(Bloomberg) -- Covid-19, destroyer of holiday traditions, has come for the Bloomingdale’s little brown bear.
The Gund collectible, updated every winter for two decades, is missing from the department store’s seasonal lineup this year. Gone, too, are chocolates to sample in the gift shop, an in-person window reveal event and beauty-counter trials of cocktail-party looks.
Replacing those longstanding traditions are a slate of new features concocted for the strange year that is 2020: curbside pickup and same-day delivery with DoorDash, custom wrapping paper printed with customers’ faces, the ability to buy Lanvin and Valentino men’s shoes online and — in a very out of character move for high-end retail — flash sales.
Bloomingdale’s has been buffered during the pandemic more than many mass-market peers, as wealthy clientele have more spending money than ever. In the fourth quarter, the retailer is looking to those well-heeled customers to self-indulge and increase spending on gifts, while offering households in a financial pinch more options under $100 and a bit of a dreamy escape at no charge, like the palm trees that will adorn 60th Street outside the midtown Manhattan flagship.
“It’s such a pivotal time of year, disproportionate in terms of sales and profitability,” Chief Executive Officer Tony Spring said in a telephone interview. “I think we feel a strong obligation to over-deliver for our customers and make 2020 feel like it’s a gateway to a brighter and healthier 2021.”
For most retailers, it’s been gloomy for a while. Macy’s Inc., which owns Bloomingdale’s, initiated cost cuts and a plan to improve operations in February, unrelated to the pandemic. Then Covid-19 hit the U.S., prompting store shutdowns and worker furloughs. Stores reopened, but customers have been slow to return in person. The company’s total same-store sales — including its Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Bluemercury brands — were down 35% in the second quarter ended Aug. 1.
Still, Bloomingdale’s has been a relative bright spot, boosted by its strengths in categories that have boomed in quarantine times. Luxury — including handbags, diamonds, fragrances, shoes and textiles — made up 30% of its second-quarter business, up from 20% last year, according to a presentation at the Goldman Sachs Annual Global Retailing conference last month.
“Bloomingdale’s is a very small piece of Macy’s Inc., but it has been the business that has been outperforming in the pandemic,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Poonam Goyal said. And she thinks this will continue. “Luxury is the first to rise out of a recession, and typically the last to fall.”
But luxury has had to adapt, too. Big-ticket items, from handbags to jewelry, are normally the kind of thing buyers want to touch and feel. Moving those special purchases online takes some of the feeling of celebration away. It also cuts into the last-minute impulse buys that happen organically inside a department store.
“That’s the predicament retailers are in,” said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail consulting firm A Line Partners. “Online shopping is precision shopping. You miss the halo effect, when you’re in for one thing and something cute catches your eye. It’s all those impulse-y things. The Lancome cosmetics Christmas Gift. ‘Oh, I’m going to pick this up for my babysitter.’”
At a time when retailers usually try to lure shoppers into stores with festive music and decorations, Bloomingdale’s has amped up its website, adding 18 luxury brands, including women’s ready-to-wear clothes by Oscar de la Renta and Jason Wu, and accessories by Mansur Gavriel, Balenciaga, Proenza Schouler and Saint Laurent. Personal attention can be lavished online or in-store, with stylists available to assist customers for free.
There will also be promotions to drive traffic to the website, like flash sales, or deals of the day, which isn’t something the store has done in the past, a spokeswoman said. For example, a flash sale might offer an Ooni pizza oven at a special price for just a day.
About 20 online events are also planned as part of “Bloomingdale’s On Screen,” mostly catering to big spenders. They include cooking with designer Phillip Lim, drinks and dessert with designer Jonathan Simkhai and wreath-making with artist Michael Aram.
To help engage customers, the print catalog lives on, smaller this year at 154 pages. It leads with sumptuous shots of Gucci jewelry, a purse and shoes, followed by touts for a Yves Salomon men’s olive green shearling-lined parka ($2,230), a Coravin wine gadget ($199.95) and Jonathan Adler Op Art backgammon ($395). There’s even a nod to the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog’s inclusion of experiences: Two “Luxe Getaways” are offered for five-night stays in the Florida Keys and Maine. With optional private jet travel, they come in at around $20,000.
As for those gifts under $100: The selection includes a phone movie projector ($39), an Acqua di Parma gift set ($95), a yoga mat ($75) and a Bloomingdale’s ornament featuring a woman carrying a yoga mat ($50). And of course, face masks. The “Give Happy” holiday shop goes online Sunday.
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While the catalog lives on, the festive holiday window reveal party didn’t make it in 2020. Last year, about a thousand people gathered outside the 59th Street store for John Legend and the window unveiling. This year, the celebration moves online, with singer Andra Day and dancer Misty Copeland of American Ballet Theatre performing. It’s billed as a benefit requiring a donation (of any amount) to watch on Nov. 23. Funds collected will go to Child Mind Institute, which helps children with behavioral and mental health challenges.
The benefit replaces fundraising from the little brown bear, which in 10 years has generated more than $2 million for Child Mind Institute and filled homes with plush bears dressed in sweaters, high school jackets and last year: an astronaut suit.
CEO Spring said he'll miss the bear, personally. “We couldn’t get the bear done. The bear, I hope, we will bring back next year.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.