Business Antedotes


Sears, Roebuck and Company is the world’s largest retailer, its headquarters is among the world’s tallest skyscrapers, and one-third of the American population shops in its stores. Sears’s success has been attributed to “bargains, brains or Ballyhoo.”

Back in 1886, Richard Warren Sears was working for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad, which allowed its agents to supplement their income by buying and selling goods at discounted freight rates. One of the jewelers in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, refused to accept a large, un-solicited shipment of watches. The 23- year-old Sears made a deal to buy them for $12. But instead of selling them at the suggested retail price of $25, Sears undersold the competition with a $14 price tag . He also used his connections along the railroad to help him sell. In six months he made $5,000, enough to start the R. W. Sears Watch Company, which he

moved to Chicago.

When some watches were returned for repairs, Sears advertised for a watchmaker and a repairman who had his own tools. The successful applicant was Alvah Curtis Roebuck, who had been running a watch-repair operation in a delicatessen in Hammond, Indiana.

“Thus began a famous alliance,” wrote Tom Mahoney and Leonard Sloane in The. Great .Merchants.. “Roebuck was a tall, unusually, whose black suit and high collar caused some to think of him as a.Methodist minister.. He was gentle and unaggressive... Sears was a handsome, mustached, restless young man of.very ingratiating personality, boundless optimism and incredible energy. Of him an admiring banker once said “He could sell a breath of air!”


The foundation of the Sears retail empire was the catalog, which reached into millions of American homes, especially farms. An enormous amount of labor and care went into the design and writing of the catalogs to make sure that the recipients would not be offended by either the wrong stereotypes or unreachable ideals. Wrote one observer in 1940:

          The farmer is never represented as a rube with straw behind his ears; he

          never wears the battered straw sun hat and goatee of the vaudeville stage; he

          is never an Uncle Hiram with tobacco juice staining his white beard. No

          model, man or woman, is shown smoking a cigarette. And while the pages

          of women’s clothes are thickly sprinkled with photographs of girls who have

          slender figures, there are numbers of others whose plump, matronly figures

          are like those of the cow-milking, chore-performing, child-bearing farm

          women with whom the catalog so largely deals.


Before it built up its nationwide retail chain, the most tangible asset of Sears,

Roebuck was its list of catalog customers, numbering in the millions. The company took every precaution to guard this treasure and yet still had nightmares about its loss by fire or through some other calamity. To find out what would happen if the lists were destroyed, Sears ran some test advertisements in certain areas of the country, stating that they had lost their records and urging their customers to contact the company. On checking these names against the master list, the company found not only that all their. old customers responded, but that they acquired quite a number of new ones. After that, Sears, Roebuck executives slept a little easier in Chicago.


F. W. Woolworth, the founder of the retail store chain, had been dreaming for years about building a lasting monument to his empire. New York contractor Samuel Horowitz discussed several plans for a corporate skyscraper, but Woolworth could not make up his mind. Now that he was looking at actual designs, suddenly he got cold feet and could only see problems: what if it was the wrong image for the company, or if he could not find tenants, or if business suddenly turned sour . After one of these endless meetings, Horowitz, who had the reputation of being a supersalesman, took his hat and told the chief executive: “I am going to tell you something, Mr. Woolworth. You are going to build the largest building in the world and I am going to build it for you. Good morning.” And Horowitz walked out, having little to go on except his conviction that he would see his client again.

A few months later, when the project was well underway, Woolworth visited the site and told Samuel Horowitz: “Do you remember, Sam, the morning you told me I was going to build the largest building in the world and that you were going to build it for me?” Horowitz nodded.

“Well,” said Woolworth, “I never was able to get that out of my mind.”


Edward Filene, head of Boston’s famous department store in the l920s, was a complicated, restless man who turned from a shy youth with eczema into a tactless dictator. Business totally consumed him. In his thirties, while he was traveling on a streetcar with his fiancée, he ran into a business acquaintance. By the end of the ride, he had concluded a deal but lost his future bride, who had left Filene without his even noticing it.


FDR was in the White House and times were tough when John Roosevelt began a business career working at Filene’s famous bargain basement. The president’s son was making $18.50 a week for keeping the bins filled. The self-effacing young man went about his humble tasks modestly, but he attracted so much attention that they finally he had to be given a job in the stockrooms, where Bostonians could not gape at him.


Alfred Bloorningdale was quite stage struck in his younger days, and he backed a number of Broadway shows, a large number of which turned out to be flops.

Finally, fed up with his role as an angel, Bloomingdale decided to try his wings as a producer: he felt that if he allowed his commercial instincts full play, he would make money in the theater as he had done in retailing.

He started searching for a play, found one, and nursed it along. He hired a director, who hired actors and others necessary to a production. The big night came when the play opened for its out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia. After the final curtain, it was clear to most people that the play was not going to be a hit. In fact, it was no better than the other flops that the department storeowner had simply backed. As Bloomingdale stood around in the lobby afterward, dejected, surrounded by his numerous friends from the New York theater, one of them gave him a bit of advice: “Alfred, close the play and keep the store open at night.”


There is a scene in Annie Hall in which Diane Keaton wonders whether she could withstand torture, to which Woody Allen replies: “You? The Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale’s charge card and you’d tell them everything.”

However, Bloomingdale’s was not always the haunt of the smart set. When it was started in 1872 by the Bloomingdale brothers, its location was in one of New York’s least fashionable areas. Even after World War II, according to Mark Stevens’ entertaining profile on the store, a young executive was firmly put in his place at a Fifth Avenue party. Nattily dressed Lawrence Lachman was asked by a banker’s wife what business he was in.

“I’ve just been appointed treasurer at Bloomingdale’s,” Lachman beamed.

“Oh, I know that place,” she replied. ~That’s where my maid shops.”


Stanley Marcus recounts in his charming book, Minding the Store, that one of his customers landed in jail following a drunken brawl during a Texas-Oklahoma football game . The next morning the Oklahoma judge set bail for $250, but the man was far from his home in Dallas and knew no one in town.

The judge asked whether he knew anyone in Dallas who could help him. The man pulled out his Neiman-Marcus credit card and received the judge’s permission to try to reach someone at the store. He reached a vice-president, who arranged for the bail to be charged on his account, and the customer was set free.

On an even happier note, Jack Massey of Nashville was trying to get married in Dallas, when the justice of the peace asked for some local identification. The bride produced a Neiman-Marcus credit card.

“Well, if your credit is good with them, it’s good with me,” said the justice and went ahead with the ceremony.


The Christmas catalog is one of the merchandising tools that made Neiman-Marcus world famous. According to Stanley Marcus, the more outrageous items were generated by the media rather than by the store. In the late l950s Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite would call the week before Christmas, as political news began to wind down, to get a story or two about unusual purchases by the crass and famous. Wishing to protect the privacy of rich clients and still benefit from the media attention, the store decided to include in its Christmas catalogue a variety of famous stunts: his and her Beechcraft; followed by his and her personal submersible; his and her op-art-printed silk scarves signed by Vasarely; his and her shahtoosh robes made from the world’s rarest fiber, which is plucked from the neck of the ibex goat in the Himalayas. There was also the year of the his and her camel, and once the store offered to deliver a Black Angus steer on the hoof. One order to Sacramento was delivered at noon on Christmas Day; the other ran into trouble with customs half way round the world, “so we had to board and feed the animal in the quarantine station in South Africa a whole year before we could make delivery of it the following Christmas,” writes Mr. Stanley Marcus in his engaging autobiography.

Although it is the expensive and unusual gifts that capture media attention (such as “the privacy capsule”—$800,000 and up), the more moderate are the ones that sell. One year Mr. Marcus came up with the idea of selling a version of Noah’s Ark. But to balance this rather pessimistic concept, the catalogue also offered oak seedlings, presumably for the time when the waters had abated. According to Mr. Marcus: We offered the ark, to be made to order, complete with a staff consisting of a French chef, a Swedish masseur, a German hair stylist, an English valet, a French maid, an Italian couturier, an English curator/librarian, a Park Avenue physician, a Texas A & M University veterinarian, and a working crew of four. Included also, in pairs by species, were ninety-two mammals, ten reptiles, twenty-six birds, also fourteen freshwater fish, and thirty-eight insects, priced in toto at $588,247, FOB Mount Ararat. The seedlings were priced at $10. Curiously, we received fifteen hundred orders for the seedlings and not a single for the ark. Which all goes to prove that there are more optimists in the world than pessimists!


At another time, Stanley Marcus wanted to be sure of reaching some important people on the store’s mailing list. He realized that even beautiful catalogs get lost under the avalanche of junk mail and at the same time he wanted to bring attention to the store’s gift-wrapping service. So he sent to a select list of 323 people four beautifully wrapped packages—one inside the other—with the final box containing the actual Christmas catalogue.

One of the recipients was impresario Billy Rose, who had a newspaper column at the time, which is where he vented his complaint. He was pleasantly surprised on receiving the “gift,” and asked his secretary to put all calls on hold. Then he began unwrapping the boxes one after another until he got to the catalog. The feeling of anticlimax was enough to send him to “Macy’s basement, buy a pair of socks, and say, That’s for Neiman Marcus.’ Next Christmas, if I’m still on your list,” Rose concluded , “send me a postcard, or if you want to spread yourself, a wall calendar. As I see it, it’s better not to play Santa Claus at all than to put on false whiskers and come down the chimney with nothing but hot air in your bag.”


The Daily Telegraph in London once reported a story “which most satincally illustrates the intimidating potency of the Neiman-Marcus name. During the Christmas rush a hard-pressed employee accidentally gift-wrapped her lunch instead of a customer’s luxurious gift. By the time she discovered her mistake the parcels had been taken to the mail. “But no one ever came forward,” the newspaper commented, to complain that he, or she, had received a stale ham sandwich and a moldy orange for Christmas. Store officials are convinced that the recipient of the extraordinary gift decided that, coming from Neiman-Marcus, it had to be something wonderfully special.”


Founded in 1818, Brooks Brothers in New York is America’s oldest men’s clothing store. It has served stars and celebrities for many generations. Lincoln was assassinated in clothes from Brooks Brothers, and when Lindbergh arrived in Paris without luggage (thereby inaugurating a tradition), he was lent a Brooks Brother suit by U.S Ambassador Myron T. Hernick. Once Broadway writer and director Abe Burrows took his small son to the store for his first suit. All that remained was to purchase new shirts that would go with the elegant clothes. “I want the kind with wnitin’,” young Burrows insisted.

“You mean with your monogram?” asked the helpful clerk.

“I mean with writin’—like the Dodgers and Giants.”

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