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Once A Staple Of State Street, Department Stores Are Now 'A Very Small Part Of Our Lives'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Shopping used to be an hours-long experience, done in person, with lots of other people around. Today, many consider it a chore -- a solo activity to be done as quickly as possible, often with a few clicks on a keyboard.

Morning Insider Jim Williams takes a look at this trend, and the impact on department stores.

"We felt like we were going to the ritziest store in the world, and it was right here in Chicago," Leslie Goddard said, recalling visits to Marshall Field's.

For her, department stores are personal.

"My grandfather worked at Marshall Field's. My aunt and uncle met working at Marshall Field's. I worked at Marshall Field's," she said.

Now Goddard is an author and historian; and just wrote the book ''Lost Chicago Department Stores.''

"I was interested in the memories, but also in what led to their rise, and what has led to their fall," she said.

Crowds once packed Chicago department stores during the past century.

"Chicagoans loved it, loved it," Goddard said. "Known for an incredible variety of merchandise, a place where they would treat you like royalty."

At one point in the 1940s, eight department stores filled State Street from Congress to Randolph.

Marshall Field's would become a hometown favorite, thanks in part to the famous Walnut Room restaurant and holiday window displays.

To this day, the plaque outside the old Marshall Field's building on State Street – now a Macy's – remains popular.

"There are very, very few institutions in the U.S. where tourists will come and take photographs of themselves in front of a corporate logo," Goddard said.

But make no mistake, department stores are in decline.

Macy's recently closed its Water Tower store, the faded lettering on the sign outside a sad reminder of better days for the department store chain.

"I'm sad about the loss of department stores," Goddard said.

Sears began as a catalog, and opened its first downtown department store on State Street in 1932. Its last department store in Illinois – at Woodfield Mall – closed last year.

"Sears was, in a way, the Amazon of the day," Goddard said.

Target replaced Carson Pirie Scott at the Louis Sullivan-designed architectural gem years ago.

In 2018, we saw old Carson's stores turn to mannequin graveyards, before shutting down for good.

"At this point, department stores have just become big clothing stores," said Morningstar consumer analyst David Swartz.

Swartz said Amazon is to blame in part for the demise of department stores, now that the online giant is a major seller of apparel.

"People don't need to go to walk around a department store for hours and look at stuff to know what's out there, because they can go online on their cell phones," he said.

"Today they're a very small part of our lives, and many people wonder whether the pandemic is going to mean the end of the department store," Goddard said.

Swartz, however, expects department stores to survive, even if in a much smaller role.

"Yes, there's going to be department stores, but not going to be what they used to be," he said.

Swartz said the overbuilding of shopping malls in the U.S., and the decline of the middle class also really hurt department stores.

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