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The New York department stores seem to be taking a page from stockbrokers—the page marked “frenzied panic.”

It was only a few weeks ago that Barneys and Bloomingdale’s announced a simultaneous across the board 40% markdown, but it looks there’s no bottom. Barneys has since raised the number to 60%, with Bergdorf and Saks offering up to 70%. It’s a feeding frenzy, and it has very little to do with Christmas.

A lot of it is plain old marketing, but the real story will be what happens to these shops when December ends and they have to roll back a few of the sales for the sake of their bottom line. Like newspapers, department stores are facing both an overall downturn and an agile marketplace that’s increasingly poised to leave them in the dust. Losing a year-end bonus will convince lots of people to pass on a $1200 leather jacket. The question is whether they can ever be convinced to pay that much again.

In the old days, a department store buyer was the ultimate arbiter of taste, and his (or, occasionally, her) say-so made the difference between success and failure for a line. Then—as we never tire of saying—the internet changed everything. Brick-and-mortar stores are still the gold standard, especially if you value a good fit, but there are more ways to hear about designers and plenty more designers to hear about—and if you’re curious, you can always go to their boutique.

Now that there are new arbiters of taste, the old department stores risk getting left in the dust.

—R.B.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • Russell Brandom