Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Because of Winn-Dixie

It’s a beautiful, sunny day somewhere in the South, 1966. A pretty lady (with way-cool shades) and her two kids wait patiently as a courteous Winn-Dixie employee in black tie and Brylcreem is about to load their groceries into the family Buick.

At time this photo was taken, the wonderfully profitable Winn-Dixie was the envy of the entire supermarket industry, with a greater return percentage on stockholders’ equity than Safeway, and profits nearly as high as those of Kroger, both companies triple its size. Of course, time and the events of the last few decades have changed all of that, but one word still accurately applies to Winn-Dixie – survivor.

For me, Winn-Dixie evokes many good memories - of summer weeks in the early seventies spent with my maternal grandparents in Kennesaw (suburb of Atlanta), Georgia, shopping at the Marietta Winn-Dixie. Of eating their Deep South brand peanut butter (a brand name Winn-Dixie discarded just a couple of years ago) and drinking Chek soft drinks. Of several trips the whole crew - my immediate family, my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins - made, driving from Atlanta to Treasure Island, Florida, near St. Petersburg, to spend four or five days on the Gulf. The Winn-Dixie there was literally within walking distance of the motel where we always stayed. The store seemed large to me, a 10-12 year old kid, but looking back I’m sure it was of very moderate size.

As you might expect, the memories have stayed with me. On a business trip to Birmingham four years ago, I drove past a Winn-Dixie store with a huge “store closing” banner across the storefront. Sadly, this was one of many stores the company closed as part of a major cutback that year. I pulled into the parking lot and (on a mission, now) sprinted into the store. I managed to snag the last two jars of Deep South peanut butter! It tasted as good as I’d remembered.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Inside the New Wards Stores, Late 50's

These are some of the scenes that greeted customers of the new Montgomery Ward stores in the late 1950’s. A far cry from the stodgy interiors that shoppers had grown to associate with Wards, they represent nice examples of fifties modern design, color styling and craftsmanship.

Just as the exterior design and materials differed from store to store, the new Wards interiors varied as well, although some common themes carried through. The elongated oval signage, visible in several of the photos (and also in the remodeled Sacramento store in the previous post) was extensively used. It kind of echoes the “long, low” trend that was all the rage in automotive design at the time.

Larger, mall-based Wards stores featured “central decorative display islands, surrounded by upholstered benches, provid(ing) a haven for the weary and a meeting place for all”. Pictured in the first photo above, these islands featured a unique motif keyed to the store’s locality – an Oak tree for the Kansas City, Missouri, Blue Ridge Shopping Center store, an Aspen tree in the Denver Lakeside Mall store, a vertical steel I-beam at the Gary, Indiana Village Shopping Center (They also were great for holding up the roof!), and a sundial in a new St. Petersburg, Florida unit. Exteriors of all stores except the last are pictured in previous posts.

There were nods to the past as well, in the form of vintage Wards catalog merchandise pictured on the walls of the furniture department (called the “Modern Shop” – how cool is that?), as shown in the second photo, the tool department (photo three) and the mens' department (back wall of last photo), among others. It was a small, early example of marketing through nostalgia, a trend that would gain much more steam in the 60’s and especially the 70’s.

Montgomery Ward still had tons of ground to make up from the “lost years”, where they were routinely trounced by Sears and later by J.C. Penney as well. These fine stores, with their long-overdue added comfort of air conditioning, did much to put Wards back in play.

For me, I can’t decide what I like better – the Airline TV and Hi-Fi department or the “Modern Shop”. I’ll take both!

Top to bottom, the photos depict: (1) a typical themed “center island”, (2) the “Modern Shop” contemporary furniture department, (3) the Power Tools section, (4) the Childrens’ Wear department, with mannequins for all seasons, (5) the “real gone” Juniors department, (6) the Sporting Goods department (suits and ties to sell golf and archery equipment – now that’s class!), (7) the Airline Hi-Fi and Television department, a strong selling brand for Wards, (8) the Shoe department, where the older gentleman is holding a strange form of payment – oh yes, of course, it’s cash - and lastly, (9) something that would certainly be hard to come by in department stores today, shown in appropriate black-and-white, the ladies’ millinery department (That means "hat department" to folks like me), seen in the foreground of the photo.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Montgomery Ward in Sacramento, 1956

The photos above, taken in 1956, show the large, newly remodeled Montgomery Ward store at the corner of 9th and K streets in Sacramento, California, just prior to its “grand reopening”. Originally opened in 1935 and designed to Ward’s Georgian architectural standard of the day, the Sacramento location was one of the company’s first units to be revamped after the tumultuous leadership change of 1955.

As the Wards publication “1872-1972 A Century of Serving Consumers” points out, in the ten years following World War II, “Not one store had been air conditioned, nor were any relocated from congested downtown sites, where parking problems discouraged shoppers, to the edges of the cities or to the suburbs where shopping centers were sprouting up overnight.” As mentioned in the previous post, it would take some time to begin the rollout of the new suburban Wards stores. In the meantime, it made sense to upgrade the best performers of Wards existing downtown store locations, a group that included the Sacramento unit.

The photos show the exterior and interior signage, including the new white and red "WARDS" upright that would appear on a host of new stores that Wards would open or remodel over the next several years. Note the tight building column centers, so typical of downtown stores built prior to the mid 1950’s. Below is a shot of the store as it appeared in 1947, essentially unchanged in appearance from its opening twelve years earlier.

The photos appear here by the kind courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A New Day For Wards

Shown above are some Montgomery Ward stores from the late 1950’s. They are among the first stores the company opened after a 17-year moratorium on new construction. Radically different from the quaint, outdated stores that Wards shoppers (a steadily decreasing cohort through the 50’s) were familiar with, they represent a herculean effort to reintroduce and redefine Montgomery Ward in the eyes of the buying public, and to compete in a retail world that had changed in so many ways.

Sewell Avery, whose leadership had saved the company in the 1930’s, was poorly suited to lead the company during America’s phenomenal economic expansion in the postwar years. Convinced that another depression loomed around the corner, Avery “put Wards in a ‘storm cellar’”, as Ward’s 100th anniversary publication put it. No funds would be allocated to new stores or modernization, and even inventory was skimped on. The anniversary book cites $270 million that the company was forced to refund to catalog customers in 1946 due to out-of-stocks, a horrendous sum in that day (or this one, for that matter). The massive refund payout kept Wards from attaining what would have been its first billion-dollar sales year.

Avery’s pessimistic outlook, and his conviction that government policies were in the works to further penalize Wards led him to focus his efforts on building a large cash reserve for the company. To be sure, that goal was achieved ($327 million in cash by 1955, of which all but $23 million was invested in U.S. Government securities – ironic, don't you think?), but it came at the expense of the company’s retail business – its presumable reason for existence.

By 1955, as Fortune magazine later put it, “Montgomery Ward was a very sick cat”, with a “mountainous pile of cash and the company’s reputation for quality and service, but that was about all…”. Probably the most powerful indicator of Ward’s standing in the public eye came when contrasted with Sears. From the mid-1920’s through the early 40’s, as their companies gradually approached the billion dollar mark, Wards and Sears’ annual sales closely tracked each other, with Sears leading throughout the period by a fairly small gap. By the end of the 40’s, the “gap” had turned into a delta, with Sears at $2 billion and Wards at only one. Ten years later the “delta” had become the Grand Canyon, with Sears tallying over $4 billion and Wards still stuck at just over a billion dollars. Sears had taken the completely opposite approach to Wards when it came to expansion, snapping up choice suburban shopping center locations on which they would build huge, sprawling stores. While Wards languished in the past, Sears became the store of choice for postwar America, supplying all manner of goods –clothes, appliances, furniture, lawn mowers, you name it – to help usher in a new era of affordable luxury and leisure-time pursuits for the middle class. In the process, Sears came to symbolize America itself in the eyes of many.

By the mid 1950’s, pressure was building on Montgomery Ward to end Sewell Avery’s autocratic reign and archaic policies. In August 1954, Louis E. Wolfson, described in the anniversary book as a “youthful industrialist and promoter” came on the scene, announcing his intention to bid for control of Montgomery Ward. Wolfson, a forerunner to the corporate “takeover specialists” of the 1980’s, had reportedly gained control over corporate assets worth over $200 million by that time, according to author James Grant in his book “Money of the Mind”. Wolfson proclaimed that he saw a huge opportunity to restore Wards to greatness, putting the large cash reserve to use in expansion. Wolfson, while maintaining a modicum of personal respect for Avery, pointed out (as quoted in the Grant book) that “Ward’s management had blindly and obstinately hitched the company’s future to a depression”. The 81-year old Avery, for his part, batted back fiercely. In the company’s annual report to stockholders for 1954, Avery used the usually placid, non-controversial format of the annual report to outline his defense against Wolfson, a seven-point description of various investigations, alleged conflicts of interest and accusations of self-dealing on Wolfson’s part. Avery closed with: “In contrast, the character of your management has been reflected in the accomplishments of the last 24 years, during which the assets have been built up to $721,000,000 including cash of $327,000,000”.

In April 1955, one of the most famous proxy fights in the history of American business took place at Montgomery Ward’s annual meeting in Chicago. A confused and feeble appearing Sewell Avery took the microphone and attempted to lay out his case, with pitiful results. The whole proceeding was documented by Life Magazine's photographer, as can be seen here. Because of the structure of Ward’s board, only three new directors could be appointed per year, so while Wolfson failed to gain control of the company, his efforts were sufficient to oust Avery from the chairmanship. Wolfson and two associates were seated on the board. Sewell Avery resigned as chairman but would remain on the board for another four years, passing away in 1960. Wards vice president John Barr, a longtime company veteran who had been loyal to Avery but saw the need to expand and modernize, took over as chairman. Wolfson and his two associates, confident that Barr and the new team would revive the company and enhance his investment, resigned from the board early in 1956. Wolfson would later pursue a number of diverse ventures, including helping to finance Mel Brooks’ first film, “The Producers”.

Barr set two main goals – to rebuild Ward’s decimated management structure, and to expand and revamp the store base. The store program started slowly, with only $8 million spent on store remodels in 1956. More importantly, however, plans were being drawn for Wards stores with a completely new image – new styles, merchandising, color schemes, logos, and just about everything else. In late 1957, a new store opened in Portsmouth, Ohio. Shopping center stores, the company’s new main focus, were first opened in Denver, Colorado and Gary, Indiana in 1958, along with a new downtown store in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. By 1959, $150 million had been spent on new store development, with plans announced for another $500 million to be spent over the next five years.

Montgomery Ward, retail’s “Rip van Winkle”, had finally awoken.

Pictured above, from top to bottom: The opening (to-day) festivities of the new Wards store in Gary, Indiana, complete with a rostrum full of dignitaries, the Eau Claire, Wisconsin store (with dignitaries but no rostrum), The new store at Kansas City’s Blue Ridge Shopping Center, with cool looking trellises above the entrances, a wide shot of the Gary store, and a busy scene at the new Wheaton (MD) Plaza location from 1959. For those who prefer black-and-white, below are the 1957 Portsmouth, Ohio, store, another shot of the Kansas City Blue Ridge store, and finally the new Wonderland Shopping Center store, opened in Livonia, Michigan in 1959.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Montgomery Ward's Georgian Period

Students of classic architecture are well familiar the Georgian Period. The term “Georgian” is used to describe a style of architecture that was originally popular from around 1720 to 1830, during the reigns of British monarchs George I, II, III (who was in power when America declared and fought for its independence) and IV. Some of the distinctive features of the Georgian style are a strong sense of symmetry, paneled windows, dormers, mansard roofs and “quoined” corners, meaning a series of cornerstones from the foundation to the roofline, with staggered or columnar edges. Much of what is called “Early American” architecture falls within the Georgian school. This style has enjoyed a tremendous resurgence in the last couple of decades and is frequently used to convey a sense of importance or stateliness, on bank branches for instance, or on upscale homes. (Love those McMansions, right?)

Montgomery Ward had a “Georgian Period” of its own, shorter and of course much later than the original. From the mid 1930’s up until Wards froze all new construction in 1941, many new and remodeled units were cast in the Georgian mold, to great effect in my opinion. The motivation for Wards in this case was straightforward – prior to 1935 or so, there was no consistent exterior theme to the company’s stores, and Wards wanted a distinctive look, one that would impart a quality image. Concerned that a modern style would age poorly and be out of style after a few years, Wards opted for a “colonial” look, according to Chain Store Age, “because of its perennial appeal, its naturalness and its uniquely patriotic atmosphere”. It was a good thing, because (unbeknownst to Chain Store Age, or anyone else, including Ward employees at the time) the style would have to carry the company for nearly two decades, until new construction was finally restarted in 1958.

Another benefit to the Georgian designs Ward put together was the cost flexibility they allowed. For mid-level markets, such as Glens Falls, NY (the seventh photo above), cheap standard brick could be used, painted or stuccoed over in a cream color. For higher end stores, more expensive facing brick was used, and for major market units such as Detroit’s huge Gratiot Avenue store (fourth photo above), they could go all out, adding such flourishes as large columns on a rounded corner, all the while maintaining harmony with the Georgian look. Like A&P, who would later adopt the Early American exterior style for multitudes of its supermarkets, the interiors of these stores generally did not follow the colonial theme.

In the early 1930’s, Montgomery Ward was in deep trouble. Having quickly converted its handful of “display stores” into standard retail units, and well aware of how far they were trailing Sears, Wards launched a frantic store construction program. With 36 stores at the end of 1927, the company opened 208 more stores the following year and another 288 in 1929. Wards went from no stores to over 500 in just over three years! As one might expect, this incredibly rapid rollout of stores by a company whose entire previous experience was limited to mail order led to chaos. Mail order employees were pressed into service as retail store managers with negligible training. Profits went into the tank (Wards had a $9 million loss in 1931 – undeniably the deepening depression made matters worse), and rumors began to fly that Montgomery Ward faced no choice but to merge with Sears.

Wards needed a hero, and in 1931, one came at the behest of J.P. Morgan and Co., Wards’ major stockholder. He was 57-year old Sewell Lee Avery, a respected Chicago businessman who was chairman of United States Gypsum, the nation’s largest manufacturer of plaster and wallboard, and who sat on the boards of U.S. Steel, Armour and Company, Container Corporation of America and a number of other firms. Avery had taken over his father’s plaster business in 1905 and combined it with a number of competitors to form U.S. Gypsum, and was a true darling of Wall Street in those depression days, able to operate lean and still make money. When J.P. Morgan and Co. asked, Avery eventually agreed to take on the challenge of leading Wards out of the swamp. Interestingly, he would continue to head U.S. Gypsum during the entire 25 years he ran Montgomery Ward.

Three key actions marked Avery’s early tenure at Wards. First, Avery immediately put the Sears-Wards merger rumors to rest. Secondly, a number of the weaker stores were closed off the bat. Most importantly, Avery installed a team composed of some of the sharpest young retail talent of the day to help run the business. First was Frank Folsom, head of merchandising, who came from San Francisco’s Hale Bros. department store chain. Raymond H. Fogler, VP of operations for the stores and the nine gigantic mail order catalog houses, came to Wards from W.T. Grant Company. Walter Hoving was R.H. Macy’s star executive vice president in charge of sales, and at Wards he would assume charge of the catalog, company advertising and package design. Walter Baumhogger, a 13-year company veteran with a fine track record in Ward’s Chicago store district, was put in charge of the retail store division.

Under Avery and his new team, major improvement at Wards came about fairly quickly. The loss for 1932 was $5.7 million compared to $9 million the previous year, and in 1933 Wards turned a $2.2 million profit. The retail stores, formerly an albatross, accounted for the improvement in profits, offsetting a small loss on the company’s mail order business. In January 1935, Fortune magazine profiled the company’s turnaround, calling it “a notable rejuvenation of the Ward company“. Avery had lived up to the heroic expectations.

Ward’s store system was grouped along similar lines to that of Sears, with “A”, “B” and “C” designations. In 1935, according to the Fortune article, Wards had seventeen “A” stores, large units in major population centers. The “B” stores were by far the largest group, with 453 units, medium sized stores in towns ranging in population from 5,000 to 75,000, with an average of 20,000. The “C” stores, only 19 units at the time, were smaller stores that carried a lineup limited to tires and auto accessories.

In 1939, Montgomery Ward made an unlikely yet enduring contribution to America’s pop culture heritage. A Ward advertising copywriter named Robert L. May was assigned to put together a giveaway booklet for the stores to hand out as a Christmas promotion. He came up with a humorous twist on Clement Clark Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas”, only this time a ninth reindeer was added to lead the pack – Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. The little story was an instant hit. Years later, Wards transferred the rights to the story to May, whose brother-in-law Johnny Marks soon wrote the famous song based on it, with Gene Autry recording the resulting multimillion-selling hit.

In the Wards executive suite, high drama was becoming the order of the day. Ward’s chairman, Sewell Avery wielded an increasingly autocratic leadership style, and was beginning to drive away key Wards management talent. In 1937, Walter Hoving left to take the presidency of Lord & Taylor. Two years later, Frank Folsom quit to become the CEO of Goldblatts, a Chicago-based department store chain. A frustrated Raymond Fogler, by then president of Wards, resigned a few months afterward with no new job in hand. Fogler would soon rejoin his alma mater W. T. Grant, where he would enjoy a long, successful run through the forties, fifties and sixties as Grants’ president, then as chairman of the board. It was very destructive pattern for Wards, as Avery proceeded to run the company as a virtual one-man show, driving away scores of talented managers over the ensuing years, leaving the billion-dollar company with virtually no middle-management ranks. The company was effectively becoming a training ground for managers for its competition.

While these developments were mainly discussed only within retail executive and Wall Street circles, there was a public side to Avery’s exploits. Highly distrustful of the government and deeply disdainful of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Avery made the headlines with increasing frequency in the early and mid-1940’s. (Oddly enough, as the Fortune article points out, Roosevelt’s polices did much to help farm family income, a factor which had to have played a part in Ward’s sales increases with that all-important demographic.) Avery’s first clash with the Roosevelt administration was over the National Recovery Act (NRA), a New Deal agency created to regulate industrial competition. Avery withheld the $30,000 charge assessed by the NRA to Wards, and as a result was one of the very few companies to be denied the right to display the famous eagle logo, a symbol that could be seen literally anywhere you turned in 1933. The NRA was ultimately declared unconstitutional, to Avery’s delight.

Throughout World War II, Avery battled constantly with the War Labor Board, refusing to sign a 1942 labor contract that he felt would force Wards to become a closed shop (mandatory union membership). Ultimately, F.D.R. issued an order forcing Avery (and Wards) to sign the contract, which he begrudgingly did. Two years later, things came to a head again, when the government demanded an extension of the agreement pending an election. Avery, feeling that the contract “violated employees’ rights”, refused to sign off on the extension. Roosevelt, “As commander-in-chief in time of war”, warned Avery that the work stoppage was delaying the delivery of farm implements and other goods necessary for the war effort, threatening “further action” if Wards did not comply. Avery refused to obey the president’s order, and on April 26, 1944, “three olive-drab Army trucks rolled up to Montgomery Ward’s main entrance”, as related in a Time Magazine article entitled “Seizure!”, which described the spectacle in detail the following week:

“Out jumped a 44-man unit of battle-helmeted Military Police under command of Lieut. Ludwig Pincura. Bayonets glinted in the afternoon sun. Followed by four enlisted men, Lieut. Pincura began his bloodless invasion. On the eighth floor the five pairs of Army brogans clattered across the green-and-white-squared linoleum, then moved noiselessly through the deep-carpeted executive offices.

Sewell Avery was not surprised to see them. He smiled. After a moment's embarrassed silence, Lieut. Pincura said: "Under authority vested in me by the President of the United States I am taking over this plant."

Asked Sewell Avery: "Does that mean I have to leave?"

"Yes," said the commander of the Army of Occupation."

And so it was. Montgomery Ward was now under the control of the U.S. Army, and 69-year old Sewell Avery, who refused to comply every inch of the way, was bodily removed from his office by two servicemen, as immortalized in this famous photo. The “occupation”, which Time surmised was on questionable legal ground, lasted four days, and all the while president Roosevelt was on vacation in Warm Springs, Georgia. Eventually, the whole case was scrapped.

Things would get worse (although not necessarily this crazy) for Wards before they would get better.

The photos above, from Chain Store Age, depict Montgomery Ward stores opened between approximately 1935 and 1940. Top to bottom, they are: (1) Hagerstown, Maryland, (2) Kansas City, Kansas, (3) Enid, Oklahoma, (4) Detroit, Michigan – Gratiot Avenue, (5) La Grange, Illinois, (6) Dearborn, Michigan, (shown here in late 2006 and torn down only last year *sigh*) (7) Glens Falls, New York, (8) Trenton, New Jersey and (9) Rome, Georgia.

For years I drove by the La Grange store without the slightest clue as to the building’s Wards heritage. It is now home to an Italian restaurant called Bella Bacino’s. If anyone has an update on the fate of any of the other stores, please let us know!

Below is a very highly modified Georgian from the same era, a West Palm Beach, Florida unit. King George must have had a winter place there.
Thanks to Nessa for sending along links to some great photos she has taken of the following Georgian-style Wards buildings - Cumberland, Maryland, Morgantown, West Virginia and Cambridge, Ohio. Check out her Flickr page to see many other photos with a great sense of history and fun!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Fiesta Days at Montgomery Ward, 1953

(With apologies for yesterday’s horrendous post.)

Pictured above, in a circa 1953 photo, is the Montgomery Ward store in San Luis Obispo, California. This photo was taken during the La Fiesta de las Flores parade, an annual event in San Luis Obispo from 1925 to 1995. The clown/cowboy’s horse is equipped with a shovel, a necessary accessory depending on the length of the parade. At least he has a smile painted on his face!

This store, with its rectangular red sign with white lettering, is extremely typical of Wards stores over a very long period – from the mid 1930’s until 1958, when the company embarked a building boom, opening modern stores with an exciting new look, mostly in shopping centers and malls. Nonetheless, Wards continued to operate stores like this well into the 1960’s, and even beyond that in some locations. In most cases they received facelifts with the new Wards signage, but this store, as evidenced by this 1964 photo (of another parade) kept the original fa├žade for at least that long.

The cloth banners advertising the electric blanket “Lay a way” sale are a neat aspect of the photo. I’m sure those electric blankets were most welcome on those frequent chilly nights when the Pacific winds were up.

Many thanks to aroid for the use of this fine photo.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A-Ward Winning Deals!

Hi, and welcome back to Pleasant Family Shopping, where we’re all about the “two RM’s” – Retail Memories and Revenue Maximizing! Time for another look at good old Montgomery Ward!

You know, the crowd scene in that first photo reminds me of the scene that breaks out at my local Target whenever they introduce another one of their cool designer collections, like their great line-ups from Orla Keily and Alexander McQueen. As a matter of fact, I understand they are having an incredible sale now. You need to run over to Target and check it out, before a crowd like this forms!

The second photo shows Wards’ popular Airline radio and television department. Can’t you just picture that great, funky looking showroom full of monster plasma TV’s, like the ones Best Buy has at super-hot prices right now? (I don’t think they have any in blond wood cabinets, though!) I mean, we’re all retro fans here, aren’t we? What would be better than watching our classic TV favorites, like “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” stretched out on a 16:9 widescreen? (Wow, I thought Eddie Haskell was skinnier than that!)

When I think about Montgomery Ward, I can’t help but think they’d still be around if they had only put a Starbucks in each one of their stores. Speaking of Starbucks, have you tried their new Cinnamon Dolce Latte with Sugar-Free Syrup? They’re absolutely awesome! In fact, why not run over to your local “sbux” and try one right now? This website will waiting for you when you get back! Or better yet, bring your Dell laptop (or whatever kind you happen to have) over there, and enjoy the great AT&T wi-fi service! Yes, you can have it all!

Well, that’s it for now. See you again soon for more memories and even more Great Deals!

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