MAY COMPANY – CALIFORNIA – The Largest Department Store in the West
In 1923, the May Company based in St. Louis, Missouri, bought Hamburger’s in Los Angeles and re-named it May Company California. The May Company itself had started in 1877 in Leadville, Colorado, specifically to serve the silver miners. The May Company Department Stores expanded by moving to Denver and later purchasing Famous Brothers in St. Louis. It then moved to St Louis and merged with William Barr Dry Goods in 1911 to create Famous Barr. With the 1923 acquisition of the large Hamburger store in Los Angeles, it entered the California market.
For the first 15 years, the May Company California division focused on the downtown Los Angeles store. The first branch store was opened in 1939, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax. Even though the Great Depression did not hit California hard, the May Company remained cautious. They did know that they needed a store in Western Los Angeles as that was where the population growth was happening. In 1947, after WWII, they opened a store in the Crenshaw shopping area where many of the aircraft plant workers lived. In 1952, they opened a large store in Lakewood, near the Douglas plant and airfield. Afterwards, the company began opening a new suburban store every year or two until their stores captured significant market share in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, and San Bernardino counties.
Like Broadway Stores, May Company was a mid-tier department store chain catering to the broad value oriented customer. The company developed strong merchants and, although highly promotional, they were great at following the fashion trends. I remember in the 60’s and 70’s when the juniors revolution was taking place, the May Company – California stores had a junior area that captured the times as well as the best junior specialty retailers. May Company was hot! In those days May Company California was a major profit producer for May Department Stores Company.
In later years, the May Company California expanded outside of California as the parent company bought Goldwater’s (Arizona) and incorporated the Goldwater’s Las Vegas store into a May Company California store.
In the late 1970’s and 1980’s May Company California stores started to show wear as the stores were not well-maintained under the expense control programs being implemented. The company still maintained strong merchandising programs and the May Department Stores Company became known for making money through effective merchandising. However, the California division was hurt by executive turnover and corporate programs that influenced and limited local merchandising.
In 1993, after the May Department Stores Company acquired Associated Dry Goods Company, the Associated’s W.J. Robinson & Company division was merged with the May Company California stores to form Robinsons-May. Robinson’s was an upper-tier department store operation and the merger of these two businesses first created some difficulties. When Bob Mettler became responsible for merchandising the problems seem to end as he differentiated the merchandising for the stores based upon local markets. He also brought a new level of enthusiasm to merchandising and buffered the merchandising team from the corporate merchandising pressures.
In 1984, the original store at 8th and Broadway was closed. The headquarters had moved out of that building years before. This area of downtown Los Angeles had deteriorated significantly.
In 2006, after the May Department Stores Company was acquired by Federated Department Stores, the Robinsons-May division was closed and the stores were converted to Macy’s or sold.
What happened????? Although May Company California was a strong and aggressive merchandising organization, they, like others, had difficulties facing increased competition. Nordstrom, Mervyn’s, Target, a reinvigorated J.C. Penney, Costco, and others were taking market share and operated with lower costs. The May Company reduced expenses in a manner that resulted in a less than pleasant shopping environment. Corporate turnover and control also caused problems and eventually ended local merchandising programs. In the end, the collapse of the parent company ended May Company California.
I have posted postcards of the downtown Los Angeles store, the Wilshire store and the Crenshaw store. Postcards of the downtown LA store are listed under Hamburger’s, the company May Company purchased in 1923. Postcards of the newer May Company California stores are, in my mind, not important for this blog. The newer stores were just big boxes with no architectural importance.