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A Store Where Customers Feel At Home

Furniture World Magazine


Customer service must go beyond lip service, smiles & good intentions.

-Photo 04/1922 Furniture World

In 1922, Furniture World reported that "...when Wanamaker was a young boy, he said that if he ever owned a store, he would make it easy to get in, easy to do business and easy to get out of it..."

John Wanamaker, called by one President of the United States "the greatest merchant in America", made the following comment: "You have to run a store that people will feel at home in." That comment contained the very soul of Wanamaker's philosophy about how to run a successful store. To the reader who is not acquainted with his entrepreneurial accomplishments, Wanamaker's words might come off as merely philanthropic. Indeed, Wanamaker was philanthropic, but his emphasis on making customers feel at home in his stores was inspired by sound business principles. Biographer John H. Appel, one of Wanamaker's key managers, summed up his owner's perception of just how important the customer is when he wrote: "He early discovered what all American business now knows, that money is earned in greatest volume as a by-product of service." Appel wrote those words in 1930.

I do not know how accurate Appel was in writing that American business in 1930 knew the principle that volume is a by-product of service. I do, however, know that most American furniture stores today... large, medium, and small still do not understand the value of their customers. To be sure, every store owner will readily give lip service to the customer's importance, but lip service by itself is sufficient only provided one is a puppeteer.

Wanamaker understood that customer service goes beyond lip service, beyond smiles, beyond good intentions. He saw it as the very substance of what he had set out to build. He understood that customer service must be grounded on one's basic views about the deserving dignity of every human being who enters a store, even when that human being is just looking. Therefore, in speaking of how to treat customers he used the words "hospitality instead of hostility." He insisted that his salespeople respect the dignity of those who entered his stores to browse. How different Wanamaker's genius from the ingenuousness of us sales trainers and authors who feel compelled to write page after page on how to "overcome" the customer's "I'm just looking" instead of treating it with hospitality.

It was that same highest regard for the human dignity of his customers that led Wanamaker to write the following business code: "Let those who follow me continue to build with the plumb of Honor, the level of Truth, the square of Integrity, Education, Courtesy and Maturity.

Wanamaker then went on to write about "the renewal of an unwritten compact between ourselves and the people whose confidence we enjoy."

Two years before his death at eighty four years of age, Wanamaker was still showing the personal industry that characterized his tireless work style, although, the then mayor of Philadelphia stated: "By industry he won, but not by industry alone. Under the house he reared was a foundation of integrity, of justice, of morality, of fair dealing...and he is still at work, each day on the job, preferring to wear out rather than rust out."

The list of his accomplishments as a store owner reads like the grocery list of a family of twelve. Here are just a few of those accomplishments: "father of modern advertising, establisher of the one price system, installer of the money back guarantee for unsatisfactory or unwanted goods, proponent of a store's atmosphere based on hospitality rather than hostility, guaranteeor of the quality of his merchandise, absolute protector of his customers' freedom to visit and enjoy without obligation to buy, initiator of summer vacations with pay to all employees of six months service, and founder of what he called "the annual lowering day" to keep the stocks fresh. In 1879 he appointed a woman buyer to oversee European purchasing, a rare step for his time.

Today's owners might be well advised to call their local librarian to reserve for them a copy of John H. Appel's biography, "John H. Wanamaker Builder and Founder," printed in 1930. That copy might help to inspire them to model their stores after Wanamaker's formula of "the plumb of Honor, the level of Truth, the square of Integrity, Education, Courtesy and Maturity," the formula by which current home furnishings retailers can run a store in which people will feel at home.

Corporate trainer and educator Peter A Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. He is also a noted speaker and group leader. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to Peter care of FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.