Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Real Early American A&P

A&P, celebrating its sesquicentennial in 2009, still officially goes by its full name – The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Although the “Pacific” part applied for a relatively brief portion of that timeframe, roughly the 1930’s through the 1960’s, and the company’s current geographic footprint is far smaller yet, A&P’s status as an American business and cultural icon is beyond question.

Probably the most enduring image of A&P, from an architectural point of view, is the colonial family of designs the company launched in 1959 to celebrate their centennial year. Known typically today as the “Centennial” stores, they were usually referred to in company advertising as being of “Early American design”. The darling of zoning boards everywhere due to their upscale look, hundreds of Centennial A&P’s were built throughout the 1960’s, although the company continued to build much more conventional-looking units throughout this period as well.

The photo above, from a 1951 issue of the long defunct Collier’s magazine, depicts a new A&P store in Fairfield, Connecticut. Pre-dating the “real” Centennial stores by nearly ten years, I guess this one can be called “Early Early American”. Interestingly, A&P had used colonial architectural touches – pediments, cupolas, the delicate script – on various occasions, long before this store even opened. The earliest example I’m aware of hails from way back in 1932, with the Williamsburg, Virginia store, designed to blend in with the (then new) Colonial Restoration.

While there’s still some of it left, I thought it would be fun to take a look at A&P during this, their 150th year.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Murphy's Mart By The Numbers

At the end of 1973 there were 22 Murphy’s Marts in operation, most of which were in G.C. Murphy’s western Pennsylvania home territory. Even in this core market - the “Heart of Murphyland” as it were, the company’s late entry into discounting had put them at a major competitive disadvantage, especially in relation to Kmart, whose presence in all of Murphy’s key areas now well established. Added to that was the general economic situation of the day, with no foreseeable end to rampant inflation. The combination of the poor mid-70’s economy with an oversupply of loosely managed, poor performing discount chains would soon precipitate an industry shakeout, affecting names mentioned here many times before– Topps/White Front, Turn-Style, and closer to home, longtime variety store competitor W.T. Grant. All in all, Murphy’s found itself in a most challenging environment.

Nevertheless, the company now appeared ready to cast its lot with the Marts, and a major ramp-up of new store openings would soon be underway. Twenty-plus stores had taught the company a major lesson, however – that in many cases, the typical 80 to 100,000 square foot Murphy’s Marts were too large for their respective trade areas. To rectify this, the company came up with a scalable concept to be used for all Murphy’s Marts going forward. Four basic store footprints were developed and described by the company in 1973.

The “900” series signified the “heavyweights of (Murphy’s) store mix”, being the largest Marts at 98,000 square feet. These were free-standing units, paired with a 30,000 square foot top-name supermarket to create a “true one-stop shopping complex”, and were reserved for the company’s most densely populated markets. The larger floor space would “accommodate broader selections and trade-up priced merchandise at competitive discount prices”. Next were the “800” series stores, 88,000 square foot units that would either be either free-standing or would “anchor a mall-type shopping center”, the company’s preferred setting for the “800” stores, “where available”. Then came the “700” stores, similar in all respects to the “800” stores except for their smaller square footage of 66,000. Here again, mall locations were Murphy’s preference. The company was careful to point out that the “700” stores offered “substantially the same selection of merchandise as the larger ‘900’ and ‘800’ series”, only in smaller quantities. It’s clear that Murphy felt that the “700” stores hit the proverbial sweet spot, and would “play a significant role in (their) future expansion plans”, and that “Present experience, though limited, seems to indicate “700” series Marts are more economical than larger Marts yet are still capable of high volume retailing”. More problematic were the 45,000 square foot “600” series Marts, which “were initially conceived as ‘swing stores’, and could be operated as Murphy’s Marts in some locations and as conventional (G.C. Murphy-branded) stores in others”. (Hey, Pennsylvania’s a “swing state”, isn’t it?) The dual branding idea was scrapped and whatever “600” stores were opened did so as Murphy’s Marts, although their similarity in size to the company’s variety stores led in many cases to customer confusion.

With the new store formats set, the company turned its focus to making up for lost time, rolling out new Murphy's Marts at a much faster pace than before. In 1976-77 alone, 56 new Marts were opened, forty of which were former W.T. Grant locations, picked up in the wake of that company's tragic bankruptcy in 1975. Many of these Grants locations were located in the Southern states. The company was unable, however, to leverage the famous G.C. Murphy name - one of their key strategies in building up the Marts in the Eastern and Midwest states - in the new Southern market areas, due to the relative paucity of G.C. Murphy stores in the Southeast and the fact that their Southwestern stores still went under the Morgan & Lindsey name.

Even in their strongest markets, though, the "Murphy's" name recognition factor was a double-edged sword. The book "For the Love of Murphy's" by Jason Togyer mentions customer frustration with the G.C. Murphy variety stores' higher pricing level as compared to the Murphy's Marts, and the fact that they weren't allowed to return or exchange merchandise purchased from one chain at the other's stores. Several retired Murphy's executives are quoted on this issue, ruefully noting that S.S. Kresge did not experience the same problem. Kmart was different enough in name and meteoric enough (how's that for a measurement?) in its success that the Kresge/Kmart association was largely forgotten in the minds of most consumers by the mid-1970's. And it didn't help that Murphy's newspaper ads continued to routinely promote both chains' sales in the same space, a practice that was finally scuttled in 1979.

By the end of the 1970's, G.C. Murphy was losing money. A November 1979 Business Week article was painfully sharp in its analysis of the company's problems, placing a large chunk of the blame on the increased number of Murphy's Marts, which the company was "still trying to assimilate", due to the fact that it "expanded its Mart operations faster than it could control them". The basic contention of the article was that G.C. Murphy had never recognized "that it runs two distinctly different types of retail businesses". That year, major changes were made, including the forced retirement of Murphy's president, who was replaced by Chuck Lytle, a veteran Murphy executive, amiable and extremely well-liked by the troops. The Marts and variety store operations were finally separated into two groups, and advertising would no longer be shared. Interestingly, the Murphy's Mart store footprint would shrink even more, with "the greatest share of the new units (to) be 32,000 sq. ft to 38,000 sq. ft". Eight of the oldest Murphy's Marts, which at an average 90,000 square feet were gigantic by comparison, were shuttered.

Over the next few years there would be a few more closings, both of Murphy’s Marts (some of the weaker performing ex-Grants stores in the South) and of variety stores. The early 1980’s would also see a couple of major retoolings of the Marts, including an attempt to bolster the quality of the apparel offerings (a perennially weak area for the company) and to update the stores’ décor, the early 70’s green , gold and orange having grown stale by that time. In his book, Togyer likens the updated 1984 Murphy’s Mart look to that later adopted by Target, incorporating “expensive-looking displays lit with baby spotlights” as part of interiors “done over in sleek, corporate white with red and blue accents and simple, handsome signs”. These new signs featured a stylized “M” that looked like a neon tube. A November 1983 Chain Store Age article highlighted some new additions to the merchandise mix as well: “Gitano color-fit jeans, Gloria Vanderbilt black denims and Wrangler cords”, all part of an effort to make soft lines “the central focus of the Marts”. Also, it was mandated that the song “Maniac” from the Flashdance movie soundtrack be played on a continuous tape loop in all Murphy’s Mart adult apparel departments.

These efforts (All except for the “Maniac” song loop – I just made that up.) were paying off. According to the same article, G.C. Murphy sales, despite a store lineup of 19 fewer units, were $872 million for 1983, up six percent from the previous year. Profits, however, were up an astounding 56 percent, a feat the magazine credited to the “increased emphasis on the Murphy’s Mart stores”.

At any previous time in the 20th century, this upturn in fortunes might possibly have been seen as the beginning of an exciting new era – at the very least a “mini golden age” for the Murphy organization. But these were the 1980’s, an era in which the old rules of business were rapidly going by the wayside. Murphy was about to become a victim of its own success.

From a business standpoint, the 1980’s were a drama like none that had gone before. “Hostile takeovers” formed the plot, and “corporate raiders” were the villains. The helpless victims were staid, old-line companies with large reserves of cash and little debt, conservatively run and largely owned by “Gram-and-Gramp”-type investors, who faithfully acquired the stock in small amounts and held onto it forever. All too often, there were no heroes in these real-life tales. Under a hostile takeover typical of those that took place in the 80’s, the corporate raider, or “investor”, would target a company and seek to sow discord among its shareholders, charging inefficiency or malfeasance of some sort on the part of the company ‘s board and management. Well-heeled or well-backed, the investor would begin to acquire blocks of the company’s stock, eventually gaining a controlling interest. At that point, sensing the writing on the wall, the remaining shareholders were usually more than willing to sell their shares. All that was left then was for the raider (excuse me, I mean “investor”) to break up the company and sell it off in pieces, usually resulting in a huge profit. It was a scenario that played itself out time and time again through the 80’s. Eventually, government regulations, prosecutions and (just a theory here) a possible latent desire for respect on the part of the raiders caused the trend to wind down. To learn more, you can find any number of books on the subject, or you can just rent the 1987 movie “Wall Street”, which sums the whole sordid thing up remarkably well. (And the hairstyles are awesome.)

To be sure, The G.C. Murphy Company was an old-line, cash rich, low-debt, (very) conservative company, with investor rolls filled with Grandmas and Grandpas. And nowhere were the corporate raiders more brutal than in the retail world. The most (in)famous of these was Herbert Haft, who in the space of a few years went after Safeway, Federated, Stop & Shop, Eckerd, Kroger, Dayton-Hudson and others, leaving very little time for hobbies, I’m sure. None of these takeover attempts succeeded, but in most cases Haft walked away with a pile of cash and left a lot of damage in his wake. Haft’s basic tactic – he’d buy an interest in a company, threaten a hostile takeover, and refuse to back off unless the company bought back his shares at a huge premium, which they invariably did - came to be known as “greenmail”. He apparently considered G.C. Murphy too small to bother with, as there is no record of any advances made toward them.

Others were interested, however. New Jersey-based investor Arthur Goldberg, characterized as “one of Wall Street’s sharks” by Togyer, had acquired 7.5 percent of Murphy’s stock by early 1984. Just prior to that, Murphy proposed a new policy to its shareholders that would have mandated an 80 percent majority of shareholders to approve the dismissal of any member of the board of directors or a merger with another company. Goldberg sought to defeat the proposal, and when he lost, decided to dump his stock. After some hemming and hawing, Murphy management tried to corral a group of investors friendly to the company to buy Goldberg out, almost putting it together, but ultimately falling short. Goldberg sold out to an apparently bigger shark - Irwin Jacobs, a Minneapolis-based investor charmingly known, according to Togyer, as “Irv the Liquidator”. Eventually Jacobs would rack up an astounding 19 percent of Murphy’s common stock, and all of the power that went along with it.

Now having to deal with a new, even tougher adversary, Murphy brass tried to prevail upon Jacobs to sell his shares back to the company. Togyer’s book describes some fairly humorous scenes of facility tours the company hosted for Jacobs, instructing store and distribution center managers beforehand “not to clean up”, the intent being to leave a shoddy impression - convincing Jacobs he’d made a dubious investment and compelling him to sell his stake back to the company, cheap.

Once again, Murphy attempted to put together a coalition to sufficiently finance the repurchase of its stock, and once again, sadly, it failed. On April 13, 1985, the announcement was made that Irwin Jacobs had struck a deal to sell his G.C. Murphy holdings. The buyer? Rocky Hill, Connecticut-based Ames Department Stores. After an agonizing summer filled with offers and counteroffers, legal maneuverings, jockeying for position and considerable fear and loathing, the deal was finally done on August 6. The G.C. Murphy Company, a proud 90 year old organization, one of America’s retail pioneers, was gone.

Off the bat, plans were announced to close nearly one-fourth of the G.C. Murphy variety stores. Ames’ main interest in the transaction was to gain control of the Murphy’s Marts and convert them to Ames units, a process that ended up taking nearly two years. Immediately, however, management responsibility for the Marts was shifted to Rocky Hill, while the variety store division continued to report to McKeesport.

As expected in most any merger situation, considerable vitriol flowed from both sides of the Ames-Murphy’s merger, which the Togyer book and several press articles I’ve read expound in fascinating detail. Murphy partisans described the Ames operation as follows: “Honky-tonk operations…a mess…a terrible store with terrible merchandising…We should have been the one to take Ames over”. A Wall Street analyst “who asked not to be named” (gee, I wonder why…) took up the cause for Ames in a September 1987 New York Times article: “My assumption is that there’s something really rotten at the Murphy’s operation. Ames was beautifully managed all those years before it bought Murphy’s”. (While reading this stuff, the Ramones song “We’re a Happy Family” kept running through my head. Not at all fitting, I know, but it’s like trying to stop thinking about a hippopotamus when a friend dares you that you can’t!)

The variety store division, which in 1989 consisted of 131 G.C. Murphy stores and 25 “Bargain World” outlets was never a fit for Ames and in August 1989, Ames sold it to E-II Holdings, a company controlled by legendary financier Meshulam Riklis. E-II (later called McCrory Corp.) had pretty much become the repository for the five-and-ten biz by that time, with a stable that included McCrory (which had been a Riklis property for decades under his previous company, Rapid-American Corporation), J.J. Newberry, H.L. Green, S.H. Kress, T.G. & Y and Britts, among others. Despite this, Riklis was probably most famous for his marriage to Pia Zadora, an aspiring actress/singer. Riklis had famously invested several of his McCrory millions in an effort to make her a star. I met the diminutive Ms. Zadora in my youth at a record signing at Atlanta’s Lenox Square while visiting my cousins there in ’83 or so, and thought she was nice, and even better looking in person than in all of her ridiculously expensive publicity. At that point I deemed her new single, called “The Clapping Song” if I remember right, to be a non-deleterious issue.

The G.C. Murphy story’s ending coincides with that of the 20th century, upon the folding of its two successor companies. In 2002, McCrory Corporation, last of the variety store operators with a paltry 200 stores left of its “empire” (a handful of which operated under the G.C. Murphy banner to the bitter end), closed its doors for good.

Ames, a fascinating story in and of itself, closed down in August of that same year. Having acquired several large retailers in the 1980’s and 1990’s, including several chains outright – King’s, Murphy’s, Zayre, Hills – and prime locations from a slew of other defunct chains, Ames struggled for years prior to its demise. The prevailing opinion is that Ames finally collapsed under the weight of the Zayre acquisition, finding the assimilation of the stores far more costly and difficult than anticipated.

A few of the former Ames units are first-generation Murphy’s Marts, sitting vacant to this day, just waiting for an enterprising soul to show up and open “Big Murph’s Flea Market”. You never know.

Shown above are Murphy publicity photos from 1973-4. Ok, by the numbers: First, a great-looking “900” series Murphy’s Mart/Acme combination, this one being the first Mart to open in Baltimore. Next up are an exterior view and the inside mall entrance of the Butler, Pennsylvania, location, an “800” store. Note the fine examples of 70’s art to the left of the inside entrance (the paintings, not the cornstalk man). Following are similar views of the DuBois, Pennsylvania location (right, a “700” store – you’re getting this!), with the young lady in the foreground in the de rigueur plaid flares. Last is a “600” store, from Westernport, Maryland, which leaves me at a loss for words. (If I think of any, I’ll edit the post. Don’t wait up.) Below is kind of a strange one, from 1975. A photo of a similar looking facade (sans the happy-looking store crew in the foreground) is featured in the Togyer book and is captioned in a way that leads me to believe it’s one of the former W.T. Grant stores, fitted with a Murphy’s Mart logo that’s an odd throwback to an earlier version.
****A special note to everyone – thanks for bearing with me through the longer stretches between posts lately. I’m working towards resuming my former blistering, frenetic posting pace (haha) that you’ve all grown accustomed to, and to responding to your comments on a much more timely basis. They are wonderful, informative and greatly appreciated as always. One thing I’ve learned, to my horror, is that a number of responses I’ve written to emails I’ve received over the last month or so (which I definitely have attempted to respond to promptly) have apparently not gone through. I’ve had this problem with Hotmail before. I will try to look them up and resend them on another email account. If you have written me recently or were expecting communication from me on something or another, and are sitting there thinking “Wow, Dave’s been one poor correspondent. He’s been too, too hard to find. I guess that means we ain’t been on his mind!”, nothing could be further from the truth. Please drop me another quick line and I’ll resend my original response. (Or I’ll at least apologize like heck!) Thanks again.****

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Night Falls On Manhattan, 1958

Totally changing the subject for a one-post break before I finish up the final installment of the Murphy’s Mart saga. Between just starting with a new company and the tons of stuff we’re busy with as a family right now, I’m just not feelin’ it. I value your readership too much to put something half-baked on here. Thanks for understanding.

So instead, we’ll revisit E.J. Korvette, the beloved “promotional department store” chain, and the subject of what has far and away been one of the most popular series on this site. This mind-breakingly beautiful night shot depicts their Manhattan flagship store as it appeared in 1958. It’s late, and pretty soon there’ll only be time for window shopping. Even on a cold night, with a storefront like this, I’m up for it!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

From Mayfair to Murphy's Mart

Seven long years after their largest variety store competitors had launched discount store formats, S.S. Kresge’s Kmart and F.W. Woolworth’s Woolco, the G.C. Murphy Company was now in the thick of planning for a discount store venture of its own. The following year, 1970, the first two “Murphy’s Marts” would open.

One of the most interesting aspects of Murphy’s planning, as detailed in the book “For the Love of Murphy’s” by Jason Togyer, was the process of selecting a name for the new line of stores. A number of different possibilities were considered along the way, including “M-mart”, which was rejected quickly, presumably due to its obvious similarity to Kmart. Then there was “Murphy’s Merchandise Mart” which could be nicknamed “M-M-M” or “Three-M’s”, but that one would have risked infringing 3M Company’s trademark, which itself was shorthand for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. (I’m thinking four M’s would have been the charm – just toss “marvelous” or “magnificent” in there!) A mascot was even considered, in this case a “big lumberjack guy holding a sign that said ‘Big Murph’”, which would have been the new chain’s name. Murphy officials “didn’t go for it”, according to the book. Ultimately, the “mart” idea prevailed, and since “Murphy’s” was common parlance for the company’s stores as it was, the path of least resistance was to combine the two. “Murphy’s Mart” it would be.

Murphy’s corporate architect, Ralph Barlow, developed a very nice design for the new Murphy’s Mart’s, making excellent use of color and texture within the fairly restrictive parameters of discount store design. “Inside, he painted the marts in deep, rich shades of green, gold and orange; outside, the facades received deeply sculptured metal panels in the same bold colors” went the description in the Togyer book, which contrasted them with the “plain white Kmarts”.

The stage was set for a mid-1970 opening of the first store in Harmar Township, Pennsylvania, a “semi-rural” area north of Pittsburgh, near the Allegheny Interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that was evolving into a suburb. The store was even named “Store #801”, signifying its status as the first Murphy’s Mart. As fate would have it, however, the Harmar Twp. location ended up being the chain’s second unit to open due to a unique opportunity that presented itself.

Three years earlier, in 1967, a giant (for the time) department store complex called Mayfair South Shoppers’ Forum had opened in Bethel Park, a south suburb of Pittsburgh. (There was also a “North” version of it in north suburban McCandless Township.) Within a couple of years, the Mayfair business failed and the large, attractive, one-story department store building (160,000 square feet) sat empty. Despite some reservations, Murphy management saw the opportunity not only to launch “the Marts” several months ahead of the original plan, but also the benefit of having coverage in two key suburban areas from the near get-go. A deal was struck to acquire the Mayfair property, the necessary renovations were carried out, and Barlow’s interior decor package was implemented. The first Murphy’s Mart, Store #802, opened in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania on May 27, 1970. Togyer’s book cites the designated grand opening giveaway for the early Marts – a plastic laundry basket (good to fill up with other stuff, no doubt!).

The Bethel Park store was unique in that it was an entire shopping complex, which according to an article in the Uniontown Morning Herald-Evening Standard article featured a greenhouse/garden center called “Arcadian Gardens”, a Firestone Tire Center and a Winky’s Drive In, the latter two of which are visible at the front edge of the parking lot. Inside the store were departments that would be common to all Murphy’s Marts, as listed in the same article – “Fashion Accessories; Fashion Apparel; Men’s and Boys’ Furnishings; Sweets n’ Eats; Music – TV’s – Photo; Writings and Wrappings; Knit n’ Stitch – Home Furnishings – Domestics; Housewares and Home Improvements; Toys and Hobbies; Tobacco Shop; Sporting Goods and Accessories. (I think I’ve used up this site’s entire allotment of semicolons in that last quote – great, I’ll probably have to pay for some “premium” version of Blogger now!) Oh, and “a full-line major appliance department (was) planned”.

Just under two months later, on July 22, the Harmar Twp. Store opened. This was the first “true” Murphy’s Mart prototype, and over the first couple of years of the banner’s existence, most of the Marts were cast in its mold. Typically, the “Murphy’s Mart” portion ranged from 80,000 to 100,000 square feet, but the buildings also contained another 30,000 square feet or so to be leased out to a “national or strong regional food chain for supermarket operations”, as the company put it in their 1973 annual report. In the Pittsburgh area, Giant Eagle was the preferred partner, and later on when the Marts entered Baltimore, an Acme Market usually rode shotgun. Other areas featured other chains – the Defiance, Ohio Murphy’s Mart, for example, was paired with an A&P.

Two and a half years after the first Murphy’s Mart opened, there were ten stores in total – eight in the greater Pittsburgh area and two in the Youngstown, Ohio area. In next few years, the pace of new openings would increase and the geographic footprint of the Murphy’s Marts would be significantly expanded. Along with that, however, would come major changes in the Murphy’s Mart format to address the tough mid-70’s American economy and to rectify some faulty assumptions the company made that only became apparent after time. They had finally made their start, though.

In a way, I think it’s a shame they didn’t go with “Big Murph”- that would have been memorable. I can envision a costumed Big Murph standing there, Disney World style, handing out laundry baskets to customers on opening day. Scary, no doubt, but memorable.

The photos above are from 1970. First is an aerial view of the first Murphy’s Mart in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, followed by one of the second location in Harmar Township. The third and fourth photos, showing excited (and a few dazed) shoppers with death grips on their free laundry baskets and a view of the checkouts are from the Bethel Park location. I believe the rest of the photos, showing various departments (note the targets in the sporting goods section, something that’s in evidence in several similar photos from other chains on this site – was archery that big back then?) are from the Harmar Township store.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

G.C. Murphy - Dime Store Pioneer

From the moment of its founding in 1899 until the curtain came down nearly 90 years later, the G.C Murphy Company was first and foremost one thing – an operator of variety stores. Known colloquially as “five-and-tens” or “dime stores”, variety stores were giant forces in American retailing throughout most of the 20th century. Virtually every retail chain that sells general merchandise at “less than full price”, from one end of the spectrum (Walmart) to the other (any chain with the word “dollar” in its name) can trace part of its heritage, either directly or by influence, to the variety stores.

George Clinton Murphy was a native of Indiana County, Pennsylvania, an area located about 60 miles west of Pittsburgh, known best today as the boyhood home of actor James Stewart. Born there in 1868, Murphy would leave the area as a young man to go to work for J.G. McCrorey (the “e” was soon discarded) in McCrory’s Jamestown, New York variety store, some 150 miles north of Murphy’s hometown. Not long after Murphy joined the firm, McCrory sold Sebastian Spering Kresge, a salesman who had called on his store, an interest in the firm. Murphy was put in charge of mentoring Kresge in the business, traveling with him to Memphis to help Kresge open a new McCrory-Kresge store. Obviously, Murphy did a good job of showing him the ropes, as Kresge would later go on to become one the all-time retailing legends. In early 1899, Murphy left the McCrory-Kresge firm to start up his own store in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a town much closer in to Pittsburgh. (A few short years later, Kresge and McCrory would part ways, running their own namesake firms afterward.)

Within five years, the G.C Murphy Company would have 14 stores in the greater Pittsburgh area, all reporting to the McKeesport home base. Before long, Murphy’s ascendancy came to the attention of the then 76-store strong F.W. Woolworth organization, a company that was expanding rapidly into several major American cities (at that point mostly in the Northeast) through acquisition. In 1911, Woolworth would consolidate those many acquisitions into what would become the modern F.W. Woolworth Company, which, like S.S. Kresge Co. would become a 20th century American retailing titan. In mid-1904, Murphy sold his young chain to Woolworth, who insisted on the proviso that Murphy would not operate a five and ten cents store in their territories.

Note that the agreement said “five and ten cents store.” It did not say “five through twenty-five cents store”, which is exactly what Murphy proceeded to open, just down the block from one of his old stores that was now a Woolworth’s. Soon, Murphy’s new company had ten stores, one in downtown Pittsburgh and the rest in surrounding towns.

Tragically, Murphy would not live to see his company’s greatest successes. In 1909, he passed away suddenly at the age of 41. With no succession plan in place and a failed public offering of the stock, the company floundered for the next couple of years.

At this point, J.G. McCrory reentered the picture, at least briefly. Considering a possible buyout of the Murphy company, McCrory sent his deputy (and cousin) John Sephus “Seph” Mack to look into the possibility. Mack returned with a most enthusiastic recommendation in favor of a buyout. When McCrory balked for no apparent good reason, Mack began to formulate plans to acquire Murphy himself, enlisting the help of friend and fellow McCrory manager Walter Shaw. Of course, this would entail their resignations from McCrory, which took place in short order. In February 1911, the two men closed the deal to acquire the G.C. Murphy Company, and for the next nearly 60 years, either a Mack or a Shaw would be running the show.

Mack and Shaw had "complementary" personalities, with Mack called “the architect” and Shaw “the engineer”, according to the book “For the Love of Murphy’s”, a wonderful history of G. C. Murphy written by Jason Togyer, that serves as the source of most of the information in these Murphy posts. Mack’s hard driving personality and Shaw’s people skills made for a powerful combination that would help facilitate dramatic growth for Murphy in the ensuing years.

Murphy pursued some interesting policies that set them apart from their dime store compañeros, including the implementation of a much higher “price ceiling” in many of its stores, both literally and figuratively. As far back as the early twenties, many Murphy stores had a second floor which featured all manner of goods priced from 25 cents to a dollar, while down below the normal 5-to-10 cent price point was the rule. After some years of back-and-forth on this policy, the company was finally convinced it was a winner with customers and made it permanent, going so far as to move everything down to the main floor. By contrast, Woolworth’s price cap remained at twenty cents until 1935.

Another point that found Murphy at odds with the competition was the company’s store location strategy. Whereas Woolworth sought to establish coverage in such major markets as New York, Philadelphia and Boston, Murphy expanded their geographic base far more slowly, avoiding the “jump and backfill” approach, preferring instead to shore up their base in the industrial towns of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, long before the “rust belt” was rusty. Despite the intervention of a major depression and then a world war, these towns came through for Murphy year after year. By the mid-30’s, with nearly 200 stores in the chain, Murphy’s average per store sales and profits were far higher than Woolworth’s.

The 1940’s saw several leadership transitions within the company. Seph Mack passed away in 1940, and the chairmanship passed to his cousin Edgar Mack. Upon his death six years later, the top job went to Walter Shaw, Seph Mack’s original partner in the business. Despite these transitions, Murphy’s continued to grow, with the average store size increasing significantly through the 40’s.

In 1951, G.C. Murphy acquired the Morris 5 & 10 Cent Stores, a Bluffton, Indiana-based chain of 71 variety stores. This proved to be an excellent move for Murphy, giving them a leadership position right out of the box in Indiana, a state that adjoined their existing market area. It was timely as well, as it provided a hedge against some major labor strikes that occurred around this time near their highly manufacturing and mining-based home turf. If there was a downside to Murphy’s store location strategy, it was a particular vulnerability to strikes, which of course affected the purchasing power of their loyal, largely working-class customer base.

Another leadership change took place in 1953, when the second generation took over. Jim Mack, son of Seph Mack, had his father’s hard driving style combined with a Harvard education, but according to the Togyer book had a presence that a number of Murphy employees found intimidating. Also Mack’s philosophy was very conservative in respects that would take their toll on Murphy over time. For example, Murphy was exceedingly slow to convert to self-service. Many of their fellow variety chains (along with most major supermarkets) had already done this, and the practice was met with overwhelming acceptance from consumers. Secondly, Mack was utterly disdainful of discounting, even banning the use of the word in Murphy’s stores. In the early 50’s this wasn’t a big problem. Ten years later, with Mack still in place, resolute and attitude unchanged, it certainly became one, given the 1960’s startlingly different retail climate.

In contrast, Mack spearheaded an interesting development for Murphy – the acquisition of several chains in the Southwest, far outside of the company’s traditional operating areas. The largest was the 1959 buyout of Morgan & Lindsey, a Monroe, Louisiana based chain of 92 variety stores in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. Then there were a slew of “junior department store” (along the lines of a medium-sized Penney’s, for lack of a better description) acquisitions in Texas over the next several years - Cobb’s - four stores in west Texas, Bruner’s - 28 stores in San Antonio, Morris Dept. Stores – 13 stores in Dallas, and Terry Farris, with 17 stores in McAllen, Texas, just above the Mexican border.

The latter acquisitions proved to be disastrous, due to Murphy’s lack of understanding of the nuances of the shopping culture in Texas cities, and the very different requirements of operating junior department stores as opposed to variety stores. (Wait, did I just say “nuances” and “Texas” in the same sentence? Ok, we’ll call this one a “draft”. No offense, fellow Texans!) Worse yet, many name brands that had been longtime suppliers of these chains, including such mainstays as Levi Strauss, bailed when they learned of the new ownership by Murphy. They feared that their products would somehow end up in the Murphy dime stores, as Togyer mentions in his book. Murphy elected to supply its own house brands to the stores as a replacement, including their “Big Murph” jeans (I’m really hoping there wasn’t a “Lady Murph” brand, but it takes a lot to surprise me these days!). This practice “more or less ruined (the stores)”, a former executive told Togyer.

The Morgan & Lindsey stores, being true 5-and-10’s, fared better, but there was a fair amount of animosity between longtime M & L local store operators and the McKeesport-based Murphy brass that took some years to quell. Wisely, Murphy opted to keep the Morgan & Lindsey name, probably based on their experience with the smattering of G.C. Murphy stores opened in the Southeastern states, where the company’s poor name recognition put a damper on sales.

By the late 50’s, the standard G.C. Murphy stores were well-oiled machines. Downtown stores in their core Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic markets continued to sustain the company. As with other “five and ten” chains, the store cafeterias, without a doubt among the most beloved aspects of the Murphy stores and the subject of some of the fondest anecdotes in the Togyer book, were a major source of profits and an all-important traffic driver for the stores.

This was especially true in the company’s “flagship” stores, a class that included gigantic G.C. Murphy stores on Fifth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh (“Store #12”, pictured first above) and Washington, D.C. (“Store #166", located at between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets). The Pittsburgh store, for example, took up an entire block, and was remodeled at least ten times between 1931 and 1950 according to the Togyer book. In the 1960’s, this store was the site of a number of exciting promotions, including live in-store broadcasts by local DJ’s. Also, they leased space to a “full-time” fortune teller and all manner of other sideshows. Murphy even leased out one corner of the store a meat market. By virtue of their great locations in bustling sections of town and their well-earned “ local landmark” status, these stores were excellent performers for the chain well into the 1980’s, years after the company’s other stores began to struggle.

By the early 1960’s, however, it was another story for the rank-and-file small town and suburban G.C. Murphy stores. The discounting trend was in full swing, and the greatest pinch was being felt from their direct competitors – F.W. Woolworth’s Woolco stores, and to a much greater extent, S.S. Kresge’s Kmarts. Sensing an opening wide enough to drive a (hundred-thousand square foot discount store) through, Kresge invaded Murphy’s backyard and “erected Kmarts at all four compass points around Pittsburgh”, as Togyer puts it. Did Murphy defend their turf by opening large discount stores of its own? No. Not yet, at least.

Instead, Murphy sought to redefine the variety store concept, modernizing it to fit the changing lifestyle of the 1960’s consumer. The new stores would be called “A-A” (double-a) stores, featuring upgraded lighting and signage and bolder color schemes, but most importantly would employ a radically different approach to merchandising. Departments would be reorganized into “themed groups” to create a “boutique store” feeling, as described in the Togyer book, which describes a typical department – the “Entertainment Center”, as including “not just records, radios and television sets, but books, magazines craft supplies, musical instruments, and cameras”. The A-A stores would be larger but would actually carry fewer items than the typical Murphy store, and managers were required to ax items that fell below a certain sales threshold. Also, the A-A stores would be allowed to sell at deeper discounts than the standard Murphy stores. The bold new plan caught the attention of Chain Store Age, whose December 1967 issue consisted almost entirely of Murphy coverage. The magazine’s cover photo featured Murphy’s top executives huddled around a set of A-A store concept drawings, a banner headline excitedly proclaiming “G.C. Murphy’s On the Move Again!”

By the time Murphy had converted 10 percent of its 500-plus stores to the A-A format, they realized they had a bomb on their hands. Customers resented the fact that prices were higher at regular Murphy units than at the A-A stores, causing a public relations headache. More than that, they resented the fact that their beloved Murphy store carried far “less variety” than before. Even though the A-A stores carried more stock, they had fewer individual items (in today’s retail terminology, fewer stock keeping units or “SKU’s”). Beyond this, the A-A program offered little in the way of a panacea for the hammering the company was taking at the hands of the discounters.

Sadly, it took the 1968 death of Jim Mack, Murphy’s chairman, before the company embarked on a real solution to that problem. Unbeknownst to Mack or almost anyone else in the company, plans were surreptitiously being drawn up for a Murphy-owned discount concept. The very day after Mack’s passing, according to the Togyer book, the discount store plans came out of the drawer. The battle was about to be joined.

These are vintage G.C. Murphy publicity shots. First up is Store #12, the downtown Pittsburgh flagship, circa Christmastime 1973. Originally opened in 1930, the store was wrapped in the pictured “handsome streamlined façade” sometime in the late 40’s/early 50’s. The second photo, from 1968, shows the Annandale, Virginia store with an arcade-style facade that brings to mind some of the Memco stores that would open not far from there a few years later. Third, also from 1968, is a more conventional store from Beckley, West Virginia. Fourth, from 1973, a beautiful store with a fine colonial look from the quaint western Pennsylvania borough of Ligonier. Fifth, 1973 as well, is the interior entrance of the Monroeville, Pennsylvania store, a very inviting sight indeed. With fresh popcorn and pretzels beckoning, this one would have been hard to pass by. For sure, they knew what they were doing!

Pictured below, in 1968-dated photos, are two interior scenes from Murphy’s new “A-A” stores. The A-A concept may not have flown, but in my opinion, the designs represent a very nice updating of the variety store idea, and I particularly like the abovementioned lighting, bolder colors and modern (for the time) signage font. Immediately below is the wonderful candy department, scales at the ready.

Last is the “Entertainment Center” section, where I would have been guaranteed to waste a great deal of time. Portable record players were obviously a hot item (Sure hope the 45 adapters were built in!), and the white-framed portable television sets bring back memories. These rarely had remote control units, and I don’t believe that my family owned a TV with remote control until I was at least in high school. The silver lining to this was it gave people like me a great “hardship story” to use in the future – the modern-day version of Grandma and Grandpa’s “trudging through the snow for five miles to school every day, in worn-out shoes, uphill both ways” kind of thing. For me, it’s “Whenever we wanted to change the channel, we had to actually get up and go do it! It was horrible! You guys don’t know how lucky you are!” My kids shudder.

Then of course there was the records section, the main attraction for me from about age seven on. I’ve spent a good bit of time squinting at this photo trying to identify the album covers. (My personal area of expertise is covers of the 1970’s and 80’s, but I’m reasonably competent with the few years before and after that range. It’s too bad I couldn’t have minored in this in college – my GPA would have been greatly enhanced!) I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only been to call one so far, but it’s a great one – the 1968 blockbuster “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison”, fourth album from the far left on the top row. I’ve been a Cash fan for years - he was an artist who refused to ever let himself be bracketed. And much of his best work was done in the last ten years of his career, an enviable feat. If anyone can squint harder than me, let me know if you figure any of the other covers out!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Winter Sunset On Murphy's Mart

The sun sets on the Appalachian Mountains on a crisp, beautiful evening in early 1971. In the foreground is the Murphy’s Mart (yes, there’s an apostrophe-s in there, mind you) at Laurel Mall, which was located on Route 119 South between Uniontown and Connellsville, Pennsylvania. This store was the third Murphy’s Mart, opening on February 24th of that year.

“Murphy” of course was the G.C. Murphy Company, “The Pride of McKeesport, (Pittsburgh area) Pennsylvania” – a well-loved variety store chain with over 500 locations at the time, predominantly in the Eastern and Midwest states, but with a sizable base in the South as well, mostly due to a number of buyouts of existing chains. Murphy was a late entrant into the discounting world, having opened the first Murphy’s Mart in 1970, eight years after a couple of its main competitors, Kresge and Woolworth, jumped in. For the next twenty years the Marts would operate, with varying levels of success. Eventually most became Ames Department Stores, and eventually most of those, history.

Including this one, which stands vacant today to the best of my knowledge.

But in 1971, all was bright. And this store would definitely qualify for the ever-growing list of stores I wish I’d seen in their prime. (As the sun sets after a deep snow, that is. Click to enlarge this beauty, if you haven't already.) I’m thinking of putting out bids for someone to design a time machine. Any takers?