Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

It’s Christmastime 1966, and here’s one more look at the Grand Union complex in East Paterson, New Jersey’s Elmwood Shopping Center. A cold night, to be sure, but the spirit of Christmas in the air and the glow of neon help to warm things up. The Grand Way store is in place now, welcoming shoppers for its first Christmas season. A tall, elegant Christmas tree stands near the store’s entrance.

I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has visited this site since I launched it back in July. Whether you stop in once in a while to see what’s new, just found it by chance, or make it a regular part of your surfing day, it’s greatly appreciated. I especially want to thank those who’ve commented, and those who have sent me such kind emails, full of wonderful memories of your own. I’m overwhelmed by them, and it definitely makes the time and effort worthwhile.

Like many of you, I will be traveling over the coming week, so this is likely the last post until the New Year. May the True Joy of Christmas be yours, may your holidays be great and spent with family and friends, and may you each have a wonderful and healthy New Year!


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Safeway's Season's Greetings

An 80-foot tall sequoia becomes a majestic Christmas tree in this 1965 Lake Oswego, Oregon view. Safeway endeared itself to the local community by sparing the tree when constructing their new marina-style store. When they subsequently sprung for annual lighting of the tree and appearances by Santa Claus, who would have shopped anywhere else?

Thanks to "Sputnikmoss" of the Portland Area Mid-Century Modern League for informing us that both the store and the tree still exist, at 401 A Avenue, Lake Oswego, Oregon. And they still feature the annual tree lighting celebration with Santa Claus!

Sears - Wish Book Wonderland

Getting super close to Christmas, so let’s take a very quick look at Sears, a veritable Warehouse of Christmas Dreams for generations of Americans. This particular store was located at the Logan Square shopping center in Norristown, Pennsylvania, not far from Philly. It was brand new and all decked out for Christmas at the time this photo was taken in 1966. The building still stands (with the three flagpoles, yet!) in recent photos, but is no longer a Sears.

Speaking of the Wish Book, here’s a great website that features vintage department store Christmas catalogs – Sears, Penneys, Wards and more – that a group of folks have painstakingly scanned in full. It’s a real treat!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Elmwood Shopping Center, 1952

Here’s an aerial view, from 1952, of the Elmwood Shopping Center - home of Grand Union’ s headquarters and flagship store. The second largest retail tenant in the center was Neisner’s, a major variety store chain at the time, and probably the only one who didn’t have a set of initials before its name, unlike its competitors – F.W. Woolworth, W.T. Grant, S.S. Kresge, J.J. Newberry, G.C. Murphy…

The parking lot to the left of the shopping center at the edge of the photo would become the future location of the Grand Way store which opened, as previously mentioned, in 1966.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

On Their Toes at the Grand Union

Without a doubt, the employees of this particular Grand Union were “on their toes” on a regular basis, due in no small measure to the fact that Grand Union’s corporate honchos held court directly above their store. The photos above, from 1952, show the company’s brand-spanking new corporate offices which opened in November 1951 (the store opened the following April) in the Elmwood Shopping Center at 180 Broadway in East Paterson, New Jersey.

In 1950, Grand Union announced their intention to vacate their longtime offices at 50 Church Street in Manhattan and move to Bergen County, NJ, a bustling, densely populated suburban area located across the river from New York. Many American companies from the 50’s through the 70’s forsook their downtown offices (A&P would finally move from their NYC offices to Montvale, NJ nearly 25 years later) for sprawling, beautifully landscaped suburban campuses, but a shopping center? This was something else again, and it garnered Grand Union a fair amount of favorable publicity in such publications as the New York Herald-Tribune, Fortune, Time and Architectural Forum, from which the above photos were taken. In both perception and reality, the move allowed Grand Union to “get close” to their customers.

The Grand Union store at this location was understandably used as a proving ground for the chain, and one of the obvious manifestations of this was in the area of store layout, as clearly shown in the store’s “planogram” (to use a modern-day term) shown in the last photo. The Elmwood store layout was aptly likened in a June 1955 Fortune magazine article to a wagon wheel, with “numerous aisles that fan out as do the spokes of a wheel”. A striking departure from standard supermarket aisle design, this unconventional design was championed by Grand Union president Lansing Shield (lionized in previous posts) with a view toward using it in more of the chain’s stores.

It’s interesting to ponder why this unique layout ultimately failed to win favor over the age-old parallel aisle design that still predominates in the supermarket business. Perhaps customers were consistently confused by the layout or over time found it tiresome. Maybe older shoppers had difficulty navigating the different departments. I’m fairly certain that cost played a part, with extra travel time required to restock the shelves. Another probable factor would have been the need to maximize shelf space as the number of items the average grocery store stocked absolutely skyrocketed in the late 50’s and throughout the 60’s.

In the summer of 1956, the flagship store was damaged by fire, forcing it to close for three months. A temporary store was set up in a circus-style tent on the parking lot. A slightly expanded version of the store reopened, with the glassed-in vestibule extended toward the direction of the parking lot. In 1966, a two-story, 100,000 square foot Grand Way department store was built at the opposite end of the shopping center.

On a recent business trip to New Jersey, I decided one evening to swing by the ol’ Elmwood in hopes of taking a close look at the store and HQ, curious to see who now inhabited it. To my surprise, the shopping center was still there, but the Grand Union headquarters building and store were completely gone! The headquarters portion was torn down and replaced with single story stores and a standard-issue Walgreens now stands where the GU store was in the foreground of the first photo. Time most certainly does march on. The Grand Way store is fairly intact from an exterior standpoint and is now a (Big)Kmart.

And by the way, if you look for East Paterson, New Jersey on a current map, you won’t find it. In 1973, the town’s name was changed to Elmwood Park.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Grand Union, Independent Innovator

Grand Union held its own through the Depression years and made slow but steady progress through World War II. By the war’s end, however, the company faced a new challenge, perhaps less from external forces than from a growing friction between company president J. Spencer Weed and Lansing P. Shield, vice-president and number two man in the company. Weed was extremely conservative in his approach, and was dead-set against joining the industry trends toward building larger, suburban stores and self-service. Over the years, Shield would emerge as Weed’s polar opposite, full of energy and ideas for transforming and expanding the (then fairly young) supermarket concept and eager to push Grand Union out onto the industry’s leading edge.

The relationship between Weed and Shield (I know, together the names sound like a lawn care product, don’t they?) reached a final breach in mid-1946 when Weed entered into negotiations with the American Stores Company (parent of Acme Markets) to sell Grand Union out. American was multiples larger than Grand Union, with 1,964 stores at the end of 1945 vs. Grand Union’s 320 stores. The merger deal was officially announced in the New York Times on October 8, 1946.

Aghast at the prospect of having spent 22 years in building up Grand Union only to hand its future over to another firm, Shield vigorously opposed the merger. Ultimately, enough key stockholders and directors agreed with Shield that the deal was called off, as announced in the Times on November 5th. Weed stepped down from Grand Union’s presidency immediately, and within a year would retire from the board of directors as well, leaving Shield in full control of the company.

Shield moved quickly to convert the Grand Union stores to self-service and to ramp up the company’s building program. In the next ten years, he would spearhead the development of new concepts in store layout, breaking away from the traditional “aisle format” into a sort of departmentalized “island” concept. Grand Union was also an early leader in the use of color in their stores, carefully selecting hues for each area to maximize sales appeal.

Not only was Shield a grocery industry innovator, he was an inventor as well. The Food-O-Mat, as Fortune magazine called it, was Shield’s “personal, patented invention”, and was first used to handle canned goods. The key feature of the Food-O-Mat was its gravity fed design, with shelves that sloped downward toward the customer aisle, while stockers would replenish cans from a hidden back aisle, behind the wall. One advantage of this design was that restocking could take place during a regular shift as opposed to overnight, or to getting in the way of customers while they shopped. The Food-O-Mat became so successful that it was soon adapted for a number of other uses, including cosmetics. Grand Union eventually set up a subsidiary to manufacture and market the Food-O-Mat to other chains (both food and non-food), including Macy’s, Kroger and even direct competitors like spurned suitor Acme, among many others.

The first photo is of the Glens Falls, NY store exterior from 1947. The second, from the same year, shows the Food-O-Mat in the Monroe, NY store. The third and fourth photos show a wider store view and a close up of the “Meateria” (definitely my nominee for scariest department name ever) from unidentified stores in 1948 and 1949. Just for fun, in a tip of the hat to Grand Union’s Route Division, the last photo shows a route truck and salesman’s car from the Syracuse, NY branch in 1947.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tales of the Grand Union

A familiar face to grocery shoppers throughout the Northeast states (and even more so to those Northeasterners who vacationed in Florida), the late, great Grand Union Company also held the distinction of being one of America’s oldest grocery chains, second only to The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company.

The company was founded in Scranton, PA in 1872 (thirteen years after A&P) by Cyrus D. Jones, who would soon be joined by his two brothers to form the Jones Brothers Tea Company, the predecessor to Grand Union. To augment the sales of their lone store, Jones initiated home delivery service to customers in the area, planting the seeds of what would become Grand Union’s “Route Division”, an operation that would continue into the 1950’s. The “Grand Union” name was adopted in the last years of the 19th century for a subsidiary of Jones called the Grand Union Tea Company.

The chain had grown to 200 stores and 500 horse-and-buggy equipped route salesmen by its 40th anniversary in 1912. The corporate offices were set up in New York. By the early 20’s, however, things began to falter, with falling profits on an unwieldy assortment of stores, routes and unnecessary manufacturing operations.

Help was on the way in the form of two former A&P managers recruited in 1924 – J. Spencer Weed as President and 28-year old whiz kid Lansing P. Shield as Controller. Within four years, the team had streamlined the company, sold off the non-core (as we refer to it in current business-speak) manufacturing plants, and led the company back to profitability. In 1928, the Jones family sold out their ownership stake and the entire company was officially rechartered as the Grand Union Tea Company.

The photos above (featuring the fabulous "Food-O-Mat", an L.P. Shield invention) are from 1946.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

An Early Target, 1966

The hard Northern winter shows on the faces of these Target shoppers in this 1966 photo. The Target story began in 1962 when the Dayton Company, a venerable 60-year old Minneapolis-based department store chain, decided to capitalize on the discounting trend by setting up its own discount division. At the time, the company had five full line Dayton’s department stores in Minnesota, including their downtown Minneapolis flagship, plus Fantle’s department store in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which Dayton had bought out in 1954. By 1962, they had also developed some notable shopping center properties, including the well-known Southdale Shopping Center in Edina and the more recent Brookdale Shopping Center in Brooklyn Center, both Twin Cities suburbs.

The early years of Target appear in retrospect to be marked by fairly slow, cautious growth, especially when compared with the chain’s remarkable expansion in the last few decades. Starting with four stores in 1962 – Duluth, Roseville, Crystal and St. Louis Park, they added a fifth Minnesota store in Bloomington in 1965. The first two stores outside of Dayton’s home state were opened in Denver in 1966.

I think it’s safe to say that during those early years (and for some time afterward) Dayton hadn’t the slightest hint that Target would ultimately become the company’s bread and butter, to say nothing of its future profound influence on mass retailing in general. Remarkably, for many years the Target operation would officially be known within Dayton (and later Dayton-Hudson) as the “Low-Margin Division”, I kid you not. Definitely this was an unglamorous name for a chain that would later become synonymous with affordable chic.

Now, of course, the entire company is known as Target Corporation. The Dayton’s stores (and their erstwhile stepsiblings Hudson’s and Marshall Field’s) were sold off to The May Company a few years back, and then to Federated, where the familiar Macy’s logo with its famous red star now reigns on the former D-H stores.

The checkstands in this photo sport the original Target logo. A year later, in 1967, Target would revamp its logo with thicker rings and a filled-in bullseye, creating an enduring retail icon.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

New Looks for 7-Eleven in '67

The first four of these photos date from 1967, by which time 7-Eleven was beginning to vary their store appearance. The open front design was beginning to be phased out, and many of the existing open front stores underwent renovation to a more conventional window and door arrangement. This was ostensibly to allow the efficient use of newly-added air-conditioning units, but one could assume it was done to address security concerns as well.

Most of the new designs included some form of mansard roof with architectural shingles. Spanish tile was used to nice effect on selected Western and Florida area stores, and some even had cedar shake roofs. A very attractive colonial motif (complete with a rooftop cupola), pictured in the third photo, was implemented in a number of the company’s Eastern and Midwest markets, including Chicago.

I remember the colonial design well, and in at least one instance that I know of, Southland applied it to an entire shopping center, called (appropriately enough) "The Southland Center", which opened in late 1967 on Algonquin Road near the Wilke Road intersection in Rolling Meadows , a northwest suburb of Chicago. This center, in addition to having a 7-Eleven, housed a snack shop (which I remember much more than that particular 7-Eleven), a beauty shop, barber shop, and a number of other small stores. It had a two-story section in the middle, where Southland’s Chicago-area regional offices were housed. It still stands, but sadly the colonial façade has been refaced with stucco (an all-too-common fate of 50’s and 60’s era shopping centers) in a style I like to call “yecch modern”. Hilariously, the cupola still exists as before. Southland, the 7-Eleven and all of their original tenants, like Elvis, have long since “left the building”.

The last photo is from 1968 and shows a sign with the company’s brand new logo, no doubt a very familiar sight to all because it's the same one in use today. Behind the sign is a Southland –owned “Midwest Farms” dairy truck, sporting the new image that Southland rolled out for all of its dairy divisions that year.
Update 7/17/10 - Thanks to AB for identifying the location of the Spanish-tiled store in the second photo - still operating as a 7-Eleven at the corner of Las Olas Boulevard and 16th Street in Fort Lauderdale, Florida!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sixties, Slurpees and the Sev

The 1960’s saw two major developments in the history of 7-Eleven and its parent, the Southland Corporation. The first was a continuation of the company’s rapid geographical expansion, which would result in 7-Eleven becoming a virtual nationwide presence by the end of the decade. The second was the 1967 introduction of the company’s signature product, the Slurpee.

In March 1964, Southland made what would probably be its most important single acquisition, the 100-store Speedee Mart chain, with stores in all of the key markets in California. With this purchase, Southland not only picked up a solidly managed operation in the country’s most dynamic markets, it gained a crucial foothold in the field of franchising. Speedee Mart was a successful franchise-based operation. In the coming years, franchising would serve as rocket fuel for Southland’s expansion plans. For a couple of years after buying out Speedee Mart, Southland would maintain the Speedee Mart name, augmented with 7-Eleven’s logo.

7-Eleven entered the Chicago market in 1965, and within two years had 14 stores in the area. The following year, they acquired the 86-store handy-Pantry chain in Georgia and Tennessee, and in 1968 they bought out Gristede’s, an upscale chain of 115 small grocery stores in the metro New York area. Not long afterward, the company would add the New England, Detroit and Buffalo markets as well. Southland also bought out a number of prominent local dairies in the 60’s as well, both to supply dairy products to the 7-Eleven stores and in some cases, home delivery. These dairies included Wanzer’s in Chicago, Adohr Farms in California, Midwest Farms (multiple Midwest locations), Velda Farms in Florida and Embassy Dairies in DC.

Look carefully at the first photo, which dates from 1965, and you’ll see that the drinks the kids are enjoying are in fact not Slurpees but Icees, an independently owned frozen drink that’s been around since 1959 (and until very recently was sold in cups of the exact same design as those pictured). In 1965, Southland launched a test in three stores utilizing a new and fairly expensive piece of equipment, the Mitchell frozen drink machine. The test far surpassed the company’s expectations, and plans were quickly laid in place to install machines in 100 more stores, followed by the green light to implement them chain-wide in all of the chain’s stores. It was determined that a slightly different process (using the Taylor frozen machines) and an exclusive brand name was needed to firmly link the new frozen drinks with 7-Eleven in consumers’ minds, and thus the Slurpee was born (One might assume that from that point forward, Icees were forevermore banned from 7-Eleven premises, but in fact the Icee machines were used in a number of their stores for several more years).
A huge success, the Slurpee proved that if a company can effectively appeal to the kids’ market, then more often than not their parents are locked in as well. McDonald’s would realize this on an even larger scale with introduction of the “Happy Meal” twelve years later. Another benefit 7-Eleven gained from the Slurpee was a multitude of packaging and promotional possibilities (which were also areas McDonald’s would later excel in with the Happy Meal), mostly revolving around collectors’ cup designs, which my friends and I treated like gold - Baseball Tradin’ Cups, Superhero Tradin’ Cups, Star Wars and even Rock Group Tradin’ Cups (my brother had a J. Geils Band tradin’ cup, which looked pretty nasty after a year of dishwashing, trust me). For a couple of years we lived close to a 7-Eleven in Arlington Heights, IL where my brother and I stopped in on a near-daily basis.

In later years, 7-Eleven would tilt the scales back toward more adult tastes by heavily promoting a new line of gourmet coffee. A few years ago, my childhood 7-Eleven experience was repeated in a strange way. I was working with a customer in Long Island, New York, for which I had to fly in for meetings every few months over the course of a year. We would start the meetings about 8am. Invariably, about an hour into the meeting, regardless of the importance of the topic being discussed or who else was there, the main guy would stand up and say “This coffee’s crap, let’s go to the Sev”. Of course, we would all load up into his car and drive the few blocks to the friendly local 7-Eleven (I’ve called them “The Sev” ever since) where I admit the coffee wasn’t bad at all. I didn’t save the cups this time, however.

The second photo is an interior from 1964, the third an exterior from the following year.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

7-Eleven - How Conveeenient

Today, pulling up to a gas station that does not have a convenience store attached is a very rare thing indeed. At virtually any gas station, be it a mom-and-pop operation, a small regional or citywide chain or a major chain that may or may not be oil company owned, the convenience store is an expected part of the deal. The “service stations” with their auto service bays and tow trucks parked out front are just about consigned to history, their operators long ago having realized that selling soft drinks and food were much more profitable than towing and servicing cars.

More than any other company, the Dallas-based Southland Corporation, better known by the name of its stores, 7-Eleven, pioneered the convenience store concept. Originally, Southland’s drawing card was not gasoline but ice, which was a sought-after commodity in the early part of the 20th century when many homes did not own electric refrigerators. Gasoline would come later. The Southland Ice Company was formed in 1927 through the combination of four local Dallas-area ice companies by entrepreneur Claude S. Dawley. Through the 20’s into the 1930’s, Southland gradually added milk, ice cream and other food items for the convenience of its customers. The company really took off under the leadership of Joe C. “Jodie” Thompson, who joined one of Southland’s predecessor ice companies in 1922 and would become Southland president in 1931, a position he held for thirty years until his death. In the late 20’s, Southland adopted the name Tote’m for its stores, with a genuine Alaskan totem pole as a store logo (they were later painted on the buildings). In the 30’s and 40’s, Southland bought out a number of other small chains in north Texas, maintaining their original names.

In 1945 the company decided it was time for a common identity and a new image for all of their stores, which by that time had evolved into mini-supermarkets, minus the meat and produce sections. With an ad agency’s help, they decided on “7-Eleven”, a catchy name that played off the stores’ operating hours. The first of a succession of green and red logos was adopted, and all existing stores were converted to the new image in 1946. Interestingly, 7-Eleven offered curb service for decades. The stores utilized an “open front” design with roll-up garage-style doors across nearly the full face of the store, which were kept open when weather permitted (which in Texas, of course, is most of the time). The open front design was maintained well into the 1960’s, although by then the door design was changed to a glass sliding type.

By 1950, with 80 stores under its belt, Southland opened its first stores outside of the north Texas area with a move into Austin that year and Houston in 1952. The first stores outside of Texas were opened in the Jacksonville and Miami, FL areas in 1954. From here, Southland moved into other markets at a breathless clip, adding Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, and several others by 1963 for a total of more than 1000 stores. Mr. Thompson passed away in June 1961, and the company leadership passed to his eldest son John. Southland didn’t miss a beat, and through the rest of the sixties and well into the seventies the company would experience phenomenal growth.

The sign and the two exterior photos (showing the sliding-door storefront) date from 1964. Note the promotional banners above the doors, a tradition that continues with 7-Eleven stores today. The photo of the impeccable counter man and his well-dressed customer (whose car appears to be still running outside – those were the days) is from 1966. “Oak Farms” was located in Dallas and was one of several regional dairy (and I guess, bakery) firms that were owned by Southland.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Foods of Chicago!

Several weeks back I was contacted by members of the production team at WTTW, Chicago’s PBS affiliate, who had seen a post I did early on about Dominick’s Finer Foods, a major Chicago grocery chain with a rich ethnic history. They contacted me with regard to a new special they’ve produced called “Foods of Chicago: A Delicious History”, which will be premiering this coming Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 7:30 pm central on WTTW (Channel 11 in most Chicago-area locations). The show will cover a variety of topics, including Chicago’s great, enduring ethnic food traditions, its history as the candy capital of the US (it really was!), local favorites such as Jay’s Potato Chips and Chicago-born legends such as McDonald’s (the corporation, not the first store). They will also feature the Billy Goat Tavern, inspiration for the famous Saturday Night Live “Cheezborger, cheezborger” skit, which would be reason enough alone for me to watch.

Growing up in Chicago way back when, Channel 11 was the source of my daily “Electric Company” and “Zoom” fixes. They have always had a fine tradition of locally produced programs in addition to our PBS favorites. Don’t miss this show if you live in the area.

Just for fun, here’s a photo of that other Chicago legend, a Dominick's store from 1972.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Korvette's Spartan Existence

I hope that you’ve had a Happy Thanksgiving! Maybe you had a chance to watch the Macy’s parade or the broadcast of "Miracle on 34th Street" that followed. The pictures above are of Korvette’s 34th Street store which opened in 1967 in New York City’s famed Herald Square, right next door to Macy’s famous flagship. Two years earlier, Korvette had announced its intention to take over the Saks-34th Street store (which was a sort of outlet or “basement” store operation Note: See comment section for a correction regarding this statement) from Gimbel Brothers, Saks’ owner at the time. The first photo is an artist’s rendering of the original concept as announced with great fanfare at a 1965 press conference. Korvette’s plan as announced called for a complete renovation to the existing eight story building with a grand “neo-classical” façade and an additional seven story office tower built on top to house the company’s corporate offices. The second rendering and photo (from Isadore Barmash’s excellent Korvettes history book) show the store as it actually opened, vastly scaled-down from the original plans. The office tower addition did not materialize, and instead of the neo-classical façade, a series of alternating narrow marble strips and black spaces were installed to basically “cover up” the Saks façade, resulting in a modern but definitely odd appearance. The store was a moderate success, but came nowhere close to duplicating the magic of the 5th avenue store that Korvette had opened earlier. The whole thing was a metaphor (Ok, you can roll your eyes now. My apologies.) for what was happening to Korvette in general.

In 1966, Korvette merged with Spartans Industries, who at the time owned a very successful private label clothing manufacturer and two underperforming department store chains known as Spartan and Atlantic. Spartans was founded by Charles Bassine in the early 1940’s as Sparta Mfg. Co., with a single sewing plant in Sparta, Tennessee. Bassine, a New Yorker, was one of the earlier manufacturers to realize the advantages of locating in the South, where labor was cheap, land was plentiful and local governments were willing to bend over backwards to offer freebies if it would serve to build their industrial base. By the early 1960’s, Bassine’s company was raking in tens of millions each year making private label shirts and blouses for Sears, Penneys and Montgomery Ward.

Bassine, who had recently become a friend of Korvette founder Eugene Ferkauf, was the one Ferkauf turned to fend off the Coan challenge and to help stabilize Korvette’s business, and the marriage became official in September 1966. Spartans, although only half of Korvette’s size, became the surviving entity with Bassine as chairman and Ferkauf staying on as President.

By the mid 60’s the Korvette organization was developing serious cracks, and the merger did little to remedy this. Sales growth had slowed down, the furniture, carpet and supermarket entities were dumped, and the company struggled to find a consistent identity that consumers would identify with. Fashion became the company’s focus, but was also its biggest problem, with the cheaper Sparta goods having replaced Korvette’s earlier private label lines. The two-story suburban store design also led to an unforeseen and vexing problem that was only discovered over time – the stores were patterned after the more upscale department store mode, where two or more levels are commonplace and escalators aren’t compatible with shopping carts. This goes against the grain of the department store shopper’s mindset, where one can “load up” their carts with bargains as they pass by. Without carts, people tend to be more selective, if only so they don’t have to lug the stuff around. To cite a modern day example, Kohl's has keyed into this and wisely offers carts.

In 1968, Eugene Ferkauf resigned and cut all ties with Korvette. The “Duke of Discounting”, a man who done a great deal to create and popularize an entire retail category was gone. From here, the Korvette story becomes a long series of management changes and failed merchandising strategies. New store growth was sharply cut back. Plans to expand into Florida, long a standard move of northeast-based retailers, were scuttled. In a very controversial move in 1971, Bassine sold control of the entire company to Arlen Realty and Development, which was run by Bassine’s son-in law, Arthur Cohen. Arlen was one of America’s largest real estate developers at the time, with major holdings in New York City and other top markets, and had built many of Korvette’s stores over the years.

The early 1970’s brought more attempts to turn the company around, including shortening the stores’ moniker from “E.J. Korvette” to simply “Korvettes”, discarding the distinctive script logo in favor of a more conventionally lettered version. The biggest problem continued to revolve around the clothing lines, where an attempt to go upscale and compete with Macy’s head on proved to be disastrous. Facing increasingly severe competition upline from Macy’s and their ilk and downline from Kmart, the company would never again be able to effectively answer a fundamental question – “Why would someone shop at Korvettes?”

To make matters worse, Korvettes’ parent, Arlen Realty, found itself in the midst of its own downward spiral, due to the very difficult real estate economy of the early 70’s and a horrendous loss incurred from the shutdown of the moribund Atlantic stores chain. In April 1979, one last merger took place, when the struggling Arlen sold Korvettes to Agache-Willot, a French retail conglomerate. Agache-Willot kept Korvettes on a short leash, immediately pulling them out of Chicago and the other non-East Coast markets and paring down the store count in the other areas. It all came to naught, and Korvettes closed its doors for good on Christmas Eve 1980.

Gene Ferkauf would engage in a few small-scale retail ventures in the years immediately following his departure from the trendsetting, game-changing company he founded. Alive and well in his eighties, he and his wife Estelle live in New York City and are actively involved in a number of charitable causes.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Korvette Supermarkets

As mentioned previously, one of the key initiatives undertaken by the larger supermarket chains in the late 50’s/early 60’s was to expand into the area of non-food, general merchandise offerings. The reverse was true with a number of discount chains as well, including E.J. Korvette, the nation’s hottest and most successful discount store chain at the time.

Korvette went about it a bit differently than most of the others. Rather than try to put both grocery and general merchandise functions under one roof, from about 1960 on Korvette would typically build a series of buildings either adjoined or tied together by covered walkways – a two-story department store, a supermarket, a furniture and carpet center and a detached tire and auto center. The furniture/carpet and tire units were leased operations. Virtually shopping centers unto themselves, these “Korvette Cities” (as the company called them) had a striking visual presence. By 1965, Korvette was almost exclusively building “Cities” in their core East Coast markets and the newer markets of Chicago and St. Louis.

By 1965, however, it became obvious to Korvette management that the non-core businesses – furniture, carpets and most notably the supermarkets were causing a significant drain on the company's profitability. From 1960 to 1965 Korvette posted record sales increases every year, while profits lagged far behind. The furniture and carpet problems were due to in part to the slow moving nature of the products themselves, but mostly because Korvette’s lessees had become insolvent, forcing Korvette to take over ownership of the operations. As far as the supermarkets were concerned, it became clear that more depth of management expertise was needed in the grocery area. This expertise would come in the form of a merger, for which Korvette was finally ready and willing.

On February 1, 1965, Korvette merged with Hill’s Supermarkets, a family-owned, Long Island-based chain of 42 nicely profitable stores, most of which were located on Long Island itself. All stores would be renamed “Hills/Korvette Food Centers”. Hill's chairman, Hilliard J. Coan, was similar in age to Korvette’s Eugene Ferkauf, but couldn’t have been more different in temperament. Coan was a buttoned-down executive of serious demeanor, while Ferkauf, ever the idea man, didn’t even maintain an office or desk at Korvette Headquarters. Coan was named board chairman while Ferkauf held the title of CEO. On the surface, the mix should have worked; the personalities should have been complementary. Ferkauf excelled in what today would be called “management by walking around” – prowling the stores, monitoring merchandising and firing up the troops. He had little desire or patience for the tedious details of running the $700 million corporation Korvette had become. But tensions appeared, and as often seems to be the case with mergers even today, company executives split into two factions - in this case the Ferkauf and Coan loyalists.

Things rolled along in a sort of uneasy truce until a fateful day in May 1966, when Coan summoned Ferkauf to a meeting, and in the presence of two other Korvette execs demanded that he surrender the chief executive officer’s title and effectively leave the company. Understandably furious, Ferkauf (who was still the largest Korvette stockholder by far) right away pursued another merger, this time with Spartans Industries, owners of the Spartan and Atlantic discount stores and a very lucrative private label clothing manufacturer. Talks began immediately, and within months Korvette was no longer an independent stock company – it was now a division of Spartans. Coan was forced out, and in October 1966 he would become president of First National (Finast) Stores. Ferkauf would remain as Chairman of the Executive Committee of Spartans. Almost immediately, the supermarkets would begin to be sold off, first the Chicago units (to Dominick’s, as mentioned), then the Baltimore units to Food Fair, eventually followed by the others to various buyers.

This story (along with the rest of the Korvettes saga) is told in great, entertaining detail in an excellent book by the late New York Times retail writer Isadore Barmash, "More than they bargained for-The Rise and Fall of Korvettes". Highly recommended reading for retail fans.

The first three photos, from 1965, are of a brand new Hills/Korvette store in Lawrence, Long Island, NY. If you look carefully you can see the reflection of the Korvette Auto Center in the window, with the rarer red signage variant. The fourth photo is a 1962 produce department, and the last one an artist’s rendering of the Korvette Food Supermarket (what other kind is there?) as built in the earlier Korvette Cities.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Korvette Summer

Here are a few more shots from 1962 -65, near the end of Korvette’s golden years. In 1963 Korvette planted its flag for the first time outside of the East Coast market, opening four stores in Chicagoland. The first two, located in Oak Lawn at 87th and Cicero and in Elmhurst at Route 83 (Elmhurst Rd) and St. Charles Rd opened on April 29. Two more stores would open before the end of the year, in the south suburb of Matteson at Crawford and 111th street and in Morton Grove at the intersection of Waukegan Rd and Dempster Street. Each of these stores were built as “Korvette Cities” with a two-story main store, an adjoining Korvette supermarket, furniture store/carpet center, and an auto center at the edge of the parking lot.

The fifth and last Chicago area Korvette is the only one I remember from personal experience. Opening in November 1965, over two years later than the other Chicago locations, this store was located at the corner of Harlem Avenue and Cermak Road in North Riverside, across the street from Berwyn’s Cermak Plaza, a circa-1956 strip mall which would later become an unlikely pop-culture icon with the addition of some, uh, "recycled" art works and a cameo appearance in the movie “Wayne’s World”. On the opposite side of the Korvette store would be the future location of North Riverside Park Mall, which opened around 1974. The originally-intended supermarket for this last Chicago location opened up as a Jewel Food Store instead (they basically closed their Cermak Plaza location and moved across the street), since earlier in the year Korvette sold off its grocery business in Chicago, with three locations going to Dominick’s.

We moved to the West Suburbs in the mid-70’s, and I vividly remember being mesmerized by the funky blue-and-white script Korvette logo on the face of the buildings and on the sign tower. Even though the store was only ten years old at the time, it looked positively ancient in the middle of that Helvetica decade, the 1970’s. As young as I was then, I still tried to imagine what the place would have looked like brand-new and full of 1960’s shoppers. My family didn’t shop there often, due to the virtually new mall right next door and the fact that Korvette was in steep decline and the store really showed it. The store became a Kmart after Korvette's demise, and has been a Kohl's for many years now.

The photos above include a 1965 exterior view of the Douglaston, Long Island, NY store (which opened a month after the North Riverside store discussed above), and various interior shots dating from 1962 and 1965. The Douglaston Korvette store was the home of a fine art gallery in the 1960's which was a pet project of founder Eugene Ferkauf. The health and beauty section shows a sign for “Kor-Val”, Korvette’s house brand for shaving cream, shampoo and the like, and the second photo shows a Korvette camera department with a great selection of telescopes – the chandelier peeking at the top of the photo would indicate that this was from the flagship 575 Fifth Avenue location, the subject of the previous post.

One type of photo I would love to be able to show is of Korvette’s legendary record department. The company was one of the very largest record dealers in the country, and it was truly one of Korvette’s main and most fondly remembered calling cards. It’s a safe bet that a great many Beatles, Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel albums flew through those front doors shown in the first picture. To say nothing of The Four Tops, The Mamas and the Papas, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass…

Friday, November 9, 2007

Breakfast at Korvettes

In 1962, Korvette opened a store that not only gained the company national publicity but proved to be hugely profitable in its own right, and also helped cement the direction of a major part of Korvette’s merchandising going forward. I’m referring to the famous eight-floor “Fifth Avenue Korvettes”, which opened on July 24, 1962 at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 47th Street in the heart of Manhattan’s “Gold Coast” retail district.

In the months leading up to the store’s opening, the store became the subject of many jokes (and much genuine concern) within Fifth Avenue’s elite retail enclave, which at the time included such luminaries as Lord & Taylor, Tiffany and Co. and Saks Fifth Avenue, among others. The basis of this was a fear that Korvette would open a stereotypically tacky discount store with barren walls, poor lighting, pipe garment racks and substandard goods, thus tarnishing the area’s image.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. The store (which was opened in the former location of W.J. Sloane, a famous New York furniture store which had resided there for the previous 50 years) was very tastefully decorated in a classy, elegant manner via a million-dollar renovation. Moreover, Eugene Ferkauf and his subordinates did a superb job of merchandising, stocking the store with a fine array of upscale apparel, including cashmere sweaters, furs (very much in vogue at the time though extremely controversial now) and other high-end items, in addition to their normal midprice offerings.

The store was a smashing success, and limousines picking-up and delivering well-heeled patrons were a common sight. On top of that, the store became something of a tourist attraction and would remain so for much of the next decade, even after Korvette declined in other areas. The Fifth Avenue store greatly influenced Korvette merchandising, leading to an increased emphasis on soft goods (clothing) and more upscale store décor.

The photos shown are all from 1962, the store’s first year, and show a bustling Fifth Avenue sidewalk scene, a beautiful night view, and a sizable crowd shopping in the women’s department. I really like the night picture. You can almost picture this scene several hours later – the sun is rising, peering between the buildings and down the street, which is still virtually devoid of people – then Audrey Hepburn appears, holding her cup of coffee and danish and gazing through one of the windows as “Moon River” strains in the background. You know, “Breakfast at Korvettes”, right? Well, maybe not.

Monday, November 5, 2007

E.J. Korvette - The Dawn of Discounting

In the history of American retailing, The E.J. Korvette Story is a fairly brief chapter. This brevity does not do justice to the tremendous, arguably unparalleled influence the company and its visionary founder, Eugene Ferkauf, wielded during its halcyon years – the mid-fifties through the early nineteen-sixties.

E. J. Korvette, Inc. was founded by Brooklyn-born Eugene Ferkauf in May 1948 with a single, cramped second floor store in Manhattan, where the main product sold was luggage. The store’s name (contrary to the popular legend which said it stood for “Eight Jewish Korean War Veterans”) was derived from Ferkauf’s first initial along with that of Joe Zwillenberg, a childhood friend, who would join Ferkauf in his new business. “Corvette” was the name of a class of Canadian Naval ship. The name was modified in deference to Canadian Naval regulations of the era which apparently forbade commercialization of military nomenclature (this was several years before General Motors’ Corvette).

Small appliances (sold at very low markup) were soon added to Korvette’s product mix, and after only two years sales passed the $2 million mark. By 1957, nine years after its founding, sales were at $71 million, and only five years later were over $237 million. By the end of the 50's, Korvette had begun to place a huge emphasis on clothing and and other soft goods, which helped fuel the company's rise.
Korvette played a major role in the downfall of “fair trade” laws – where goods manufacturers were allowed to set retail prices (today’s laws only allow them to “suggest” prices). To a large extent, these laws protected traditional department stores, who sold at typical 40% markup versus the discounters who often sold at margins of 20% or less. On hundreds of occasions, Korvette was sued by manufacturers for undercutting their mandated prices. Korvette’s response in nearly every case was to switch to a different manufacturer of the same product. The court cases also resulted in a ton of free publicity for Korvette, burnishing their image as an advocate for the poor, hapless, overcharged consumer.

Korvette also led the charge toward building in suburban locations, often arriving ahead of their department store competitors, including Macy’s and Gimbels. By the early 60’s, the company was building huge 200,000-plus square feet “Korvette Cities”, consisting of a “promotional department store” (they avoided the term “discount store” like the plague) with an adjoining Korvette supermarket, furniture/carpet center and tire store.

The department photos (and exterior artist’s rendering) shown above date from 1962, as the company continued to ascend at a furious pace. That year, Korvette opened 6 stores for a total of 21 in the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia markets. A push into the Chicago area would come the following year, with St. Louis the year after that. Most of the stores opened in ‘62 were suburban locations, with one very notable exception – the company’s new flagship store on New York City’s legendary Fifth Avenue, which opened in June. Discount retailing, still a fairly new phenomenon at the time, had from the start been rebuffed and ridiculed by critics as a passing fad. Korvette’s success was a vital factor in showing those critics (along with everyone else) that discount stores were here to stay. Undeniable proof that Korvette’s influence had expanded far beyond its geographic boundaries came in the July 6, 1962 issue of Time Magazine, which featured a glowing cover story on Eugene Ferkauf and his brainchild.