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Customers and Employees First

Imagine a store that not only provides a variety of quality products and efficient service but also offers employees a bank, a school, a library, a gymnasium, medical care–and a weekly prayer meeting.

Is this a modern business experimenting with new ideas to retain employees? No, it was a late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century business that was far ahead of its time. (In fact, at least the prayer meeting part would be considered politically incorrect today and possibly even lead to law suits!) These innovations were the brainchildren of John, the young businessman whom I introduced in the previous blog post (“A Revolutionary Retailer”).

People conducted business differently in John’s early days than they do today. Retail stores usually specialized in only one or two types of products and had no set business hours. Clerks received no formal training. Clerks and customers haggled over the price of everything. Identical items might have several different prices. People expected merchants to try to cheat them. Merchants always made customers feel inferior; shopping was seldom pleasurable. A dissatisfied customer could not return a product for refund or exchange. The business motto of the day was caveat emptor, “Let the buyer beware.”


Moreover, John’s store was the first to have electricity, telephones, elevators, and telegraph service. He pioneered home delivery and telephone ordering. He introduced the use of pneumatic tubes whereby clerks in the various departments could send cash and receive change quickly. He offered the best products; when he couldn’t do so, he hired craftsmen or built factories to make them himself. He conducted special sales. He even built a restaurant inside his store.

John informed his customers through continuous and aggressive advertising. He once admitted, “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” He read the papers daily, looking for good writers and artists whose work he liked, then he hired them to produce effective ads for him.


In short, John made work rewarding for his employees and shopping pleasurable for his customers. “When a customer enters my store,” John said, “forget me. He is king.” In return, they made him a success. But that success was a mere by-product of an even greater purpose that drove his revolutionary business.

In the next post, I will share more of this great exemplar’s legacy, which extended far beyond his retail operations, and let you in on what he considered the secrets of his success.

[Copyright (c) 2017, Dennis L. Peterson]

#exemplars #JohnWanamaker #initiative #entrepreneurs #Wanamakers

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©2020 by Dennis L. Peterson