect for the new store was Starrett & van Vleck, who also designed the Everett Building and the American Stock Exchange. They would go on to design the flagship stores for a number of other retail icons including Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.
The new Fifth Avenue location had a very broad set of features and amenities including dining rooms, a concert hall with a pipe organ, 20 passenger elevators, loading ramps (which were not common at that time), freight elevators and conveyers to move merchandise around the building, and much more. It even had elevators to lower the window displays down to the basement for work.
Becoming a public company
In 1885 Edward Hatch took over as the owner of the company. To raise capital for future expansion, and to gain liquidity, he took the company public in 1904.
In this early public period employees were allowed and encouraged to own shares in the company. In fact Edward Hatch went out of his way to facilitate getting shares into the hands of Lord & Taylor employees. That employee ownership set the company apart and created a culture that allowed it to thrive for many years to come.
In recent times management experts call this “ownership culture,” especially in the context of ESOPs (employee stock ownership plans) which really only came about in 1956. But long before that companies like Sears & Roebuck and Proctor & Gamble pioneered the idea of putting stock into employees hands. Lord & Taylor, in the period 1904 through 1916, adopted and thrived under this management philosophy.
Associated Dry Goods
In 1916, Lord & Taylor, along with Hahne & Co., William Hengerer Co., J.N Adam & Co., and Stewart & Co. founded American Dry Goods. Known as ADG, the company later changed its name to Associated Dry Goods.
Over time Associated Dry Goods acquired more than a dozen other retail chains. Most of these were traditional department stores, including both the well known J.W. Robinson on the west coast (much later merged and known as Robinsons-May) as well as the less well known Robinson’s of Florida (which was later sold to and operated under the Maison Blanche name).
Towards the end of its existence Associated also owned several discount chains: Loehmann’s and Caldor.
Dorothy Shaver, groundbreaking President of Lord & Taylor
No history of Lord & Taylor could be complete without talking about Dorothy Shaver. She joined the company in the early 1920’s. In 1925 she changed the way the business worked by establishing Lord & Taylor’s Bureau of Fashion & Design. By 1927 she was asked to join the Board of Directors. In 1945 she was named President of the company.
She was the first women to lead a major retailer, and one of the only women at the time to head an American company. She stayed in her role as President until she died in 1959.
Impact on the business
Among her many achievements, including taking the business from $40M in sales to over $100M, was launching the American Look program. The program featured, and helped make famous, American designers. This contributed to making New York the fashion power it became, and moved the focus, for American buyers at least, away from Paris.
Shaver also selected the American Beauty rose as the icon for the company, and the handwritten logo designed by Andrew Geller. The rose iconography and logo are one of the great branding statements of the period. They were featured on most Lord & Taylor branded products as well as boxes, bags, and other packaging. And of course, in most of the advertising.
Modern history, and downfall
May Department Stores
In 1986 the May Department Stores Company acquired Associated Dry Goods for $2.2 Billion, the most expensive acquisition up to that time in retail history. Participants have said the primary reason May did this deal was to get Lord & Taylor. This marked the high-point of Lord & Taylor’s geographic expansion, although many noted at the time that May’s processes and buying took away at least a little of the special touch that made L&T special.
May was one of the leading holding companies of department stores. Each division operated relatively autonomously, although strict processes and procedures helped May drive productivity in all of the chains they acquired. Some of those chains included: Famous-Barr, Kaufmann’s, Strouss, May-Daniels & Fisher, Hecht, G.Fox, Meier & Frank, and later added Foley’s, Filene’s, Strawridge’s, John Wanamaker, and Marshall Field’s.
Lord & Taylor took over many of the locations of the upscale May units including Hahne & Co, which was had come to May along with L&T in the Associated Dry Goods transaction. The Hahne & Company stores (pronounced “Hayne,” and called just Hahne’s) were converted in 1988. The other upscale units were the Wanamaker’s and Woodward & Lothrop locations that May acquired in 1995 from the liquidation of the “Woodies” chain that A. Alfred Taubman had taken over a decade earlier.
The Center City Philadelphia flagship Wanamaker’s location became a Lord & Taylor, and performed well under the new name.
Cash drawers instead of registers
An interesting aside . . . Lord & Taylor didn’t have cash registers until the mid 1980s. They used cash drawers and hand written sales checks. This is according to a number of primary sources, many of whom remember associates transacting from what looked like cigar boxes!
Federated Department Stores
In 2005 Federated Department Stores merged with May Department Stores. Federated was similar to May in being a holding company for department store brands. It’s flagship brand was Macy’s, but Federated operated many other brands as well. Just some of those brands included: Abraham & Straus, Bullock’s, Burdines, Filene’s and Foley’s (both sold to May, and came back with the May merger), Goldsmith’s, Jordan Marsh, Lazarus, Rich’s, and Stern’s.
The new Federated immediately moved to sell the Lord & Taylor brand both to generate cash needed to cover the cost of the merger, as well as to avoid anti-competitive issues. Federated did keep a handful of locations, including the famous Wanamaker building in Philadelphia (which became a Macy’s). Federated went on to rebrand the entire company as Macy’s, Inc.
NRDC and Hudson’s Bay Company
In 2006 NRDC Equity Partners bought Lord & Taylor for $1.2 Billion and took it private. NRDC is a private equity investor who went on to buy Hudson’s Bay Company two years later. HBC owned Saks Fifth Avenue, and the portfolio of the two combined allowed them to position Saks at the top with L&T sitting right underneath.
Lord & Taylor continued to thrive in this new ownership for at least a short time. They invested in remodeling some of the stores, including a $150M update to the flagship store in 2010.
We Work, Le Tote, and the end
As business deteriorated in the mid 2010’s, and HBC needed to keep cash flow available, HBC sold the flagship Manhattan location to WeWork in 2017 for $850 Million. Soon after they moved to close 10 of the remaining locations, including the Fifth avenue store. In 2019 Le Tote bought what was left of the business from HBC for just $75 Million.
Le Tote was an unlikely buyer, but they attempted to turn the business around. Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic proved too much for the last turnaround effort. In 2020 (after several back and forth final efforts) Le Tote and Lord & Taylor announced it would close and liquidate all stores.
More . . .
The Department Store Museum has a wonderful History of Lord & Taylor that is very entertaining to read, and has wonderful line-drawings from the company. HBC also maintains their own historical timeline which is worth visiting as well.
A bittersweet farewell . . .
I never thought I would ever work in retail like my Nana had, but after a long career in other industries I ended up as a senior executive at a retailer competing with the old style department stores. I was part of the new breed of retailer putting pressure on stores like Lord & Taylor. So it’s bittersweet, and ironic, that I am wishing a fond farewell to a store where my family had its start in the retail trade, and I’ve been part of the army of upstarts that has brought about it’s ending.
Farewell Lord & Taylor, your memory rests secure with those of us who shopped in, worked at, competed with, or just enjoyed passing your holiday windows.
About the author
This guest post is courtesy of Bart Sichel.
Bart Sichel is a thought leader on retail topics, and a frequent contributor to industry publications. As President of BPS Captura, LLC he advises companies on marketing, ecommerce, and strategy. Previously Bart was Chief Marketing Officer for Burlington Stores, and a Partner with McKinsey & Company.