Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Have A Nice Day" at Wards!

“Like, wow, Montgomery Ward!” read the headline in a March 1970 Business Week article. The article chronicled Wards’ quest for relevance with the coveted 18 to 34 age bracket, and by all appearances they were starting to break through. These efforts encompassed both of Wards’ main lines of business – the legendary catalog and the (now almost exclusively mall-based) stores.

On the catalog side, Wards’ management took a bold step, shoving aside their standard phone book-sized biannual catalog to issue a special 75-page fashion-only edition aimed at the young adult market. The company bypassed their staff copywriters in favor of an outside advertising agency (sparking a minor mutiny that unfortunately reached the press) and photography by Victor Skrebneski, the world famous Chicago-based fashion photographer. The catalog, with pages “crowded with flower-generation youths and pearly-toothed girls facing front and looking ‘now’”, featured the following opening text as quoted by Business Week: “There’s never been a generation like this one before…This generation wants something different out of life. And it’s going to get it.” (Looks like I’m not the only one who likes to begin sentences with “and.”) In Chicago, Wards took the expensive step of introducing the catalog in a 90-minute TV special that would feature “a lot of skin” according to a beaming Skrebneski. The catalog was an unprecedented success, with 50 percent of orders coming in to Wards via direct mail versus the normal 15 percent. “…about half the sales (were) in women’s fashions, predominantly sportswear.”

This was coupled with a hip new approach to store merchandising, perhaps nowhere more so than the “glossy new chrome-and-Day Glo boutique” Wards opened in Sandburg Village, “a multi-stewardessed, young-executived apartment complex on the Near North Side”. (I guess the proper term today would be “multi-flight attendanted.”) Sandburg Village, a set of nine massive, modern high-rise apartment buildings that opened in 1963, had a somewhat controversial origin. A high-profile urban renewal project for which blocks upon blocks of old buildings were leveled (the entire expanse between Clark, LaSalle and Division streets and North Avenue), the goal of Sandburg Village was to stem the flow of middle-class residents to the suburbs. Although many of the buildings demolished to make way for the complex would today be candidates for historic preservation, Sandburg Village is looked back upon as an important factor in the city’s “hoped-for revitalization”, as author J. Linn Allen put it. In the early 70’s Sandburg Village was the epitome of Chicago trendiness, and I can remember my parents taking us to their huge annual outdoor art fair on a couple of occasions. I’d like to think that I looked at the various art pieces and thought “Hmm, I wonder if these are MirĂ³ or Braque-inspired?”, though undoubtedly it was more along the lines of “When do we eat?” Veering back on topic, the Sandburg Wards unit, with its hot fashions and “psychedelic light displays” was another success.

The new look was not restricted to a handful of special units, but was soon rolled out nationwide. By 1972 many stores sported the Wards equivalent of rainbows, sunrises and smiley faces. These changes coincided with a new type of store construction that Wards termed the “modular” format. These stores, the first of which opened in Rockford, Illinois in 1970, were built using a special process of prestressed concrete (manufactured by a subsidiary of Wards) that cut the construction time of a typical Wards store in half, according to a November 1970 Business Week article. With somewhat smaller square footage than the huge stores the company had been building, large appliances and other items such as riding lawn mowers were displayed as floor models, with customer purchases shipping out from a centralized warehouse instead of the store. Fifteen “modular” stores were opened in 1970, with plans for 24 more in 1971 and 30 more in 1972. Certainly this was an important development in Montgomery Ward’s race to compete with Sears and JCPenney.

1972 also saw the celebration of Wards’ 100th Anniversary and the kickoff of the “Century 2” advertising campaign, a year-long series of special promotions that met with brutal price competition from Sears and Penneys. As expected, the occasion called for a commemorative book, but in Wards’ case, two books saw the light of day. The first, entitled “1872-1972: A Century of Serving Consumers – The Story of Montgomery Ward”, was a nice bit of puffery, a slim softcover book filled with sepia-toned photographs, “official version” history and an optimistic eye toward the future. The second, far more interesting, book was “Satisfaction Guaranteed: An Unconventional Report to Today's Consumers” by freelance writer Booton Herndon. Over a two-year period, Herndon was given up-close access to Wards’ top executives, but also spent a great deal of time in the trenches with middle managers, store employees and customers. The resulting 300-page book, described by Business Week as “an unabashed defense of mass merchandising at a time when business (was) taking its lumps from consumerists”, was a brutally frank look at the business, the challenges it faced, and the sea change in consumer mentality that characterized the early 70’s. Filled with surprisingly candid revelations and occasional salty language, it proved to be a bit more than Wards executives bargained for, and certainly wasn’t what one would expect from a commissioned book. Entertainingly written, it’s one of my all-time favorites in the field.

“Century 2” got off to a roaring start for Wards, who racked up the strongest sales figures (and a 45% increase in earnings) in their history in 1973. The painful, 15 year-long process of rebuilding the company finally began to pay off. For the first time, every one of the company’s 22 metropolitan districts posted a profit. The smiley faces, rainbows and sunrises took residence in the Montgomery Ward boardroom, however, when the big news rolled in – Wards’ smashing performance as compared to their two main rivals. Wards’ sales for the year were up 22 percent compared to Sears 12 percent, and the all-important Christmas sales figures that year reflected double the sales gain over both Sears and JCPenney. Wards president Ed Donnell tipped his hand in a June 1974 Newsweek article – “…we’re not out to catch Sears or Penney, (but) we will certainly narrow the gap…Our goal is to be held in high esteem by our competitors and our customers.”

At first, the wording of Donnell’s statement (listing “competitors” first) struck me as a bit odd, but in light of one of the article’s other points it makes sense. Montgomery Ward was now in the enviable (and for them, unusual) position of being an attractive prospect for high-profile shopping center projects, even those developed by direct competitors. Only a few years back, they were frequently spurned “because of (their) reputation for cheap goods and stodgy merchandising,” according to Newsweek. Clearly, Wards’ “increased esteem” amongst their competitors was opening new doors of opportunity.

As it turned out, shopping center developers weren’t the only ones attracted by Wards’ recent triumphs. In 1973, Mobil Oil Corporation, America’s third largest oil company (behind Exxon and Texaco) and 7th largest company overall, began to secretly acquire the common stock of Marcor, Montgomery Ward’s parent company. Within months, Mobil had amassed nearly five percent of Marcor’s stock, and were hungry for much more. Sunrises, smiley faces and rainbows weren’t part of their game plan.

These publicity photos are from 1972, that most 70’s-ish of years. (I tend to look back at the 70’s as having three distinct eras – the early 70’s were the “real seventies”, the mid-70’s were the “nondescript but the Bicentennial was cool and comic books were still 25 cents” era, and the late 70’s were “the era that should be renamed the ‘Pre-80’s’”. Glad I could help sort this out for you!)Top to bottom, they feature a typical in-mall store entrance and the sportswear department, “The Chain”, a casual menswear department (reportedly a favorite of Lindsey Buckingham), a hip juniors department entitled “Reflections” (With a sign typeface known to graphic designers as Peignot and to the rest of us as “that Mary Tyler Moore font”.) Next up is “Tiny World” (Are they mannequins or real children? Aaiiiee!!) Then, the canary-yellow “Party Papers” stationery department. (I mean the department decor is canary yellow, not the stationery itself. Well, some of it might have been… but I think you know what I’m trying to say.) After that, a very colorful small appliance area, the obligatory shag carpet headquarters, and the large appliance department, filled with shades of Harvest Gold and Wheat. The outdoor power department is next, from an era when lawn tractors looked like… tractors. After that, a barbecue grill display. I’m not sure that putting a plant on top of a grill is a great idea, unless you’re trying to dry it out. Oh, you’re right, this was the seventies. Lastly, the furniture department, arranged in tasteful living room groupings. But taste is an individual thing, I guess…

15 comments:

  1. Tiny World...I think I went on a ride at Disney a bit like that once, replete with equally creepy mannequin-children.

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  2. What a cool looking place. I could live there. Those lawn tractors are so much better looking than today's.

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  3. The yellow appliances are so atrocious, but they bring back such happy memories of my parents' house when I was young!

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  4. And I love beginning sentences with "and" too, Dave. Not to fear. You are not alone.

    Where do I start? These pics are even more groovier than the last set you posted.

    I love the decor in the second photo. Anyone know where I can get a panel-like structure seen in that one? I could really use one for my living room.

    I'd love to see a contemporary spin on The Chain and Reflections at a place like Target, complete with signs and font, I think they would fit in quite nicely.

    The canary yellow in Tiny People and Paper Party is quite groovy, though those child mannequins are a bit creepy. Remember that one photo you posted a while back inside a Bradlee's store with the display mannequins all lined up like zombies? Yikes, I'd hate to see the scene with the kiddie ones!

    On the left side of the photo with the small kitchen gadgets, there appears to be waffle irons that come in different shades. My husband bought an avocado green one just like those pictured at an estate sale for five bucks, though we have yet to actually use it.

    My parents bought a rug from Wards in '89, though by then the color selection was not nearly as interesting or bright.

    And I'd be the type to buy an avocado green bbq and place a plant on it for decoration. It might spruce up the back yard!

    Fun post, Dave!

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  5. Nice set of photos. I'm a skosh too young to have experienced the early seventies, but a lot of that still looked familiar to me from the "pre-80's"-I wonder if our local Monkey Wards stores were out of date or something.

    Didi, I agree that a sort of re-named "store within a store" would work in the clothing department at places like Target. I happen to like some of the stuff I see at Target (I particularly dig their graphic tees), but the plain pipe racks they use don't really entice me to shop there. Well, I shop there because I know better, but if I saw Target as a place to get inexpensive office supplies and stuff I wouldn't think about going into the clothes department.

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  6. Amazing that wringer washing machines were still being offered in 1972 (see the right hand side of the picture).

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  7. Having read Booton Herndon's book back in the 80's (yes I was a geek even then), only one thing remains that I recall from it. Apparently, Wards had no prohibition on employees dating other employees as most other businesses did. I am surprised that did not get them a bunch of harassment suits, maybe no one thought of that in the early 70's. Anyway, after reading the puff book by Herndon, I wondered why Wards seemed so different in reality than it was portrayed in the book. Maybe the decade or so since the book was written was not so good to Wards.

    That furniture department made me search for some eye bleach!

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  8. Kendra – Disney is full of creepy animatronic figures –not even counting Pirates of the Caribbean! ;)

    I haven’t wanted to stare at the pic long enough to figure it out, but I’m pretty sure they are (too realistic) mannequins.

    A.S. – The height of cool, especially for Wards. I’m with you on the lawn tractors – lots of steel and very little plastic in those days, just like the era’s cars.

    Rachel - I agree –I much prefer the modern look where appliance colors are concerned (seems like stainless steel and black are the biggies today), but the harvest golds, avocado, burnt umber, etc., evoke that much simpler time and a raft of good memories.

    Didi – And I’m glad that you do!

    Some of this stuff may be available at thrift stores – you probably have some great ones in the Chicago area. Maybe there’s a special on avocado stuff this week! :)

    The store does seem a bit heavy on the canary yellow, and those mannequins did remind me of the older Bradlees scene.

    Glad that you liked this.

    Doug - My guess is they were a bit out of date chainwide. JCPenney especially seemed to be much more in style, with Sears somewhere in between.

    Target does a pretty solid job with the mid-price clothing they carry, but the “store within a store” concept would be interesting. It seems that many chains through the years have tried that as a last resort, but it would be intriguing to see how a vibrant chain as opposed to one in dire straits might go about it.

    Paul – Wow, great point. Who in the world would have bought one of these in 1972? Certainly someone from the old school (there were plenty of senior citizens around in ’72 that would have spent their young years with a wringer washer at home, and probably a fair amount with just a steel tub and washboard!) . Also, it may have been a solution for homes with well water and a very small holding tank, where a conventional washer wouldn’t work. Sure is anachronistic, though!

    David – The Wards described in Herndon’s book was long gone within just a few years. There was a huge difference between the Wards of 1970-72, when they were near their pinnacle, and that of the early 1980, when the final slide was already well underway.

    The “dating” story is an indicator of how much society has changed since then, and company policies everywhere were extremely lax as compared to today.

    “Eye bleach” – yow!

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  9. The canary yellow with black type scheme of "Party Papers" seems to have inspired the look of Loblaws' "No Name" product line and "No Frills" supermarkets in Canada.

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  10. It was during this period when Wards finally built out stores in their 'modular' format in Wisconsin. Until 1973, the only large-format store I can recall was one store that anchored the Mid-Cities Mall between Manitowoc and Two Rivers. (and this is just through reading stuff online and in old phone directories, not born until a few days shy of '79)

    Two of these so-called 'modular' stores, both around 50-60,000 SqFt were opened in Janesville (Janesville Mall) and my stomping grounds of Fond Du Lac (Forest Mall), respectively, in 1973 and 1974.

    Of course, since my hometown Wards was gone by early 1984, my memories of the store are at best, fuzzy. I recall the exterior more than the interior, but I'm sure the inside looked quite close to these images you posted....Day-Glo, rainbows and smileys in tow during its short 10-year stint. The outside was just as you put forth....preformed concrete slabs making up the walls, with an attached Auto Center flanking the west end of the store. I think our location also boasted a cafeteria-type restaurant, but I'm not sure.

    I only recall going into the store at several entry points...once through the interior mall entryway (we rarely left Wards for the mall via this way....it was always through Prange Way in those days. Hit Wards, get stuff, then drive around back and hit P-Way and the mall for other things), and several times through various exterior entries, including something that I can only describe as a side-corridor through the Auto Center's doorway.

    My mother's old Montgomery Wards' brand avacado green washer/dryer pair, and a mid/late 1970s GTE/Sylvania console stereo, all from my hometown Wards. I'll recall all that stuff vividly any day.

    Been a while since I did comment it seems. I still keep up with the blog constantly, Dave. Always a treat to see these sort of vintage shots, even if they don't help out anymore in drumming up more vivid recollections. It didn't help that by the mid 1970s - mid 1980s Wards was in a virtual freefall, and I was just a month into my 5th year of life when they pulled the plug on my town's location....and pretty much all other WI locations for that matter, save for Green Bay's location.

    I'm sure you'll have THAT part of the story coming soon. I'm interested in pinning down events of the late '70s and early '80s in the company history. I just know those things above, and that Mobil Oil owned Wards during that time.

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  11. The tube racks for clothing generally look tacky and conjure up images of discount stores. The clothing departments in the MW shots actually look attractive. If Monty Wards could have maintained traction with this format, they could have beaten Target to the "cheap chic" image that the latter has made the most of. The psychodelic style of the "chain shop" and "reflections" has surprisingly aged very well, given early 70's fashions.

    The major issue that tainted Montgomery Wards was they had a reputation for poor quality goods, sometimes deserved, sometimes not. Combined with the obvious large geographic voids, Montgomery Wards couldn't overcome being an also ran in comparison to JCPenney and Sears.

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  12. I dunno. 1972 might be too early to be considered the most '70s-ish year. I think 1972 still had a late '60s veneer to them. The '70s didn't really take on a life of their own till '73. '75 or '76 is the most typically '70s-ish year, I think. 1977 was a transition year and '78-'80 were definitely, as you note, an '80s warm-up.

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  13. As usual, this was a very well-written entry. I love reading your blog!

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  14. Love the lawn department pic...they don't make mowers like that anymore!

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  15. Can anyone give me any information on the MOntgomery Ward store that was located in downtown Columbus, Ohio? I have such fond memories of that big store and the people who worked there in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Was the location on Third St. or Fourth St?

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