Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Nostalgia From Old Fashioned Retailing

I originally wrote this back in 2011, but a former co-worker from this store is retiring from her teaching job this week, which brought these stories back to my mind...
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"There's no such thing as a short-sleeved dress shirt."

Years ago, I worked my way through college at an upscale mens' clothier called Jas. K. Wilson.  As you can tell, even its name was old-fashioned: "Jas" with a period is the old-English abbreviation for James. And it's not pronounced, as some people think, "jazz;" but voiced as the complete word, "James."

Being a traditional full-service store, we had such features as custom gift-wrapping, on-site tailoring, and full-time cashiers - things hardly any retailer offers today.  Our store staffed a full compliment of sales people on the floor, so customers didn't have to hunt for assistance.  We sent out thank-you cards to customers, and were expected to follow the old retailing mantra that "the customer is always right."

Even when they're wrong.

Okay, I added that last bit myself.  Except actually, when it came to the subject of short-sleeved dress shirts, we could point out the error of the customer's ways.  For years, when anyone erroneously assumed we'd carry such a garment as a dress shirt with short sleeves, we were allowed to politely advise him or her that truthfully, a dress shirt only comes with long sleeves.

Anything that looks like a dress shirt but has short sleeves isn't officially a dress shirt. Not even here, in our Texas heat.

Shopping is a Sport in Dallas

Jas. K. Wilson was eponymously named for a Dallas entrepreneur who'd built up a small chain of gentlemans' clothing shops, before selling them to Hart Schaffner and Marx, the Chicago-based manufacturer of handcrafted business suits.  Wilson rode an early wave of Dallas' population boom after World War II, and even though their original flagship location on Dallas' Main Street had long since closed before I started working for the firm, their location at north Dallas' NorthPark Center, one of the world's pioneering enclosed shopping malls, ran neck-and-neck consistently with the corporation's top stores in New York and Chicago.

In fact, when one CEO of Hartmarx, the corporate entity for Hart Schaffner and Marx, left to head luxury toy retailer FAO Schwarz, he contrived to boot the Jas. K. Wilson store at NorthPark from one of the mall's most coveted spaces for FAO's new Dallas emporium.  At the time, it was a big scandal in our local retailing world.  I remember offering to help move the entire stock of our NorthPark store from its prized, sprawling location to a hidden hole in another part of the mall - the only storefront available on such short notice.  What a ludicrous mess that was - trying to cram so much merchandise into so much smaller a space.

And such a slap in the face to a retailer with the legacy it had enjoyed for years in the Dallas area.

I started working in their Arlington store when I was still a junior in high school.  Back then, even though everybody else already had computerized cash registers, we wrote up every bill of sale by hand.  It could take forever!  And then we would turn around and peck the sale into a cumbersome, monstrous cash register.

We had a dapper, elderly black man who worked as the porter, making sure merchandise from our daily deliveries arrived onto the selling floor so we didn't have to get ourselves dirty in the stockroom.  When the elderly gentleman retired, he was replaced by a part-time college student, just a few years older than myself.  But that didn't last very long - the college student, a gregarious, fun-loving guy whose only flair for traditionalism was his conventional collegiate binge drinking, didn't last too long.  And when he left, so did the position of porter in our store.  After that, we had to take turns wrestling with boxes and racks in the stockroom ourselves.

We all wore suits in those days - even the female employees.  These were the heady days of newly-empowered career women, when ladies of the office began wearing stern black suits to announce the cracks in corporate America's glass ceiling.  We even had a small department off to the side of the store called "Corporate Woman," which featured these dark suits, tailored with the same craftsmanship as the suits we sold to men.  But we men weren't allowed to sell in the Corporate Woman boutique, although several female customers wanted one of our particularly handsome young salesmen to.

Actually, that guy ended up dating country-western siren Tanya Tucker...

Mall Wars

Speaking of celebrities, I once got to utter those immortal words, "How may I help you?" to actor Charles Bronson when he wandered into our store one afternoon.  His wife had been undergoing treatment at the renowned Arlington Cancer Center here in town, and I guess he'd decided to see what our local mall looked like.  He didn't buy anything, but then again, when your wife is suffering from cancer, clothes shopping is not especially a priority for a man.

Our mall wasn't anything to wow an A-list Hollywood actor, anyway.  It was nice enough, for Arlington, as 1980's suburban malls went.  It was called "Six Flags Mall" after the six national governments Texas has had:  Spain, France, Mexico, the republic of Texas, the Confederacy, and the United States.  It boasted all the national chain stores along one level, a subdued southwest design motif, and lots of palm trees and other plants that malls just don't spend the money on today.  We also had live plants throughout our store, professionally tended every week by a florist.  They added an appealing ambiance, nestled among racks of clothing, or decorating the opulent billiard table gracing the center of the store.

Unfortunately, as nice as Six Flags Mall was, it wasn't alluring.  So as Arlington continued to experience explosive growth, another mall was built several miles away.  And since new construction always draws a crowd, shoppers immediately flocked to the new mall from the day it opened.  Six Flags Mall's owners scrambled to construct a new wing and refurbish everything else, but it was too little too late.

Short-Sighted Selling

Our own store was caught in the fate that comes from failing to keep up with the new, too.  For all of the money Hartmarx spent on salaries for MBA-degreed buyers and executives, first at our divisional offices in Dallas, and then at our corporate headquarters in Chicago, they all failed to catch the increasingly popular business-casual phenomenon sweeping offices across America.

We salespeople heard about it from our customers, who were buying up our sportswear far faster than our suits, but our corporate bosses thought it was simply because suits cost more than khaki pants and golf shirts.  It was our fault for not selling more suits.

That's the way things typically went at Jas. K. Wilson.  If we had a good month, it was because corporate had done things right.  If we had a bad month, it was because the sales staff had gotten lazy.  Never mind the fact that nobody I ever met from corporate had ever worked on a retail sales floor in their life.  They all assumed that their college business classes provided better insight on how customers buy than actual, personal experience.

I vividly remember the Saturday one of our local executives, Mr. M., a short, brusque man who never smiled except in condescension, came to our store to show us how to sell.  We staffers all hovered around like cowed schoolboys after one of our spitwads had accidentally hit the teacher.  And Mr. M., with his gruff, no-nonsense voice and stiff mannerisms, aggressively pounced on each and every soul who had the misfortune of walking into our store that morning.

He spoke so fast that customers couldn't understand him.  And he was deaf in one ear, so when customers asked him to repeat what he'd just said, he'd scowl, cock his head, and shoot back, "What?"

Mr. Marcus may have sold a shirt or two that morning, but not nearly enough to prove that he knew more than we did about selling stuff.  He left quietly and quickly at lunchtime, and when we'd realized he'd gone, we staffers felt like running out into the mall to invite our scared customers back into the store so they could now shop in comfort!

Don't Worry, Be Happy

By the time corporate realized the tide in office apparel had turned, and that business-casual was here to stay, it was too late for Jas. K. Wilson.  Our once-mighty NorthPark store had died an ignominious death in yet another shell of a space.  Our new mall in Arlington had pretty much decimated customer traffic at Six Flags Mall, and several of our sister stores in the area were closing because of demographic shifts, as affluent customers continued to move further out into newer suburbs.

However, the last straw had nothing to do with completely botching the business-casual trend, or not moving to newer malls in newer areas, or us not knowing how to sell shirts, ties, shoes, suits, and womens' blouses.  It came, as we understood it, from two top executives at Hartmarx up in Chicago.

To avoid filing for bankruptcy protection, Hartmarx put all of its stores up for liquidation, so its legacy suit manufacturing division could be salvaged.  By then, none of us were surprised at that development, but we were stunned to hear some scuttlebutt a few days later that those two top executives had absconded to the Caribbean after allegedly looting the company's coffers.

How much of that is true we could never determine.  But it seemed to fit a pattern of irresponsibility that had been emanating from the exclusive Wacker Drive skyscraper Hartmarx leased in Chicago's Loop.  And it evaporated what morale was left after learning our stores were being dumped from underneath our feet.

In the end, I wound up being the store manager at Six Flags the day it officially shut forever, which was indeed a somber event.  What few staffers remained filed out of the back door, I followed behind them, and gave the keys to the representative of the liquidation firm handling the closing.  The liquidators would return later and finish removing whatever hadn't already been sold off.

The next day, I drove to another store nearby and helped do the same thing with their liquidation.

What an inauspicious way for the revered Jas. K. Wilson legacy to end.  Not that being a clothing salesperson would ever have been my dream job.  Looking back, however, it's been the longest single period of employment I've had in my life.

And it wasn't all a waste.  It got me through college.  It trained me in selling, and even in the intricacies of how a proper silk tie is constructed - and tied.  Regular readers of this blog probably don't believe me, but working at Jas. K. Wilson taught me the art of diplomacy, the respect one can earn from simple hard work (and that I shouldn't expect respect from folks at corporate), and how to think on my feet.

Some Things Don't Go Out of Fashion

One of the elderly gentlemen with whom I had the privilege of working, Coy Garrison, would repeat himself often, and was just as hard of hearing as the younger Mr. M.  He also didn't see very well, despite his extraordinarily thick glasses.  Even after a customer would make a decision on, say, a shirt and matching tie, Coy would linger beneath a nearby light bulb, straining to check and see if the two items really did go together.

Because of his age, Coy assumed the position of elder statesman on our sales floor, and when business was slow (and even when it wasn't), he'd often hold court along the dress shirt wall, with its white stucco arches, and rows and rows of glass display cubes, sharing bits of wisdom from years in the business.

Of all the bits of wisdom he'd share, he'd repeat his unwavering belief that if they didn't do military service, every person should spend at least a year in retail after they left school.

In retail, Coy argued, you meet all sorts of people, both as customers and co-workers.  And especially managers.  You have to learn how to make your own way, how to educate yourself on the merits of a product, and how to share what you've learned with a person who may have had, until that point, no interest at all in what you wanted to sell them.

And, perhaps most importantly, Coy taught that you weren't going to sell everybody what you wanted to sell them.  But selling or not selling wasn't as important as how you did it.  Whether you sold them or not, Coy would always preach that you should conduct yourself with enough integrity so that you could go home with a clear conscience, get a good night's sleep, and get up the next day to do it all over again.

Maybe not the most profound words anybody's ever said.

But no less true than there being no such thing as a short-sleeved dress shirt.


The bottom of an old advertisement I found online.
Merritt Schaefer & Brown and Frank Bros. were sister Hartmarx stores in our division here in Texas.

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