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The 20th Century Limited

Times have not been kind to the once-dominant specialty mall retailer, now closing up its stores and succumbing to a 21st Century world



The early January headlines were kind of staggering around here.

Macy’s announced it was closing one of its two Louisville stores, part of a 68-store purge by the department store giant.

And The Limited was closing all its stores here and going online only, a kind of “going out of business” announcement.

Neither announcement came out of the blue. Both retailers have been buffeted by the winds of change, the decline of shopping malls, the steady changes in people’s buying habits, the intrusion of the Internet.

Maybe what was staggering was how analysts’ commentaries felt when they transitioned from the business pages, and actually hit readers where they lived. The new holes in the malls only symbolized how the times had passed by two such once-important retail names.

The Limited was the first specialty retailer to understand the nature of what it meant to be a brand. I remember when my daughter, who had become a teen shopper in the mid-1980s, stopped going with her friends “to the mall” and started going “to The Limited.” Same destination, but different priorities.


When I came into this industry in the ’90s, it was full of people – design firm professionals, store planners and visual merchandisers – who’d come out of The Limited. Lee Peterson, evp, brand, strategy and design, at WD Partners in Dublin, Ohio, was one of those people. He says that there was an industry joke in the Columbus area about “one degree of separation” from all the ex-Limited people.

Peterson recalls, especially, the demanding exactitude of Les Wexner, perhaps the first merchant who understood that the store was the brand, and the brand was paramount. The fundamentals of retailing were clear to him. Why didn’t everybody else get it?

He had rigid rules about how you dressed each of the two Limited windows in the mall, with the “number one window” – the one on the left – displaying beautiful photography and the hottest, best-selling merchandise, the outfits that were going to lure the shopper into the store every time she came to the mall.

He also introduced the idea of “the third window” – the well-thought-out display when you first walked through the door that locked you in, luring you further into and through the store.

He gave his merchants almost-unlimited budgets to travel the world and see what was going on. And not just to see, but also to buy.

“We’d come back from Europe with 100 pieces of a [higher-priced] sweater we’d seen in London or Milan, and put them in the Columbus store for $19.95,” says Peterson. “If they sold out, we’d make our own version and get them into all our stores.”


It was fast fashion and fast fail, two decades before anyone in the U.S. had heard of H&M. But that was Wexner, two decades ahead of everyone else.

Two decades later, though, someone else is running The Limited – into bankruptcy.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.



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