He Had A Better Idea

An American religious leader’s beliefs gave rise, surprisingly, to a better idea in retail merchandising-------the giant department store.

In the 1870s, most of America bought its goods in the small shops and “general stores” that existed in virtually every community. Salt Lake City, Utah, founded by the Mormons years earlier, was no exception.

But, the Salt Lake City stores fell under the stern eye and strongly-held principles of Brigham Young, the famous second president of the Mormon church. Among those principles was: man was better occupied in spreading the word of the Lord than in buying and selling. “There are too many men engaged in merchandising,” Young thundered. “Two-thirds of them ought to go out into the field preaching and the others do the work.”

He then decided that the answer was to bring together a large number of the individual stores and shops efficiently under one roof, and sell each line of goods in a separate, specialized “department” of the store. “This will also enable us to save time and money for the purchaser,” he declared. “Buyers should be no more wasteful of their time than sellers.”

On April 1, 1876, in a big, large new building in Salt Lake City, the world’s very first department store opened. “Zion’s Co-operative Mercantile Institution,” named for the Mormon ideal of building Zion, a perfect community for the godly.

To the outsiders, it was a subject of ridicule and course jokes. But the laughter quickly stopped, however, when Zion’s Mercantile Institution built up a volume of business that made it one of the largest retailers in the entire nation.

Visitors to the Utah capitol city returned home raving about the convince, variety, and efficiency of a store where “you don’t have to look at fertilizer and thread if you only want to buy a stove.”

By 1896, (20 years later), all big Eastern cities and many in the Midwest and South were dominated by giant department stores set up along the basis idea and lines of Brigham Young’s pioneering venture.

Before the end of the century, the department store had succeeded in crossing the Atlantic Ocean and was taking root in England. Today, the better merchandising idea inspired by a religious philosophy has spread around the globe from Tokyo to Moscow and Australia to Alaska.

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