John Wanamaker lived in a previous century, but his legacy continues to guide our shopping style and attitudes. And if my instincts are correct, he will continue to exert power over our approach to consumerism into the foreseeable future.
John Wanamaker, a deeply religious man, believed in equality for all, especially when it came to buying and selling goods and services. In 1861, in partnership with his brother-in-law Nathan Brown, John Wanamaker fashioned a shopping experience that combined luxurious venues with “good deal” prices that would inspire even the thriftiest to part with hard earned pennies. John Wanamaker believed in a bargain and shopped the world for cheap product that would increase the living standards of ordinary folk and, simultaneously, satisfy his need to build a business empire.
John Wanamaker recognized an opportunity and knew intuitively how to maximize, even exploit the strategic opening. When sales were down, he launched the “Opportunity Sales” in February and the “Midsummer Sales” in July. January 1878, the legendary “White Sale” was bestowed on a grateful public. He made shopping fun, exciting and affordable. He opened an in-store restaurant (1876) and installed electric lights (1878). His stores were massive, opulent and embodied the spirit of an age marked by innovation and transformation.
The greatest impact, however, was the modern-day price tag. Yes, John Wanamaker was the inventor of the retail fixed pricing system that replaced bargaining (aka haggling). The idea came from his fair-mindedness – everyone should be charged the same price. People embraced this concept, especially when it came with his “satisfaction guaranteed” promise.
In Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell argues that our desire for low prices has its origins in the strategies implemented by John Wanamaker. Others businesses such as Sears, and the F. W. Woolworth, five-and-dime stores, followed the same policies. She suggests that our focus on low prices has been at the expense of quality.
When I shop, price tags have new meaning. And now I’m looking at quality.