Saturday, November 6, 2010

It's the Montgomery, Not the Ward

“Well the first thing you know
Mobil had some bucks to spare,
Kinfolk said "That drillin’s such a bear!"
Said "Stores and catalogs are where you oughta be"
So they loaded up the stock
And they bought Montgomeryyy…
Ward, that is…..”

(With apologies to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. And anyone still reading this post.)
To be sure, the biggest story of the 1970’s for Montgomery Ward was their acquisition by Mobil Corporation. After 96 years as an independent company followed by six more as the “senior partner” in the holding company Marcor, Wards was about to become a division of a company many times its size.

As mentioned, Mobil Corporation, known at one time as Standard Oil Company of New York, was in 1974 the country’s third largest oil firm and seventh largest company overall. In 1973, Mobil acquired 4.5% of Marcor’s (corporate parent of Wards and Container Corporation of America, a packaging company) stock on the open market, more-or-less flying under the radar of the press and government regulators alike. In June 1974, Mobil went public with its desire to acquire control of Marcor, with the stated goal of diversifying its business.

It could easily be said Mobil’s timing wasn’t the greatest - trying to invest profits outside of oil exploration when the oil crisis of 1973-4 was still vying with Watergate in the headlines. In fact, the shortage had technically been “over” for only a couple of months at that point, and the resultant higher gas prices were here to stay. Reading then-current newspaper and magazine articles about Mobil’s offer to buy Marcor, though, you get the feeling their execs knew exactly what they were about to get into.

Expected as it was, the political backlash was indeed strong – Wisconsin congressman Les Aspin, according to the Chicago Tribune, warned that a merger “would result in a restraint of trade” since Montgomery Ward also sold tires, batteries, auto accessories and gasoline (in some cases) at its auto centers. Senator Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire was “absolutely outraged” that Mobil would “spend three-fifths of its last year profits to buy a non-energy enterprise.” Minnesota Senator (and soon-to-be vice president) Walter Mondale was quoted as saying the transaction “clearly indicate(d) the big oil companies don’t know what to do with their excess profits.” As late as April 1979, according to Business Week, President Carter weighed in on the Mobil/Marcor merger (which had actually occurred months before Carter was even elected to the presidency), citing it as a textbook example of the need for a windfall profits tax on the major oil companies.

Despite this, Mobil pressed forward with a tender offer for 51 percent of Marcor, with the blessing of Marcor’s upper management, conditioned on the fact that Mobil would allow Marcor’s existing management to run the day-to-day operations. In August 1974, the merger was consummated, although the U.S. Justice Department would continue to review it. Wards now had a “rich uncle Mobil”, according to the Chicago Tribune. In March 1976 Mobil (which already owned 54 percent of Marcor at that point) moved to acquire the rest of the company, and three months later the deal was finally done.

For the first couple of years following the Mobil merger, Montgomery Ward, still riding a wave of success that started in the early 70’s, contributed respectably to their new parent company’s profits. By 1979, however, things had taken a sharp turn for the worse, aided in no small part by the dismal economic conditions (with a second oil crisis topping the bill) that characterized that year. Another problem had its seeds in Wards’ initial turnaround strategy of the early 1960’s, and only became apparent over time – the company’s continual desire to emulate Sears. Indeed, nearly all of Wards’ key management had come from Sears, their desire to one-up the ol’ alma mater fueled by a strange mix of admiration and revenge. For many of those years it was a valid strategy, while Sears cruised along from strength to strength through the 60’s into the early years of the following decade - definitely a style to follow. Problem was, by 1979, Sears was having huge identity problems of its own, and both Sears and Wards were facing intensified competition from specialty stores, home centers and the Relentless Advance of the K-Monster.

Alarmed by these developments and eager to protect their investment, Mobil stepped in “with a new financial package and encouragement to proceed with a markedly different marketing strategy”, according to a July 17, 1980 Business Week article. The financial package was an interest-free $200 million “loan”, and the marketing strategy involved a small company that Wards had purchased back in 1973 – Miami-based Jefferson Stores, Inc., a discount store chain with seven stores at the time Wards bought them out. “React(ing) as if Jefferson were the retail equivalent of an oil strike”, as Business Week later put it, the mandate from Mobil was clear – “high quality discount units”, along the lines of Dayton-Hudson Company’s Target stores, would be Montgomery Ward’s future.

Whatever their behind-the-scenes reservations may have been, the Wards executives were on board, at least publicly. “The mass merchandiser has been doing poorly in comparison with the discounter, so we’re making a major change in our strategy” said Gordon Worley, Wards’ executive VP, and CEO Ed Donnell went so far as to praise checkout lanes, long a staple of discounters and anathema to department stores – “There is no question that the public likes a checkout store, assuming the store does a good job of categorizing merchandise and providing help where it’s needed”. Within 18 months, Mobil had quintupled the size of the operation, now called Jefferson Ward, to over 40 units, an “unprecedented expansion in retailing” as Business Week put it. Plans were in place to convert one-third of Montgomery Ward’s existing stores to the Jefferson Ward model.

The result, unfortunately, was chaos. The burden of servicing the new stores fell to the tiny Jefferson staff. Overwhelmed by the hugely increased store count, mistakes were rampant. Stores received “too many or too few goods”, according to Business Week, and the Jefferson people had no experience in dealing with the furniture, high-end apparel and other unfamiliar Ward staples they were now “forced” to carry. On top of that, the chain’s expanded geographic footprint (into brutally competitive markets such as Philadelphia and portions of New Jersey) posed new problems for the Jefferson buyers, who were used to stocking for balmy South Florida climes. Winter coats, for example, arrived on the racks of Jefferson Ward’s new Northern stores a month after the winter selling season began – and that’s exactly where most of them stayed. The net result was that Jefferson had turned from “a small moneymaker” to a fairly good-sized loss operation. The strategy that was supposed to save Wards’ bacon was burning it.

Flummoxed, Mobil turned to someone outside the insular Sears/Wards universe to set the ship right. In March 1981, the company appointed Stephen L. Pistner as president of Montgomery Ward. Pistner, who held the same position at Dayton-Hudson Corp. at the time he was recruited to run Wards, had a heavy claim to fame in the retail world. In 1973, Pistner became head of that company’s Target discount store division, an operation with great potential but sorely lacking in direction. Pistner was instrumental in fostering the culture and sense of style (right down to advocating the stores’ pervasive red color scheme, against all conventional wisdom of the day) that laid the foundation for Target’s current success. Reputed for straight talk, Pistner “was attracted to strong personalities (in managers)” and allowed them considerable latitude “as long they delivered”, he told author Laura Rowley, author of the book On Target.

Upon arriving at Wards, Pistner soon learned that the company’s turnaround strategy “was poorly researched, ill-defined and miserably executed” as Business Week phrased it, and he immediately killed the plans to convert 115 standard Montgomery Ward stores to the Jefferson Ward format. Instead, the new Wards image would be that of a “hybrid merchandiser”, with “the operating disciplines of discounting and the presentation concepts of specialty merchants”, precisely the two types of competitors that were giving the company fits at the time.

There would be changes in the merchandise mix as well, with a greater emphasis on “lower-margin, high turnover items” such as health and beauty aids, and a move away from big-ticket items. Pistner instituted a “never-out” policy for 1000 core items, presumably a legacy of his Target days. He also commissioned a study of Wards’ customer base that yielded some interesting results –an unexpectedly loyal following of 25-to-40 year old shoppers, for one. “We are loaded with young customers but are not supplying them with what they want”, a “Ward insider” told Business Week. To address the issue, Wards set plans to beef up their offerings of such items as children’s clothes and young adult sportswear, including a Summer 1981 promotion of Izod alligator-logo shirts for a jaw-dropping 19 bucks apiece. (Sure wish I’d heard about that 29 ½ years ago. I could never afford ‘em at regular price, and settled for the JCPenney “Fox” knockoffs instead, in clear violation of the tenets set forth in The Preppy Handbook. Honks me off just thinking about it.)

In late 1982, the company’s 15-year-old “blue bar” logo was retired in favor of a new image. Whereas the old logo featured a smaller-type “Montgomery” stacked over a much larger-type “Ward”, the new logo featured the name “Montgomery Ward” horizontally, typeset in gray Serifa Bold over a burgundy underscore, although there would be several color variants of both in the ensuing years. The goal was to return the emphasis to the company’s full name, according to Chicago Tribune business columnist George Lazarus, who quoted the company’s design director: “Wards is not a unique name in the marketplace. Montgomery is what gives our name distinction”. (My thoughts exactly.)

Two years into Stephen Pistner’s reign, in early 1983, Wards was still losing money and borrowing heavily from its parent company, Mobil. The costly shift in merchandising approach and a host of painful cutbacks (including nearly one-fifth of the company’s employees) were not yet yielding dividends, and rumors swirled that Mobil had lost patience and would soon dump Montgomery Ward. Still, Pistner was adamant in comments to the Chicago Tribune in a March ‘83 article - 1984 would see the company would finally go into the black.

Throughout 1983, nearly 60 existing Montgomery Ward stores received the “Impact II” renovations and a number of new ones, including a 153,000 square foot store at Chicago’s Ford City Mall on Chicago’s southwest side, were opened. As Tribune writer Janet Key noted, however, Wards was far from alone in debuting a “new look” at the time, with Sears eagerly rolling out its “Store of the Future” concept and JCPenney scrapping auto centers and hard goods in favor of fashion.

It must’ve helped though, as Pistner’s profitability prediction (the “Triple-P”, as it were) did come true, with the company posting its first annual profit in 5 years and best Christmas season in longer than that, a January 26, 1984 Tribune article attested. He attributed the chain’s greatly improved performance to the new store designs, which emphasized the “Seven Worlds of Wards” - apparel, automotive, home electronics, home furnishings, appliances, home improvements, and recreation and leisure. The remodeling program would extend through the new year, affecting 65 more stores, and Pistner noted that the focus would now turn towards the company’s 48-store Jefferson Ward chain. “There’s nothing wrong with the basic strategy of upscale discounting, but (Jefferson Ward) is a little out of whack”, he told the Tribune. “It needs to be corrected the way Wards was corrected”.

But by the end of the year, he was gone. On the last day of 1984, it was announced that Pistner had resigned to accept the CEO position at McCrory Stores, the dime store division of Rapid-American Corporation. Speculation as to why he left, of course, was rampant – the possible reasons including frustration at dealing with oil executives as opposed to retail people, or perhaps a sense that his task of returning Ward to profitability was complete and it was time to move on. For his part, Pistner simply said he had received “an exceptional offer”. At McCrory, Pistner would oversee the purchase of the Kresge and Jupiter chains from Kmart Corporation. In 1987, after a falling out with Rapid-American chairman Meshulam Riklis, Pistner resigned. In 1990, he became chairman and CEO of bankrupt Ames, enduring two undoubtedly miserable years there.

To replace Pistner as head of Montgomery Ward, Mobil hired Bernard Brennan, president of Household Merchandising Inc., the parent company of Ben Franklin and T.G. and Y. variety stores and Vons, the Los Angeles-based supermarket chain. This was Brennan’s second tour of duty at Wards, having served previously as a vice president under Pistner. Much of his career, however, was spent at Sears, Roebuck and Co., where his father, grandfather and notably, brother – had worked. I say notable because his brother, Edward Brennan, had recently been appointed CEO of Sears. The Brennan brothers, both heading up legendary yet troubled retailers, were the subject of a great many business stories during the 1980’s as one might expect.

In 1985, with a degree of stability achieved, Mobil began to seriously consider selling off Montgomery Ward. For over two years, Ward had not required additional cash from Mobil, the new merchandising strategy was largely in place, and some of the painful cuts had already been made, including a tiny subsidiary that few knew about – unless you were a kid growing up in the Chicago area, that is. In 1973 Wards had purchased the Golden Bear Restaurant chain, a group of 21 pancake houses throughout the Chicago area, with headquarters in northwest suburban Mount Prospect. I remember these with great fondness, and one thing still stands out after all these years - the napkins, with pictures of “Golden Bear”, stacks of pancakes, and a little song printed on them: “Golden Bear, Golden Bear, it’s a honey of a place where food is fun”, complete with a staff and musical notes. Although I couldn’t read music at that age (not that I’m great at it now), I always had a tune in my head that fit the words. In mid-1984, Wards sold the chain to PepsiCo, who converted many of the locations to Pizza Huts and dumped the rest. Guess I should have saved one of those napkins.

More painful cuts were to come, though. One of those was the discontinuance of the company’s legendary 103-year-old catalog, for decades the very foundation of the business. As Ward president Bernard Brennan was quoted in the New York Times, “Frankly, we see no promise of improvement in our catalogue segment” (“Catalogue” – heh. But this is the Times, you know.) The last Wards catalog was set for December 1985 release. Of course there was the sticky issue of what to do with Wards’ 1,250 small catalog stores, franchised for the most part to mom-and-pop operators. A number of these opted to join a new cooperative formed by former Ward executives called Amity Associated Stores. (I wasn’t able to find much information on these, and can only assume they weren’t around long.) The company’s Jefferson Ward unit, which had gone from panacea to pariah in a relatively short span of time, was also put on the block. In June of 1985, Jefferson’s 18-store Northern Division was sold to Stop & Shop Companies, Inc., for conversion to Bradlees stores.

With most of the subsidiaries and peripheral businesses gone by the end of 1985, Montgomery Ward, then consisting of 300-plus full-line or nearly full-line stores, embarked on a “specialty store” approach, sort of an intensified version of the “Seven Worlds of Wards” with fewer worlds (hardware, plumbing, lawn and garden and toys were now history, according to a New York Times article). They emphasized branding this time - “The Store for Kids” was one, complete with a six-foot tall dinosaur (a little unintended symbolism there?) at the department entrance. “The Appliance Center”, “Home Ideas” and “Auto Express” were others, but the best remembered one today would have to be “Electric Ave.”, Wards’ new moniker for its home electronics department. Not sure what it did for Wards, but no doubt it extended Eddy Grant’s fame by a few years. There were also some unusual joint real-estate ventures – when the company renovated its Gaithersburg, Maryland store, for example, it leased 30 percent of the store’s space to Toys R Us.

Throughout this period, Montgomery Ward’s financial condition continued to improve, firmly convincing Mobil that the time was right to sell. The leading contender, according to Times business columnist Isadore Barmash in a January 1988 article, was Wards’ own management, led by chairman Bernard Brennan. As it turned out, Brennan, who was credited with the company’s sustained prosperity, was a friend of Jack Welch, the legendary chairman of General Electric Company. Welch spearheaded GE’s purchase of RCA (and its television network subsidiary NBC) and moved the company into financial services in a huge way through their GE Capital division, among many other accomplishments. As long as Brennan remained at Montgomery Ward’s helm, the prospects of a GE-financed management buyout were golden. On March 7, 1988, the sale was completed for $3.8 billion.

Through the 1990’s, unfortunately, the company steadily lost focus (and money), and by the end of the decade it was clear to all that the wheels were off the thing. One bad decision followed another – a re-entry into the catalog business through a joint venture with Fingerhut, 1991. A buyout of troubled electronics chain Lechmere, 1994. A 19.6% stake in doomed furniture chain Levitz, 1995. Buying Amoco Motor Club, 1996. The cherry on top came in a May 21, 1996 New York Times article – “Montgomery Ward May Consider Selling Its Retail Stores”. The Montgomery Ward stores, that is. No one was interested in the chain itself, which was understandable considering its dismal performance, although the article mentioned a likely willingness by Sears to snap up Wards’ better store locations.

In July 1997, under the weight of heavy losses and looming debt, and despite cash infusions from GE Capital along the way, Montgomery Ward declared bankruptcy. In November of that year, 47 stores were closed, with more to follow, sadly. In 1999, another new logo was rolled out, but by that time a majority of the buying public had written Wards off, and with the chain’s reduced store base of 250 units, it was an option for fewer and fewer shoppers anyway.

On December 28, 2000, after 128 years in business, Montgomery Ward closed its doors for the last time. The eulogies poured in, highlighting the key moments in Wards history- an integral part of America’s own. There was even a spot on the New York Times editorial page, a rare honor for a retailer.

It has often been said that Wards never really recovered from its voluntary period of stagnation in the 1940’s and 50’s. That the chain fell behind its competitors and permanently lost its standing with the American buying public, despite efforts great and small over the following decades. I tend to agree with this view, to a point. But I also know, from my own personal experience and that of others as expressed on this website and in conversations, that many of us have cherished memories of shopping at Montgomery Ward. For us, in that time and place, it mattered.

The photos above are various publicity shots from Wards’ Mobil-ownership period, mostly from 1974, locations unknown. (Thanks to readers Scott and Kenney for identifying the Wards store pictured in the third photo as the South Park Mall location in Shreveport, Lousiana. The mall has since closed and now houses the Summer Grove Baptist Church. The mall's JCPenney store is now the main sanctuary and the Wards store is a cinema venue for Christian themed-movies. Thanks again to you both for this update!) The last photo depicts the Richardson Square Mall (Dallas area) location, which opened in July 1977. Below, a typical Jefferson Ward store from 1980 and a “new look” Wards (ahem, Montgomery Ward) interior entrance circa 1985.
Thanks for everyone’s patience through this long stretch between posts. Yes, I’ve been busy, but your loyal readership means a lot to me, and I hate letting you down. After all, to paraphrase the Wards guy, it’s not the Pleasant(ness) or even the Shopping that gives us distinction, it’s the Family!

37 comments:

  1. "For us, in that time and place, it mattered."

    For 50 years beginning in 1929, the Montgomery Ward catalog house in Albany, NY definitely mattered. As a child, that huge place WAS Montgomery Ward. There was always the illusion (if not the reality) that every item in the vast Wards catalog was stocked in there, and if not displayed in the retail store, you could order it and have it delivered to the "North Dock."

    Looking back, I believe Albany, and probably the other catalog houses too, were ahead of their time. They were "big box" and "category killer" before anybody was using those terms. They were a major retail venue apart from downtown, with free parking. Ironically, at a very early time, Wards pioneered concepts that would benefit their competitors in the 1950s - the decade Wards sat out.

    Wards had one other advantage in Albany - no major Sears presence until 1966, when Sears opened in Colonie Center, the region's first enclosed shopping mall (and that store still exists today!) As a child, I regarded Sears and Wards as equal, and it probably was the 1970s before I had any concept Wards was "inferior."

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  2. The red brick two story store is Shreveport, LA in South Park Mall. The store still stands, but the mall is now a church.

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  3. The odd thing I remember about M. Wards is that living in the Cincinnati Oh area we did not have any regular M.Wards stores, however we had a M.Wards outlet and there was also one about 45 miles away in Richmond IN. These stores were so junky it was unbelieveable. There was junk I would not took if it was free. Lots of damaged stock here. I always wondered with no stores in the area where all this junk came from?

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  4. The last photo of the second to last Ward's logo is what I remembered as a child. When we lived in Cleveland, Wards was no where in site (*Sight. Get it? Absolutely no pun intended!) Upon moving to Chicago the location at Addison Mall (in my current neighborhood) and later the one on Toughy at Village Crossing in Niles became our staple go tos. My aprents bought stuff there: furniture, clothes, household items, electronics, etc. Somewhere they still have their credit cards.

    In 1973, Pistner became head of that company’s Target discount store division, an operation with great potential but sorely lacking in direction.

    Boy, did that ever change! What a funny wacky circle this is because several weeks ago when you wrote about Wards' stores within a larger store concept, I said some of those youth categories would work for a place like Target TODAY. Funny!

    And just how expensive was IZod in those days? Because 19 bucks in 1981 for one polo spells a heck of lot of money for me. But then again I am the type of person who thinks being cheap cheap, very cheap is trendy all the time not just in bad economic times.

    Lastly, the Family always supports you no matter how long between posts because waiting time in between makes for a very Pleasant payback. Now let me get back to my "Shopping!"

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  5. The Southpark Mall store that Scott mentions is picture here. http://www.labelscar.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/south-park-mall-03.jpg. As he said, the mall is not used as a church. The JC Penney is now the sanctuary and Wards used a soundstage for christian-themed movies.

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  6. Thank you for an excellent history of Montgomery Ward! I pretty much gave up on it after the mid eighties, I did wander through our local store very shortly after the announcement that they would close for good.

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  7. You write the most amazing, compelling stories of any retail blog I read. So no matter how long it takes you to write the next installment, it is always worth waiting for. Keep up the good work!

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  8. These are pretty subtle Montgomery Ward stores. The one I remember from Greensboro was so over the top Seventies that I still have flashbacks five years after it was torn down.

    Seriously though, this is the era of Wards I remember the best. I miss the blue bar logo. It was a period piece, but it was a great piece of logo design.

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  9. Thanks Dave, this final chapter of the Wards story was well worth the wait.

    I find it interesting Wards was trying to emulate Sears. A similar situation existed at Kohl's about 10 years ago (and as far as I know, may still exist). Key management at Kohl's, who had recently been hired away from Target Corp., instituted a number of practices that had worked for them at Target. The difference between Wards then and Kohl's now is that the strategy worked for Kohl's. This is the period Kohl's went from a regional Midwestern retailer to a national chain.

    I do need to pass one thing along. In the tumultuous period of the early 80s, rumors were circulating among the rank and file at Wards that Mobil was purposely keeping Wards performing poorly so Mobil could use them for a tax write-off. (This comes from a sister that worked at Wards in the early 80s.) Obviously, this was probably just the idle talk of disgruntled employees, and there's no way to prove if these rumors were true or not. Looking at the facts, one can make up their own mind.

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  10. Whoa, such a lot of research went into this entry. Interesting read! Relentless advance of the K-Monster ... these days it's the relentless advance of Wally World. Hey, maybe BP can purchase a significant share of Wally stock and we can have the pleasure of watching the superstore that ate America tank (no pun intended)! On a lighter note, I'm cracking up looking at the fashion at the front of the 1985 Montgomery Ward store. What's scary is, I remember such fashion as if it went out of style just yesterday.

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  11. I remember "Jefferson Ward" opening in Richmond. They had a terrible jingle they used to play all the time..."Jefferson Ward, a whole new slant on shopping" emphasizing the slanted logo. I never went in there once. Then it became a Bradlee's but they left the store front the same. They had frequent, unappealing (to me) "Mrs. B" commercials. I finally went in after all of the merchandise was gone and they were closing for good. There was a row of ugly table lamps and a ton of what I think were pachinko machines someone was trying to get rid of, and that was it in the entire cavernous store.

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  12. What a superbly detailed article about the later life of Wards! The first photo on the top of ther article I recognize the shopper family from Robert Hendrickson's 1979 book "The Grand Emporiums".

    You forgot to mention that around the "turn of the decade" (80s to 90s), within the underscore of the logo read "The Brand Name Savings Store". Do you suppose they named "Electric Avenue" after the Eddy Grant hit song? At that time, the specialty stores consisted of The Apparel Store, The Kids Store, Gold 'N Gems, Electric Avenue, Auto Express, Seasonal Shops, and Home Ideas. Later the furniture department within Home Ideas was spun off into Rooms & More.

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  13. Thanks! Definitely worth the wait!

    Our Wards was at Yorktown Mall, in Lombard. I can attest to the shift towards discount brand names for young people, the only thing I remember buying at Wards was a pair of Airwalk skate shoes that were considerably cheaper than the going price(1988, I was 10).

    The Yorktown location remained empty until 2008. Well, it was being used for a used book sale one time I visited Yorktown, but other than that it was empty. Yorktown mall is interesting in that respect: anytime an anchor leaves, it takes up to a decade to fill the space. After Wieboldt's left in the mid-1980s, the space was unoccupied until Von Maur moved in in 1995. They had no such luck with Montgomery Ward's space: after nearly a decade, they tore it down, turned what used to be Ward's mall entrance into a proper mall entrance, and built an outdoor lifestyle center where the store used to be.

    Was there a brown and white variant on the 1982 logo? I think I remember one, but I might be conflating it with something else.

    Again, thanks!

    Michael J.

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  14. I really think Montgomery Wards had stores on par with Sears and many instances even better, but by the late 70's Sears was by far larger with more geographic coverage. JCPenney was able to leapfrog both chains in fashion and quality image as it transitioned to soft goods.

    A focus on lower margin higher volume items like HBC is where Sears is slowly going today. Be it with Kmart or another stab at Sears Grand/Sears Essentials or some other name for the same concept, they are basically going where Montgomery Wards already tred with Jefferson Wards and its own stores. Sears advantage is again Kmart and Sears having a much larger base, which gives them longer to implode. Even the quality of many of Sears private label brands have suffered since the 80's. I believe that the Wards(oops) focus on lower margins and higher volume contributed to their having a poorer quality image than Sears.

    I too had been told that Mobil wanted to operated Montgomery Wards at a loss to offset the large profits that oil companies were making and receiving criticism for. Given the threat of congressional investigations and higher tax rates, Mobil had no interest in Montgomery's showing a profit that would have resulted in more visibility.

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  15. Thank you, as always, for a great article. I remember the Electric Avenue section of the store at Seven Corners, VA; it seemed that goods were literally stacked to the ceiling - seemingly any time you wanted to get something, a staffer had to get one of those rolling ladder staircases, and climb the heights.

    I'm wondering, has anyone used the afterlife web version of Montgomery Wards, www.wards.com? I'm not a shill for them, just curious. The URL says Wards, but the logo used is the Serifa Bold version.

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  16. Let's see, I saw a vacant stand-alone Montgomery Ward in (I think) 2005 or so, and another in Sunrise Mall (Corpus Christi) in 2007. The Sunrise Mall location was later partially occupied by a furniture store.

    I kind of wish you had finished Wards on the 10th year anniversary of Wards' death, plus you left out the final "Wards" logo (circa 2000).

    Circuit City kind of had a few parallels to Wards I thought, including an ill-fated last-chance rebranding.

    This December, I'll pay respects at the site where the nearest Montgomery Ward was, at the current Tejas Center, which I drive by every day to college.

    How do you pay respects to a demolished building?

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  17. Are you familar with the Arrow Catalog? My grandparents got this around the time of Montgomery Ward's catalog demise. Inside the cover it said "we used to be Montgomery Ward." It was a much smaller catalog than Wards.

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  18. Glenn – The Wards catalog houses certainly were the “big boxes” of their day. You mention the free parking aspect – although this kind of thing has been taken for granted for eons now, it was the exception in those days.

    Wow, hard to believe that a market the size of Albany didn’t have a major Sears store until ’66 – a real free ride from Wards’ perspective, I’m sure.

    And I think a lot of us can relate to the childhood perceptions you describe – the idea that “everything” was stocked within those walls, and that Wards and Sears were on equal footing. It was probably the mid-70’s for me also, when I realized they weren’t - mostly based on my parents’ comments regarding their kids’ clothes. Even then we still bought quite a few things there. Thanks very much!

    Scott – Thanks for identifying that for us! I’ll make a note on the post. I’m always amazed at how these (fairly large, in this case) old retail stores are adapted for use as churches!

    Dwayne – Here again, the fact that Wards didn’t have a major presence in a place like Cincinnati is very surprising to me. We had many full-line Wards stores in Chicago, of course, but I do remember the Wards catalog outlet in Rolling Meadows. And yes, it was a train wreck! I’m sure your local outlet stores had stuff shipped in from all over the place.

    Didi – At your age I’m not surprised that’s the one you remember best, although the blue bar (or at least “blue bar” style lettering) was still around on many of the older stores. I’d love to have seen the Addison Mall store (not far from Wrigleyville, right?) when it was new, because I don’t personally remember any examples of “new “ Wards stores, just older ones such as the one at Randhurst that were remodels of remodels. It would have been fun to see one specially built in their 80’s design scheme.

    Target was still a pretty small operation when Pistner took over, and I’m sure that was an advantage over having to correct problems within a larger organization, where change is usually painful and slow. He did some great things there, without a doubt.

    If I remember right, the Izod “Lacoste” shirts ran $25-$30 regularly, a ton of money for me at age 18!

    And thanks, as always! :)

    Kenney – Thanks for providing that photo link – wow, a “two-anchor” church! (Wait, that doesn’t sound right at all, does it?) Sounds like one I need to see!

    The Wards exterior doesn’t look that much worse for wear.

    David – Thanks very much, I’m very glad you liked it. You know, I really should have checked out Wards just for nostalgia’s sake, when they announced the closing. We were living in Nashville, TN at the time, though, and the closest one was 45 minutes away in Clarksville. Guess it just didn’t occur to me to stop into one on my travels.

    Portland via Japan – Thanks so much, you’re very kind. This is something I love doing, and I try to do as good a job as possible. Again, I greatly appreciate it!

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  19. Steve - You’re talking about Carolina Circle, right? What a store! (Another one on my ever-growing list of no longer existent stores I wish I’d seen. Oh well.) Wards really pulled out the stops on some of these larger stores in the 70’s, and it’s only fitting that they let them (the whole store, that is) stand as period pieces!

    The blue bar logo was both attractive and unique, two qualities that aren’t always seen together in logo design. I really like the backlit versions, such as seen in the first photo on this post. Thanks!

    Mike – Thanks, and that’s an interesting parallel you mention with Kohl’s/Target. To me, Target is the ultimate “model” for a retail operation. (Even if Walmart’s was desirable, it’s probably not achievable – as the saying has gone for a while now, you can’t beat China on cost or Walmart on price.) It’s to Kohl’s credit that they’ve made it work so well, and their growth speaks for itself.

    As far as a Mobil/Wards tax strategy goes, none of the many articles I read mentioned that, but then that’s the sort of thing that tends to stay below the surface. I do know that Mobil kept the numbers for Wards separate, and that the money they put into Wards was always characterized as “loans”. Any losses would certainly have amounted to a tax advantage, but as to whether it was a deliberate strategy, who knows?
    Nightdragon – Thanks! Someone’s always relentlessly advancing, aren’t they? ;)

    In light of BP’s headlines over this past summer, that would be high drama indeed - and fun to watch, I’m sure. Stranger things have happened, but not much stranger.

    There’s no way 1985 should have been that long ago, and the bright colors and grid patterns really bring it back!

    Floo - Wow, like to have heard the music for the Jefferson Wards commercials – the lyric’s not really cutting it! ;) I looked up “Mrs. B”, and it looks like a fair amount of people remember her, but don’t particularly miss the commercials. And are pachinko machines legal to sell? Maybe Bradlees missed a winning formula!

    Randy – Much appreciated! Now that you mention it, I do remember seeing that pic in the excellent “Grand Emporiums” book. I believe it was in black and white there, though. ;)

    Thanks for additional detail on the slogan and the “store within a store” department names. Another spinoff besides “Rooms and More” was ValuVision eye care centers. As far as “Electric Ave.” goes, I believe the song does predate Wards’ use of the name. Wonder if Eddy received royalties? :) Seeing that name on Wards stores and in their ads never failed to trigger the song in my mind.

    Michael – Yorktown was always one of my favorite malls, and I’m glad to see how well it’s doing, but then the area continues to grow and prosper. It’s amazing when you consider it’s only a mile or so from Oakbrook – two powerhouse malls practically next to each other!

    I hadn’t thought about the “long vacancy” thing…wow! Thanks for those details. For sure the most novel tenant there was the “Big Idea/Veggie Tales” Christian animation studio that occupied the old Woolworth space for a few years.

    As far as the Wards logo goes, I seem to remember a brown and white version as well. Thanks for the comment!

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  20. Ken - Sears always had much wider coverage than Wards, and even at its peak, Wards was never able to take advantage of national TV advertising in the way that Sears could. And I agree that JCP pretty much left them both behind with their soft goods emphasis, which continues today, of course.

    I can understand Sears’ emphasis on HBC and other consumables – the type of items that create turnover and the need for frequent return visits. This is Walmart’s home turf, though, so competing on price will be a daunting task to say the least, and then there is Target, where the average store is newer and more attractive. Looks to me like a textbook definition of an “uphill battle”.

    I think if Mobil were trying to sandbag Wards’ profits (they were profitable for at least a portion of the years that Mobil owned them), the press would have called them out on that. Hard to say, though! Thanks.

    Anonymous – Thanks very much! Wow, stacked to the ceiling! Hopefully they at least had floor models for customers to evaluate. Perhaps this problem was unique to the Seven Corners location.

    I have seen the new Montgomery Ward online store (the homepage, at least). They are also a frequent advertiser in airline “SkyMall” magazines. The Serifa Bold logo is more distinctive than the last logo they used, which was almost a generic font, so it’s understandable. They did put a new wrinkle on it with a multi-colored “underscore”, and the “Since 1872” (or something like that) slogan.

    Psuedo3D – The 10th anniversary is close, isn’t it - didn’t even occur to me. There is a link to a picture of the last Wards logo late in the post. Hope you figure out a way to “pay your respects”.

    Anonymous - I sure haven’t heard of the Arrow catalog, sorry. I mentioned the “Amity Associated” catalog stores that replaced the Wards franchised catalog stores, but there’s very little evidence they ever got off the ground.

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  21. Dave,

    Actually, the church is a six anchor church. The MW exterior (built in 1974) retained the same signage right up to the very end (it closed in 1999). However, the mall entrance was updated during a 1987 renovation.

    I remember when the store received the makeover that divided it into the speciality shops. We didn't shop at Ward's too often, so, my pre-reno memory is foggy. But, I remember when my grandmother purchased a lavatory there. I also remember some shag carpeting and lots of yellow.

    The whole mall was a 1970s psychadelic dream with sunken, "Big Bird" Yellow, seating areas. I worked at JCP in the 1990s. There was part of the sales floor that had been sectioned off and used as storage. It still had its green and blue metallic wallpaper, styled to resemble a Peacock feather. Complete with trim painted a matching green.

    The MW logo was changed twice near the end. I remember this logo from print ads http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pre-Wardslogo.png

    At the very end, they used this logo. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wards_closing.jpg
    This version was still on the door of our Wards until a few months ago.

    Our local film commission advertises the space as a production facility. Their site features several interior shots. However, all of the interior "boutique" walls have been removed and it just looks like a big warehouse.

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  22. LOL, Dave. I had to laugh when you asked if the location at Addison Mall was close to Wrigleyville. That brought back some hilarious memories. Yep, just down the street from the Cubs. Every Saturday or Sunday afternoon during the warm weather months when my father wanted to shop at Wards, he would curse the Cubs' crowds on Addison and say in his Eastern European accent "Cray-zie pee-pol!" He cannot stand sports. Never has, never will. The Cubs crowds are still nutty but there is no more Wards and I usually come from the other side of Addison to shop at what's there now, Target. One of my favorite Targets in the city, btw.

    The interior of that store and the one at Village Crossing was what I remember as being very 80's for lack of a better description. Eighties font, eighties lighting, the entrance where the escalators were was sort of dark-ish and always set the mood for the store. Actually if you are ever in town go down to Village Crossing in Niles on Toughy, the former Wards is now a Dick's Sporting Goods and the entrance to the old Wards is preserved pretty well, same dark mood.

    Off topic, but I was wondering how good of a read On Target is. I was mulling over getting it via interlibrary loan when I read this post the other day.

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  23. When I was a kid, we went to the big, two-story Montgomery Wards in Escondido, California. Though there was a gorgeous new Sears just down the road, Mom was a Wards loyalist, and I grew to know that store (co-anchoring a center that also hosted a Builder's Emporium and Love's Barbecue) like the back of my hand.

    In the 80s, when Electric Avenue was rolled out, Wards took over the remains of a closed Zodys in Oceanside, CA., and my wife and I literally furnished our home from there for many years. Everything from TVs to towels to In-Sink-Erators. We had a Wards Gold Card, and we weren't shy about using it.

    But even we could see the writing on the wall. The big Escondido store grew dingier and less colorful with each "remodel", the top floor was closed, the garden center vanished, and they even walled up the side entrance that connected the store to the rest of the mall. The Auto Center shut down. The stock became sparser, cheaper and less interesting. The Oceanside store closed.

    We watched as the big Mission Valley store in San Diego breathed its last during the shutdown, and mourned the loss. But we knew it was over when we received a letter from Wal-Mart, offering to transmute our deceased Ward credit account to a Wal-Mart account.

    We declined.

    They've since demolished the big Escondido store and replaced it with a sparkling new multi-screen cinema. I really considered going and prying off one of the cast-aluminum handles from the front doors; you know, the ones with the Sixties WM logo atop a checkerboard. Should've done it.

    Great story cycle - thanks for posting this, and doing the research. I love the memories!

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  24. Dave, as always, your research and attention to details on these retail history series is nothing short of excellent. Even though this had to be the toughest to research and write up, being it details a terrible period in the chain's storied history, you still seem to be able to give it something that makes it a fun, interesting read.

    Again, the whole "Wards not having a great reach like Sears did" rings true in Wisconsin. We had our share of catalog locations, but full-line stores were far and few between. The Milwaukee area was infiltrated by Sears early on when their first suburban mall store at Brookfield Square (one of the largest at the time of its opening in 1967) opened for business. From there, they just pushed on with large format stores across the state, the two newest being in Janesville and right outside my door in Fond Du Lac, both in 1997.

    Nothing like Wards, who limped along it seemed. When it came time to push into the big malls here, they got only 1 in the 1960s (Manitowoc - Mid Cities), 2 in the 1970s (Janesville & Fond Du Lac - Janesville and Forest Mall's respectively), and 1 in 1980 at Bay Park Square in the Green Bay area. The latter opening up during the Mobil years. None of them were overly large....the largest being at Janesville and Green Bay, smallest at Manitowoc, and Fondy's in the middle.

    Even so, these towns all had either a big Sears in another town at their mall, or a catalog dealer store right in town. Can one say 'oops'? Grand example from me....my parents ALWAYS preferred the Sears up in Oahkosh's Park Plaza Mall....the store was clean, larger (2 stories) and had everything. Wards wasn't a stop at my local mall....it was, 99% of the time, Prange Way.

    Logo-wise, the store in the 3rd image....while ours wasn't a 2-level store, the signage type is what we had..plain white, while the example from that store in the 80s (in the lower set of images) had that signage at Bay Park Square from its opening from the getgo until past its closing with the chain in 2001. It was still affixed above the entrance when I first visited Bay Park in January of '02)...shortly before the store would be torn down and a mall expansion fronting a new Younkers was built.

    Again, nice work as always.

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  25. You didn't mention the late 1980's Montgomery Ward "Side Trips" small mini store concept.

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  26. Kenney – Thanks for those additional details. “Big Bird Yellow” is a dead-on description of that color – it seemed to be everywhere in those days! It sounds like the former Shreveport Wards is pretty much just a shell at this point, with more in common with a soundstage than its department store heritage. Thanks again!

    Didi – Crazy people! Whether they’re winning or not (Gosh, I can’t believe I even made that statement.), the Cubs crowds are always fun.

    One of these days I’ll have to swing by Village Crossing. There’s a great concentration of classic retail remnants in your area, without question.

    I would highly recommend the book “On Target”. It’s a very entertaining read (and fairly quick – under 200 pages) and a good history of the company. I found the comments from the author’s interviews with the surviving Dayton brothers to be the most interesting part.

    Clark – Sounds like you put your Wards Gold Card to good use! ;)

    Wow, it must have been sad to watch the Escondido store’s decline, as they made it less interesting with successive remodels and closed off portions of the store. How could that not have hurt sales? Interesting that you mention the door handles, as others have. The door handles on the Wards’ stores were unique, and I’m sure few survive, making them prized collectibles. (I’ll bet prying them off was easier said than done, though!)

    The Mission Valley store is certainly one I’d love to seen in the day - it was one of Wards’ highest-profile showplaces. Thanks very much, glad you liked the Wards posts!

    Matt- You’re right – the final chapter was the hardest to research and write, and I tried hard to not make it sound like a dirge. Thanks very much for your kind comments.

    The Wisconsin market was one where Wards could have done very well, and it’s a shame they didn’t stake out a bigger presence there. I appreciate the information you provide on what they did have. I would think that the cities you mention, especially Fond du Lac and Green Bay, could have supported good-sized Wards stores. Just more examples of ground they ceded to Sears. It’s not surprising your family preferred the larger (and no doubt much nicer) Sears stores or Prange Way over Wards. Thanks again!

    Darryl – Wards had so many specialty store concepts that I didn’t even attempt to include an exhaustive list. I wasn’t familiar with “Side Trips”. Thanks for mentioning it!

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  27. Clark and Dave - I guess I should have clarified my comment earlier about visiting my local Wards after the announcement of their demise. It was the Mission Valley store, now a Target, that I went to as a little kid in the sixties with my parents, and later on my own for stuff here and there. I am still using an air compressor purchased there in the mid eighties. I lived in a condo across Mission Valley, one year I went there for some Christmas lights to decorate my balcony.

    In the sixties, it was a wonderful store with everything in it. I remember the huge garden department with lawn tractors and above ground pools, the large sporting goods department, including the bike section where my 24" Hawthorne cruiser was purchased. They had a large display of tropical fish which I was quite interested in, as well as an in-store restaurant (so did the May Co. at the other end of the mall).

    Over the years it got shabbier and with each remodeling, more sterile. But back in the sixties, it was really something!

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  28. Excellent article. Who knew the MW story had so many fascinating twists and turns. Growing up, there was an old Wards in downtown Burlingame that must've closed in the early 60's, although I think the building is still there. I remember the opening of Wards in Serramonte Center, just south of San Francisco, back in 1968. I was disappointed that it was all on one floor, pretty boring for an 11-year old with no escalators to play on. Years later they opened a free-standing, 2-level store in San Mateo, which later became a K-Mart when Wards moved to the ill-conceived Fashion Island store (which has since been demolished). Unlike Sears and Penney's, Wards never had a store in San Francisco proper, but they had a store in Oakland, adjacent to the big distribution center, visible from the BART train on the way to the Coliseum.

    Matt: Wasn't Sears first Milwaukee suburban store in Milwaukee's Bay Shore Center?

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  29. Wards wasn't the store my family shopped at the most, but when the Addison Mall location opened, I did make heavy use of it as I was living in Lakeview by that time. I liked it, it was spacious, nicely organized and easy to get in and out of with what you needed. I even opened an account. I was surprised when they went under.

    that last photo of the Montgomery Ward Supermax Detention facility in Richardson Texas reminds me of why I will never miss the 1970s.

    I acquired a copy of a MW wards catalog from 1978 and I leaf through it from time to time whenever I get annoyed that I can't find something I need in a size or design I like. It reminds me to count my blessings for the range of choices we have these days. Even as a child I hated the regimented, brown-green-gold product color palettes in the '70s. Don't get me started on woodgrain foil being glued on to everything.

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  30. Wow, that second store, with the 'ribbed' brick facade could pose as a stand in for the former Springdale Plaza & Mall location on Airport Boulevard in Mobile.

    I recall that in the late 1980s, Montgomery Ward sublet approximately 45,000 square feet and part of its Springdale mall entrance in order for Toys R Us to open its first store in the central Gulf Coast region. In the same time frame, Ward's rearranged its interior into those collection of specialty stores, with my favorite being Electric Avenue.

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  31. I still remember the 'Things are changing at MW!' ads, around the time of the mid 80's recovery. They were trying to get the young buyers going to Gap, etc.

    A little bit more about Yorktown MW in Lombard IL. They sublet space for local Chicago music chain Rose Records, that had good selection of artists, unlike long forgotten Musicland. But, when I looked at their clothes, it was no names, and polyester blends, :P.

    Also, in mid 80's MW had the actor who played 'Hoover' from "Animal House" doing ads and circulars, trying to get yuppie customers.

    But 'Hoover' and Electic Ave were both were past their freshness dates.

    The last logo was dull, just plain 'Wards', and the circular ads looked cheaply produced and awful.

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  32. Here is a small list of 'newer' MW stores, opened by 1990, in Chicago area that got sold off easily.

    Addison Mall - Target
    Naperville [59 & Aurora Av] - Carson's home store[now?]
    Skokie - Dick's
    Streets of Woodfield - Dick's and parking garage.

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  33. There a million things that could've gone right with the 90s and Montgomery Ward. Rather than buying Lechmere in 1994, Montgomery Ward could've bought the promising bigg's hypermarket (it would be bought by SuperValu instead). In the 1990s, Montgomery Ward expands bigg's, sometimes even renovating and expanding stand-alone Montgomery Ward stores into it. Montgomery Ward closes all its normal stores.

    But to Montgomery Ward, it's fine: they have a wildly successful superstore chain, bigg's, on par with Kmart, Target, and Wal-Mart.

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  34. For the tenth year of Montgomery Ward's going out of business announcement, I wrote a eulogy for it.

    http://carbonizer.blogspot.com/2010/12/eulogy-to-montgomery-ward.html

    Please read it, possibly leave a comment or something.

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  35. What happened to Stephen Pistner after Ames?

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  36. I did some research on Stephen Pistner, and while Pistner's corporate career apparently ends with Ames, he and his wife live in Florida, collecting ancient glasswork, so it's likely Pistner probably got some high-paying yet low-profile job after Ames.

    http://www.gulfshorelife.com/ARTICLES/Past-Issues/2007/January-2007/-It-Called-Out-to-Me-.aspx

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  37. Pseudo3D – Good find there! It’s always interesting to learn the “where are they now” on major figures in retail, and that type of information isn’t always easy to dig up. I assumed that Mr. Pistner was still alive but retired at this point.

    I have a feeling he invested his income from running those major companies pretty well, so he might not have needed the “high paying, low profile job” later on! ;)

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