Saturday, May 29, 2010

Good, Better, Wards!

Thought I’d give linear thinking another shot and resume this long-suspended series on the history of Montgomery Ward. We left Wards just prior to 1960, when they were a couple of years into an exciting new building program, opening sharp-looking stores in new shopping centers all over America. This burst of activity followed a disastrous 17-year period in which the company opened not a single new store, causing Wards to utterly miss out on the first decade of the fabled “postwar boom”. In 1941, Wards was a strong number two in the world of non-grocery retail, with sales just slightly trailing Sears. At the end of Wards’ new store drought in 1958, Sears’ sales were four times those of Wards, and the number two crown (the “shopping salutatorian”, if you will) passed to J.C. Penney Company, leaving Wards in a distant third place. But things were changing now, and though the road would prove to be difficult, at least they were back in the game.

This 1963 publicity photo shows a popular marketing device employed by the national full-line department stores (i.e.: Sears, Penneys and Wards) in the 60’s and 70’s – the “Good, Better, Best” approach. More or less self-explanatory, in essence it meant offering the same basic item in three different grades of materials, as a means of appealing to shoppers of all budgets. That year, Wards made it easy by going to color-coded labeling – red for good, blue for better, gold for best. Virtually everything in their stores - from clothing to paint to household items such as rugs and linens – was sold under this label format. The young woman in blue is picking out a shirt, presumably for her husband, or perhaps boyfriend or fiancé. I see she’s holding the gold-labeled “best” version. An excellent choice – I mean, he’s worth it, right?

If he’s not, I’d suggest she shop at a place that doesn’t have “good, better, best” labeling!


  1. The 17 year hiatus on store construction was ultimately one of the key reasons for the collapse of the Wards. Sears handily widened its lead over Wards while JCPenney emerged as the second place with an image of higher quality with budget friendly conservative fashions in the softlines.

    Montgomery Wards was left out of a lot of major shopping malls as a result of falling behind Sears and Penny's. Paired with a poor quality image by the 1970's, MW was seen as a Sears wannabe. Basically Wards was in the same place Kmart is now in relation to Walmart and Target. The irony of Sears and Kmart having common ownership isn't lost on that analogy.

  2. Yay! Montgomery Ward is back! I'll enjoy reading more about Montgomery Ward, even though the ending isn't pleasant.

  3. I love you site! The only problem I have is tearing myself away.

  4. That's a better looking men's department that I remember Wards having. It looks like the expansion started off strong but faded fast.

  5. Ken – You’re absolutely right. Wards never really did get over the damage done when they took their foot off the gas for 17 years. The story of the Avery era (at least the post-1940 part) is almost surreal to read – a cautionary tale on over-conservatism in business. They spent the rest of their existence playing catch up.

    The Kmart analogy makes a lot of sense, unfortunately.

    Pseudo3D – Finally, right? Wish I could tell it “Bonus DVD” style, with alternate (happy) endings, but that would never fly! ;)

    Anonymous – A very good problem to have, isn’t it? Seriously, thanks very much! :)

    Steve – The stores looked nice, to me, all through the 60’s even into the early 70’s, but from there the dropoff is sharp.

  6. Dave - I just can't imagine a realistic-sounding ending for Wards. Could sound something like this:

    "By the year 2003, the name "Montgomery Ward" was largely a memory, and most of the mall stores were closed for stand-alone stores. After converting Ames stores to Wards, Wards was #2 in discounting, trailing behind Wal-Mart, and beating out Target by a slim margin. Today, Wards is expanding its food options in many of its stand-alone stores, becoming in essence, a hypermarket."

  7. The “good, better, best” thing. I wish some discounters would employ that strategy today. I wouldn't mind having different qualities and price points for items at all. It would help me shop. Though Christmas gifts would be strictly gold [wink, wink].

  8. If they kept doing this until 2000, I bet that people would make snarky comments like "so the red band is Crap, the blue band is Mediocre, and the gold band is Less Mediocre!"

  9. Wards didn't have to copy Sears. If they wanted to be careful, they could have just opened small catalog/appliance stores during the 50's. It would given them a better idea as to where to expand later and would have been easier to shut down if they didn't work out. But to do nothing at all was sheer stupidity.

    Even JCPenney didn't start building full-line stores until the 60's.

  10. What hurt MW also was that they finally decided to expand just when Discount stores were coming into prominance.

    With my grandparents and parents during the 60s and 70s, it was either Sears or discount stores. I used to enjoy looking at the huge toy selections at old discounters like Topps, Korvettes, Kee, etc...

  11. Pseudo – I like that scenario! Better than the real story, as things turned out.

    And it’s nice to have options where mediocrity is concerned. :)

    Didi – I’m surprised that some retailer (to my knowledge at least) hasn’t picked up on that. Some of the best ideas can be taken from the past!

    And gold would go under uh…gold, right? ;)

    Rob – I don’t know if a small catalog/hard goods store strategy would have panned out for them in the long run or not, but I agree it would have been infinitely better than doing nothing.

    I think JCP has done an amazing job through the years of adapting with the times (taking on hard goods in the early 60’s then dropping them in the early 80’s to refocus on fashion). In my mind, no other retailer even comes close. Thanks for the comment!

    Tomcat – Good point – MW’s expansion coincided with the rise of the discounters. Certainly there were other problems as well, but that was one factor, for sure.

    Many Wards stores did have excellent toy departments, though!

  12. Wards was competitive on certain merchandise lines, but basically were seen as a laggard in comparison with JCP and Sears. Penney went into the first generation of large non-enclosed centers during the 50s and established a track record that helped get them into malls (the next generation of shopping center). They also converted many of the dry goods stores into full-lines stores in the cenetrs that retained dominance.

    Wards would have been hadicapped as a hard lines store because of their weakness in areas like tools and major appliances, where Sears was strong. Sears probably was perceived as better for tires and automotive although their products were very uneven (lousy tires for a long time, for example).

    Wards also adopted a funny combination of markets--they went into Akron & Canton, but not the larger Cleveland market (although they had catalog pick-up stores there). In places like LA, they didn't achieve the level of density and saturation that might have helped them overcome their generally second rate locations.

  13. The years of Wards ownership by Mobil Oil didn't help much either.

  14. Im sure you will mention the "GE Capital" ownership of Montgomery Wards and the continuous decay and finally the demise of this United States retail institution.