Department Stores' New Hope: Giving Away Free MoneyS

Exiting a go-see in the garment district this morning, I happened upon a very unusual sign in the window of the Fifth Avenue Lord & Taylor.

The department store was offering $15 gift cards, apparently to all comers, at 10 a.m. sharp. There didn't appear to be any catch or minimum purchase — the format was turn up, pass go, and collect your $15. The giveaway seems not to have been announced on Lord & Taylor's website ahead of time, although if you do cursor over to those parts, you will notice a prominent banner advertising 20% off all online purchases, including already-reduced sale items.

The retail landscape has been changed in some more and some less obvious ways by the floundering economy and the contraction in consumer spending. High-end department stores, with their vast inventories, high overheads, extensive and expensive real estate holdings, large workforces, and, always, the pressure of shareholders eager for returns on investment, have seen the toll already. Lord & Taylor laid off 120 workers last October, let go an addition 170 in January, and made headlines again this week when news leaked that the department store chain had to institute a company-wide salary freeze for 2009. Fashion is kind of like the canary in the coal mine of consumer spending: impulse purchases of "unnecessary" new clothes and accessories are some of the easiest things to forgo in uncertain times. But $15 gift cards, just in the hope of luring someone in to shop? This is an unusual tactic, even in our scorched-earth retail environment.

Lord & Taylor Freezes All Salaries [WSJ]
Lord & Taylor Receives Money From Parent Company, Cuts Jobs [DDI]
Layoffs Seen At Lord & Taylor [WWD]