Goods Sell Themselves

“GOODS SUITABLE for the millionaire,” R. H. Macy’s advertised in 1887, “at prices in reach of the millions.” The fixed price had helped democratize the marketplace, and the new impersonal way of pricing had far-reaching effects on the consumers’ world. Consumers with money to spend were eager to find something to buy. But they were more uncertain than ever about what they “needed,” what was really essential to their style of life or to their station in life.

New classes of merchandise came into being, characterized not by their quality or function, but by their price. One of the most spectacular careers in American history and some of the nation’s most distinctive institutions were built on this simple new notion.

TO CALL the five-and-ten-cent store the poor man’s department store tells only part of the story. The department store was a consumers’ palace; the five-and-ten was a consumers’ bazaar. Both were places of awakening desire. The department store displayed items of all prices and shapes and sizes and qualities; and the five-and-ten displayed a tempting array of items which one could buy for the smallest units of cash. If an attractive item was offered at a low enough price, the customer would buy it if he needed it—but if the price was low enough and in convenient coin, perhaps the customer would buy it anyway on the spur of the moment, whether or not he “needed” it. In a world where the fixed price and the public price were only beginning to be known, where haggling was still a social pastime, it required a bold imagination to conceive the five-and-ten way of merchandising. If the fixed price was low enough, could people somehow be induced to buy because of the fixed price? Even before the fixed price was a firmly established institution, a clever merchant built an empire on this experiment.

The man who, more than any other, helped give commodities this price-focused quality was F. W. Woolworth. He conjured up a new world of five-cent items and ten-cent items. Hating the drudgery on his father’s farm in upstate New York, young Woolworth had found work in the general stores of neighboring country towns. But, significantly, he had no knack as a salesman. In one of his early jobs his salesmanship was so poor that his employer reduced his wages from $10 to $8.50 a week. He did have a flair for display. His first success, in a small dry-goods store in Watertown, New York, was in using remnants of red cloth to make an attractive window display. His employer, hearing of another merchant’s success in selling handkerchiefs at five cents apiece, decided to try a “five-cent counter,” and bought a hundred dollars’ worth of miscellaneous five-cent items: crocheting needles, buttonhooks, watch keys, safety pins, collar buttons, baby bibs, washbasins and dippers, thimbles, soap, and harmonicas. Woolworth arrayed them on a long table surmounted by a placard advertising the price. On the first day they were all sold.

Profiting from this experience, in 1879 Woolworth went off on his own (first in Utica, New York, then in Lancaster, Pennsylvania), trying out the idea of a “Five and Ten Cent Store.” His first problem was finding enough different items to sell at his price. In the long run Woolworth would secure a large enough stock of five-and-ten-cent items by multiplying his stores and increasing his volume. By 1886 Woolworth controlled seven stores; by 1895 there were twenty-eight; by 1900, fifty-nine. Even though each store was small, with a chain of them he could buy on a large scale. He attracted new kinds of merchandise, he invented some items himself, and he bought in large quantities. In this way he gave to all buyers, even in small towns, the advantages of membership in a vast consumption community.

“Price lining”—the production of items to sell at a predetermined price—expressed a new way of thinking. And it expressed a new extreme of buyer passivity, perhaps the last stage in making shopping into a spectator sport. In the new world of the fixed price, Woolworth gave modern form to the traditional notion of a “fair price,” long since elaborated by Aristotle and the medieval moralists. Was price somehow not a product of individual bargaining, but a quality of the commodity itself?

Woolworth from the beginning was bold in using red and he showed lots of red jewelry. In 1900 he standardized on the brilliant-carmine-red storefront (probably borrowed from The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company), with gold-leaf lettering and molding.

For his advertising, Woolworth relied not on the newspapers or magazines, but on architecture and on the self-advertising qualities of his merchandise, which had not been widely exploited until the recent improvements in plate-glass manufacturing. “No, you don’t have to bark for customers,” Woolworth advised his store managers near the beginning of the century. “That method is too ancient for us. But you can pull customers into your stores and they won’t know it. Draw them in with attractive window displays and when you get them in have a plentiful showing of the window goods on the counters …. Remember our advertisements are in our show windows and on our counters.”

Goods that carried a tag announcing their price actually “sold” themselves. The only function of salesclerks was to wrap packages and make change. This helped Woolworth keep costs and prices low, since he could conduct his business successfully by employing young girls at low wages. In the early days they received $1.50 a week. “We must have cheap help,” he wrote his store managers in 1892, “or we cannot sell cheap goods. When a clerk gets so good she can get better wages elsewhere, let her go—for it does not require skilled and experienced salesladies to sell our goods … one thing is certain: we cannot afford to pay good wages and sell goods as we do now, and our clerks ought to know it.” Following the examples of John Wanamaker and Marshall Field, who would not allow a clerk to approach a customer, Woolworth boasted that his managers “make their stores Fairs and a person can go entirely through them without once being pressed to buy anything.”

And Woolworth’s flourished. By 1900 his volume was over $5 million a year; in another five years it had trebled. For more customers he reached up into the middle classes. Then he crossed the Atlantic and opened a chain in England. By 1913 F. W. Woolworth, who made a fetish of simplicity and directness, who believed his five-and-ten-cent merchandise should be its own advertisement, had built the most spectacular piece of architectural advertising in history. President Woodrow Wilson pressed the button in Washington which lit up in New York City the tallest habitable building in the world, the Woolworth Building.

PRICE LINING was only one of many inventions and institutions which made it ever harder for Americans to define the limits of their needs and wants. Was it possible that every step to the cheapening of things would somehow impoverish people by increasing the disproportion between their newly awakened desires and the satisfactions they could afford?

In 1916, soon after A & P had inaugurated its accelerated expansion with “economy” stores, Clarence Saunders of Memphis, Tennessee, opened his first new-style grocery store under the enticing name of Piggly Wiggly. The novel feature of Piggly Wiggly was a floor plan which let the customers in through turnstiles, channeling them back and forth through a maze which required them to follow a prescribed path, in the course of which they saw all the merchandise displayed before reaching the only exit, which was the check-out turnstile at the end. By this ingenious scheme the customer, once in the store, could not find his way out except by exposing himself to the appeal of all the merchandise, including, of course, the things he had not come to buy. This plan for forcibly exposing a customer to the storekeeper’s whole stock came to be called, somewhat euphemistically, “self-service.” While this popular term emphasized the absence of a salesman, the revolutionary significance of the invention was that by making the goods “sell themselves,” it established a new relation between each buyer and everything offered for sale.

In stores of this type the attendant was needed to service the goods, not the customer. The “customer” had become less a willing consumer with specific demands than the unwitting target of the seller’s packaging and display. The seller had entrapped the buyer, not by any immoral or illegal device, but by the new architecture and technology of distribution.

An obvious consequence was the increased importance of packaging and the rise of “impulse buying.” The buyer had a new autonomy, a new isolation, forced on him. Alone, without a friendly or persuasive salesman, he confronted packaged goods in vast array. If he would indeed join the consumption community of Borden’s, Campbell’s, Del Monte, or Morton’s Salt, it was now his own “voluntary” act. But as the decision was forced back on him, he became less and less sure of what he really wanted and whether his decision to buy was really his own. Was he in fact choosing to purchase this instead of that because of some irresistible, Machiavellian, scientific techniques of persuasion that he did not even understand? Americans were drawn to perform acts of faith (hallowed and sealed by the price they paid) in the brands of goods in which other Americans by the millions were also expressing their faith.

Thousands of stores adopted “self-service.” Some secured franchises to operate under the Piggly Wiggly name, others invented variations. In California in the 1920’s the spread of the automobile produced the “drive-in” market. This motorized form of self-service was designed to draw people from a wider area and to make it more convenient for the customer to shop by car. Along with the automobile, the spread of home refrigeration encouraged people to buy in larger quantities. In 1921 only five thousand household refrigerators were sold in the United States; in 1931 sales exceeded one million. The 1950 census showed that over 90 percent of the dwelling units in the United States had refrigeration. The incentive to buy for home storage was increased with the arrival of the home freezer (hardly known in 1940) after World War II. By 1972 one household in three had its home freezer.

THE SELF-SERVICE IDEA was elaborated, and clever merchants found other ways of establishing newer and more direct relations between the consumer and all sorts of goods. What is sometimes called the first super-drugstore was opened by Walgreen’s in Tampa, Florida, in October 1934. “A revolutionary new kind of drugstore,” the company explained, “which not only provided the space for additional lines but took merchandise out of the traditional showcases and presented it instead on open display counters where customers could see it, touch it and buy it. The success of this new type of drugstore sounded the knell for the old-fashioned kind of ‘small corner drugstore.’” One of the largest was Walgreen’s gigantic Chicago store, which opened in 1949 at State and Madison streets comprising thirty thousand square feet on two floors.

Charles R. Walgreen’s success story was similar to that of F. W. Woolworth or George Huntington Hartford. He was the father of the modern American drugstore, one of the most characteristic American institutions of the twentieth century, an institution as bewildering to foreign visitors as it was expressive of the new American consumption communities. Born on an Illinois farm of Swedish immigrants, Walgreen began life as a bookkeeper in a general store. Later, when working in a shoe factory in Dixon, Illinois, he suffered an accident which cost him part of a finger; the doctor who treated him persuaded him to become a druggist’s apprentice. Walgreen found a job in a Chicago drugstore, which he eventually bought. Then Walgreen multiplied his stores, offering a vast range of nonpharmaceutical services. He developed lunch counters in connection with soda fountains, then manufactured his own brands of ice cream and candy. Walgreen’s drugstore became a modern version of the old general store, but it bore almost no resemblance to the English or continental chemist’s shop which was its predecessor, and which still survived on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1916 Walgreen had seven stores, and by 1927 they numbered over a hundred. By the time of Walgreen’s death in 1939, he had some five hundred stores with twelve thousand employees in two hundred cities in thirty-seven states.

“Supermarket” was the American booster name for still another new institution which first became widespread in the 1930’s. The supermarket combined self-service, cash-and-carry, a wide assortment of goods (at least grocery, meat, produce, and dairy products) and a large volume of sales. By about 1950 the trade had defined a supermarket as such a store with an annual volume of at least a half-million dollars. As if to demonstrate the wonderful flexibility of the American language, and the American reluctance to avoid hyperbole, a supermarket with a smaller volume was now called a “superette.”

Supermarkets had first been tried not by the big chains but by the independents, who were freer to change their pattern. A & P, beginning about 1937, gradually converted from their small “economy” stores, each staffed by one man with minimum fixtures and facilities, to the supermarket. And they made the enormous volume of the supermarket another opportunity for pioneering. For example, in 1940 they opened a new era in food merchandising with the experimental sale of cellophane-wrapped meat. In one place after another A & P consolidated three or four of their smaller stores into one supermarket. The nearly sixteen thousand stores of the year 1930 had been combined into some four thousand by the early 1950’s. Other leading food chains went in the same direction. As the supermarket, like the drugstore, moved beyond its original province, as new techniques of merchandising grew, the consumption communities overlapped. There was more similarity than ever before between the stores where the consumer bought his groceries, his hardware, his household cleaners, and his toilet needs. The faith and loyalties of consumers were less in the people who sold him the goods, and more than ever in the promises of unseen merchandisers, in familiar packaging and in trusted national brands.

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