The Origins of 7 Department Store Chains

You can't set foot in a mall without hearing one of their names, but the stories behind the men and women who founded department stores aren't often part of our food court conversations. Here's a look back at Richard W. Sears, James Cash Penney and some of the other people behind the anchor stores.

1. Sears & Roebuck

Richard W. Sears inadvertently got his start from a botched delivery. When Sears was in his early 20s, he worked as a railroad station agent in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, and he was on duty when a shipment of watches came in for the town's jeweler. The jeweler hadn't ordered the watches and refused to accept delivery, so Sears talked to the watch wholesaler and worked out an arrangement—Sears would buy the watches for $12 apiece and then sell them for whatever he could get.

Sears had such great luck peddling the watches to his coworkers and local farmers that he quickly gave up the railroad business and moved to Minneapolis to start the R.W. Sears Watch Company at the tender age of 22.

Alvah Roebuck entered the story after Sears established his watch company.

Roebuck, a young watchmaker from Indiana, was searching for a job when he found an opening doing repairs for Sears' upstart company. Roebuck went to work for Sears in 1887, and by 1893 their friendship had grown to the point where they incorporated a new business together: Sears, Roebuck, and Company.

So Roebuck got fabulously wealthy as a result of his first watchmaking job, then? Not quite. In 1895, Roebuck talked Sears into buying out his share of their company for just $20,000. Although Roebuck stayed with the company as an employee of its watch division, he never saw the big money Sears made. After Sears' death, though, Roebuck had a great quip when people asked him if he regretted not having as much cash as his late partner: "He's dead. Me, I never felt better."

2. Macy's

dept2Rowland Hussey Macy played more of an active role in designing his company's logo than most founders do. Before Macy, a Nantucket native, got into the dry goods business, he worked on a whaling ship that sailed off of the island. At some point during his whaling days, Macy got a red star tattooed on his hand, and the star later became his store's logo when he opened his first New York shop in 1858.

The famous store was actually Macy's fifth attempt at opening a shop after four failed tries near his Massachusetts home, and Macy's shop only took in $11.06 on the day it opened its doors. However, by the end of his first year, Macy had pulled in over $90,000 and was firmly established as a popular New York shopping destination.

3. Nordstrom

dept3John W. Nordstrom began his life in Sweden as Johan Nordstrom. In 1887, a 16-year-old Nordstrom arrived in the United States with five bucks and no command of the English language. He spent 10 years working as a logger and miner in the Northwest before deciding to head to Alaska to look for gold in the Klondike. After two years of searching, Nordstrom finally made a strike.

Nordstrom sold his claim for $13,000 and returned to Seattle to invest his newfound loot. One of Nordstrom's buddies in Alaska had been Carl Wallin, who owned a shoe repair shop in Seattle, and in 1901 the two friends opened the shoe store Wallin & Nordstrom. Over the next two decades, the pair built up a devoted following in Seattle, and the firm gradually expanded into the largest independent chain of shoe stores in the country. In 1963, the company started selling apparel as well, and the modern Nordstrom's took off.

4. Neiman Marcus

neiman-marcusHerbert Marcus, Carrie Marcus Neiman, and A.L. Neiman might be the only people ever to lose money by founding a giant, successful department store. In 1907, Marcus, his sister, and his brother-in-law were business partners in a sales promotion business in Atlanta. Their firm was so successful that offers to buy it started rolling in, but there were only two deals the partners took seriously: an offer for $25,000 in cash, and a stake in an up-and-coming local soft-drink company.

The three partners conferred and decided they didn't trust the "sugary soda pop business" and took the cash, which they then used to open their department store. The soda maker they snubbed, Coca-Cola, ended up doing pretty well for itself. Decades later, Herbert Marcus' son Stanley became the CEO of Neiman-Marcus, and he often joked that the company was "founded on bad business judgment."

5. Bloomingdale's

bloomIf you ever find yourself desperately needing a hoop skirt, it might be worth checking your local Bloomingdale's. After all, the wildly popular 19th-century garment gave the department store its start. In 1860, brothers Joseph and Lyman Bloomingdale began selling hoop skirts at their Ladies' Notions Shop on New York's Lower East Side, and when these skirts flew off the brothers' racks, they eventually decided to expand their store's offerings. In 1872, they opened a revamped store, the East Side Bazaar, that offered all sorts of European duds they bought through a purchasing office in Paris.

6. J.C. Penney

JCPJames Cash Penney got his start as regular clerk in a dry goods store. In 1898, he began working for a small Colorado chain called the Golden Rule. In 1902, his bosses offered him an ownership stake in the company if Penney would move to tiny Kemmerer, Wyoming, and start a Golden Rule store there. Penney jumped at the offer. His store was so successful that by 1907, he was able to buy out the other two stores in the Golden Rule chain. By 1912, Penney had over 30 stores in the region, and he incorporated them all under a new name—the J.C. Penney Company.

7. Barneys

bnyBarney Pressman, founder of New York-based luxury chain Barneys, owed a lot of his success to his wife. When Pressman saw a small store in Manhattan going under in 1923, he wanted to buy it and open a clothing store of his own. There was a problem, though: he didn't have the cash. When Pressman told his wife, Bertha, about this predicament, she slipped off her engagement ring and told him to pawn it. With the $500 Pressman got from hocking his wife's diamond, he took over the failing store's lease and bought 40 high-end suits, which were the original inventory when Barney's Clothes opened its doors shortly thereafter.

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10 Strange Publicity Stunts by Major Food Brands
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Celebrities have always loved doing crazy things for press—but these days, even corporations will go to extreme lengths to get the word out about their products. Case in point: IHOP's recent attempt to create a little mystery, and sell some burgers, as IHOb. Below you’ll find 10 of the weirdest stunts done to promote mass-produced food items.

1. COLONEL SANDERS RAPPELS DOWN A HIGH-RISE

It’s hard to imagine KFC’s elderly Colonel Sanders doing much outside of eating and talking about his “finger lickin’ good” fried chicken. But in 2011, a man dressed as the Colonel strapped on a harness and rappelled down Chicago’s River Bend building. The Colonel didn't stop at rappelling down the 40-story building; he also handed out $5 everyday meals to window washers. What was KFC’s concept behind this dangerous promotion? They wanted to show the world they were taking lunch to “new heights.”

2. THE WORLD'S LARGEST POPSICLE

Sometimes being the biggest doesn’t mean you’re the best. In 2005, Snapple wanted to make the world’s largest Popsicle to promote their new line of frozen treats. Their plan was to display a 25-foot-tall, 17.5-ton treat of frozen Snapple juice in New York City’s Union Square. However, their plan ended in a sticky disaster. The day Snapple tried to present the Popsicle, New York was experiencing warmer than expected temperatures. The pop melted so quickly that a river of sticky sludge took over several streets. In a city already congested by traffic and tourists, this made Snapple enemy No. 1 that day to the people of New York City.

3. COFFEE CUPS ON CAR ROOFS = FREE COUPONS

A cup of Starbucks coffee
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Starbucks believes in rewarding those who embrace the holiday spirit. In 2005, the Seattle-based coffee giant developed a campaign by which brand ambassadors drove around with replicas of Vente Starbucks cups affixed to their car roofs. If anyone stopped the ambassador to warn them about the coffee cup on their roof, that person received a $5 gift card to Starbucks. Starbucks wanted the world to know being a good samaritan really can pay!

4. MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

Imagine walking the beach and finding a sealed bottle of Guinness. But instead of finding beer inside, you find a note from King Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. In 1959, that happened to people along North America’s Atlantic coast. Guinness wanted to build brand awareness in the area, so they dropped 150,000 sealed Guinness bottles into the ocean. The bottle contained Neptune’s scroll announcing the House of Guinness’s Bi-Centenary as well as a document instructing the reader on how to make a Guinness bottle into a table lamp. While no one got a free beer (boo!), they did walk away with an arts and crafts project.

5. EAU DE FLAME-BROILED

Who can resist the smell of flame-broiled burgers? The answer is most people—at least when it comes in the form of a body spray. Burger King’s 2008 campaign promoting the “scent of seduction” may be one of the weirdest ideas on this list. The fast-food company thought they could capture the world’s attention by creating and advertising a meat-scented cologne called FLAME by BK. Though select New York City stores actually sold the scent, all of this was a tongue-in-cheek campaign to make the 18- to 35-year-old male demographic laugh.

6. HERE COMES THE SUN

London commuters experienced an unexpectedly bright morning during January 2012. Tropicana worked with the art collective Greyworld to create a fake sun promoting their “Brighter Morning” campaign. The "sun," made up of more than 60,000 light bulbs, rose over Trafalgar Square at 6:51 a.m. on a particularly chilly morning. The sun set at 7:33 p.m. Tropicana continued to promote their sun day, fun day by having Londoners sit under the sun with branded sunglasses, deck chairs, and blankets. 

7. AIRPORT STEAK DELIVERY

Some of the craziest publicity stunts can’t be planned. We live in a world of 24/7 social media, and when the Twitterverse gave Morton’s Steakhouse an opportunity, they seized upon it. Before flying from Tampa to Newark, Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur and author, jokingly tweeted at Morton's Steakhouse that he wanted a porterhouse steak to be waiting for him when he landed. As Shankman was a frequent diner and social media influencer, Morton's Steakhouse saw the opportunity to start a conversation—and they went for it: When Shankman touched down in Newark, he was greeted by his car service driver and a Morton’s deliveryman. If only all travelers could experience that happiness in an airport.

8. BUYING THE LIBERTY BELL

April Fools Day gags can be great for brands … or an embarrassment. In 1996, Taco Bell took out an ad in The New York Times saying they bought Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. The ad also informed people of the bell’s new name: "Taco Liberty Bell." Back in the mid-1990s, people couldn’t go on Twitter or Facebook to find out the truth. Instead, they wrote the publication voicing their outrage. The hoax may have worked in getting press coverage (650 print publications and 400 broadcast media outlets publicized the joke), but what does that say about your brand when people actually believe you would rename a historic monument for your own gain?

9. CREATING THE LARGEST MAN-MADE FIRE


Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, the Costa-Mesa based chain El Pollo Loco sent out press releases saying they planned to create the world’s largest man-made fire. Why would they create a fire? El Pollo Loco needed to get the word out about their new flame-grilled chicken. Spectators attending the event were shocked to see that this stunt was actually a commercial shoot for the brand. The chain says they really did attempt to break the record. But many publications have stated the whole promotion was a fraud. Note to brands: When trying to pull off a publicity stunt and a commercial simultaneously, tell everyone your plan in advance.

10. KFC IN SPACE

KFC may just be the king of wild publicity stunts. In 2006, the company created an 87,500-square-foot logo at Area 51 in Rachel, Nevada. The company wanted to be the first brand visible from space. And it was no coincidence they picked a spot near “The World’s Only Extraterrestrial Highway.”

“If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice,” said Gregg Dedrick, former president of KFC Corp. The world is not enough for KFC. They need the entire universe hooked on their Original Recipe.

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Fizzled Out: Why Coca-Cola Purposely Designed a Soft Drink to Fail
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In December 1992, media outlets from around the country filed into the Hayden Planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History for what soft drink giant Coca-Cola was trumpeting as a “truly out-of-this-world experience.” In front of reporters, the company's North American president, Doug Ivester, unveiled a 16-ounce silver can that he hoped would change the landscape of soda.

The product was Tab Clear, a new version of the sugar- and calorie-free diet drink first introduced in 1963. While it retained its bubbles, the liquid was transparent, an obvious nod to rival Pepsi’s introduction of Crystal Pepsi earlier that year.

Publicly, Ivester boasted that Tab Clear would be yet another success in Coca-Cola’s long history of refreshment dominance. But behind the scenes, Ivester and chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman were convinced Tab Clear would be a failure—and that is exactly what they hoped would happen. Flying in the face of convention, the launch of Tab Clear was deliberately designed to self-destruct.

 
 

In the early 1990s, beverage manufacturers were heavily preoccupied with the idea of clear drinks that communicated a sense of wellness. The Coors company even produced a clear alcoholic malt beverage, Zima, to capitalize on the craze, but porting it over to the soft drink market was nothing new. In the 1940s, Soviet leader Georgy Zhukov used his friendly relationship with the U.S. to make an appeal for Coca-Cola to produce a clear version of their drink so he could enjoy it surreptitiously and without being accused of indulging in a capitalist product; the soda maker removed the caramel from the recipe, which essentially de-pigmented it. Coca-Cola also produced Sprite, a fizzy, lemon-tinged drink that didn’t use coloring.

But it wasn’t until Pepsi unveiled Crystal Pepsi in 1992 that marketing departments began to pay close attention to transparency in their product. Crystal Pepsi was essentially a fruit-flavored variation of regular Pepsi, with all the typical amounts of sugar and calories but no caffeine. That light could pass through the beverage was a novelty, albeit one that Pepsi believed could help them carve out a 2 percent slice of the $48 billion soft drink market. And if Pepsi could do that, it would mean less money for Coca-Cola.

Like a boxer preparing a counter-attack, Coke couldn’t simply sit back and allow Pepsi to strike without retaliation. But few within the company were sold on the longevity of the clear soda craze. Worse, the company had stumbled badly with New Coke in 1985, a new formula intended to replace the classic version that drew public criticism and created a public relations disaster. Tempting fate with a Clear Coke was out of the question.

Zyman had the answer. Before coming to Coke, Zyman had been a director of sales and marketing for Pepsi; he defected to Coca-Cola just in time for the highly successful launch of Diet Coke in 1982. After a sabbatical, Zyman—a notoriously combative executive who earned the nickname the “Aya-Cola” for his management style—returned as chief marketing officer and devised an ingenious plan to stifle Crystal Pepsi without risking the reputation of Coca-Cola Classic. His sacrificial pawn would be Tab.

Sometimes stylized as “TaB," the drink had been introduced in 1963 as an alternative for calorie-conscious consumers. Sold in a pink can, it was targeted specifically at women concerned about their weight and marketed as a solution to increase sex appeal. Tab, ads claimed, could help consumers “be a shape he won’t forget … Tab can help you stay in his mind.”

With Diet Coke available to help keep marriages from crumbling, Tab was relegated to an afterthought, falling from 4 percent of Coke's overall market share to just 1 percent. Zyman believed it was expendable. If Tab Clear happened to catch on, fine. If it didn’t, the failure wouldn’t reflect poorly on the Coke brand.

But Zyman wasn’t content to simply try to compete with Crystal Pepsi. In his mind, Tab Clear was what consumer brands refer to as a “kamikaze effort,” a product expected to fail. Zyman believed that the presence of Tab Clear on shelves would confuse consumers into believing Crystal Pepsi was a diet drink. (It wasn’t, though there was a Diet Crystal Pepsi version available.) By blurring the lines and confusing consumers who wanted either a calorie-free drink or a full-bodied indulgence, Zyman expected Tab Clear to be a dud and bring Crystal Pepsi down right along with it.

“It was a suicidal mission from day one,” Zyman told author Stephen Denny for his 2011 business book, Killing Giants. “Pepsi spent an enormous amount of money on the [Crystal Pepsi] brand and, regardless, we killed it.”

 
 

With Pepsi set for a massive ad spend on the January 1993 Super Bowl, Coke rolled out Tab Clear in 10 cities, with national expansion coming mid-year. Their ad spending was minimal. Coca-Cola made just enough noise to reposition Crystal Pepsi from a hot, trendy new drink to a product with an identity crisis.

“They were going to basically say it was a mainstream drink,” Zyman said. "'This is like a cola, but it doesn’t have any color. It has all this great taste.' And we said, 'No, Crystal Pepsi is actually a diet drink.' Even though it wasn’t. Because Tab had the attributes of diet, which was its demise. That was its problem. It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three to five months, Tab Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi.”

The dissolution of soda products on shelves is not inherently dramatic, and there was no visceral evidence on display that Tab Clear was flailing. But by the end of 1993, Zyman’s prediction had come true. Crystal Pepsi had grabbed just 0.5 percent of the market, a quarter of Pepsi's prediction. Both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi were phased out and Coke was happy to write the dual obituary. “Now both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi are about to die,” Coca-Cola chairman Roberto Goizueta told Ad Week in November 1993.

But it was Pepsi that had spent millions in development and $40 million in marketing; it took the company 18 months to formulate their failure. Coke spent just two months on Tab Clear. It was a barnacle that dragged its far more ambitious rival down with it.

Zyman continued to work for Coca-Cola through 1998. Clear products never caught on as some companies anticipated, though they do experience periodic revivals. Zima returned to shelves in 2017, and Crystal Pepsi has had promotional comebacks.

In one final twist, and despite Ivester's earlier declaration that Clear Coke would never see the light of day, the company’s Japanese arm released a zero-calorie Coca-Cola Clear in the country on June 11. This time, they might even want it to succeed.

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