And Then There Were None: The Bloomies Legends of the 70’s and 80’s

Among the legends of the retailing industry, one usually associates a single name with a particular retailer: John Wanamaker and Marshall Field in the early days and later on, more recent giants like Sam Walton and Allen Questrom.

But even though the Bloomingdale’s of the 1970’s and 1980’s will forever be connected with its legendary president Marvin Traub just as often those in the industry will include the next-level-down team of executives who together truly made the Bloomies of that era one of the greatest retailers of all time. This is especially true for the home side of the store.

And with the passing last week of Lester Gribetz, the entire group is now gone and an era is truly over. Gribetz, together with others like Carl Levine and Julian Tomchin but so many, many others constituted a once-in-a-retail-generation leadership group that we will probably never see the likes of again.

Traub, as the CEO, gets much of the credit – and rightly so — for the store’s success… though the urban legend is that while the retailer’s business and prestige grew exponentially during this era, it did not translate as well to the bottom line and it was not particularly profitable as its counterparts were. That may be so, but chances are Bloomingdale’s would not exist as a free-standing nameplate today in this era of retail homogenization without the image and positioning it achieved in the final few decades of the 20th Century. And it wouldn’t have happened without Traub’s leadership and vision for what not too long before he took over was considered a lower-end, lackluster brand.

But he couldn’t have done it without the amazing group of executives he assembled. Gribetz, the last to go, was well into his 90’s, but you’d never know it from the enthusiasm, energy and creativity he continued to exhibit well after leaving Bloomingdale’s. And while he had very much a successful second act in his career on the supply side with companies like Waterford/Wedgwood and Lenox, it was at Bloomies, where he ran housewares, tabletop and other home categories in addition to cosmetics that will forever be his legacy. His knack for discovering and working with suppliers on new products and brands was unparalleled for the time…and for today as well.

His counterpart in furniture floor coverings and other goods in hard lines was Carl Levine and he was every bit as good, helping to create the retail-as-theater concept that is now the gold standard in the business. He died in 2004 and those more recently in the retail industry may not know as much of him but he was the force behind the model rooms that were a signature of the store. He also developed the imported furniture programs, particularly in upholstery, that gave the floor a look that wasn’t duplicated anywhere else in the business.

Julian Tomchin was not quite the Bloomingdale’s lifer as the others but his contributions in marketing, product development and design were every bit as important. He also had a career on the vendor side after his stint on 59th Street – and an incredible one beforehand too –yet his years at Bloomies will also be his legacy. He just passed away in December.

There were so many others and by mentioning some of them I’m sure I will leave out just as many…and for this, please accept my apologies. And my memories here are of mostly the home side of the store, there were of course comparable stars in fashion, beauty and the other categories that completed the store.

In home, Tony Spring started as a home buyer, rose to become president of the entire store and just a few weeks ago was named as the next CEO of the parent company Macy’s Inc. Sue Kronick ran home in the generation after Levine and Gribetz and eventually rose to number two at what was then Federated. Her successor was Joe Laneve, who took the home side of the store even further in an era when the retailer was expanding nationwide, including to the late, great – and sadly lamented – Home Store at the Medinah Temple in Chicago, which had to rank as the best free-standing home store to ever come out of the department store world.

On the design and creative side, people like Barbara D’Arcy, Barbara Deichman and Bonnie Mackay did the legwork not just on those famous model rooms but in product development, sourcing and working with vendors on the next hot product.

And between Traub and Spring was Mike Gould, who managed to keep the aura of the store intact while tipping the retail scales a little more towards the business side and is credited with making Bloomingdale’s an above-average performer. He was new to the brand when he came on board but he understood it just as well as the lifers and protected that legacy.

So many others started their careers at the store or worked there earlier on then went on to achieve incredible successes elsewhere. Perusing the comments on Gribetz’s passing on social media turns up a veritable who’s-who of names touched by both him and their time at Bloomingdale’s. Again, sorry for leaving anybody out.

A retailer like the Bloomingdale’s of that era will probably be hard to replicate in today’s environment. Retail brands are bigger and less likely to push the limits that might not result in the bottom line results large corporations now require. Even online, where the stakes might be lower, those kind of bold initiatives are in short supply these days. Bloomingdale’s adapted a slogan back then “Like no other store” and as opposed to so many meaningless taglines in retailing and elsewhere, this one was absolutely true.

And now, these original leaders are all gone, though others who came along later are still around. I knew many of them in person and got to see their work first-hand. That’s a rare privilege.

To say it was like another legendary moment in time might be stretching the cliché a bit, but so be it: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

Or Bloomingdale’s.

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