Most of us have visited a department store, at least once. You may be the type of shopper who darts from one section to the next, hopping on the up/down escalator or squeezing into a crowded elevator in pursuit of the perfect purchase.
But, have you ever thought of the family behind a mega store? How did they build their business? Who worked behind the scenes to turn shoppers into loyal customers?
Margaret Getchell was not a likely candidate to become a driving force in the retail industry, let alone become the north star to a future world-class department store.
Born in 1843 on the remote island of Nantucket, off the coast of Massachusetts, Margaret forged her destiny by leaving home at the age of eighteen to accept a teaching position in Richmond, Virginia. When the Civil War broke out, her school closed. Soon after, she suffered an accident which left her permanently blind in her right eye.
Not knowing how she might support herself, Margaret decided to head back north. She arrived in New York City on a blustery day in 1862 and walked into a little-known dry goods store on 6th Avenue at 14th Street. When the owner appeared, she told him she was seeking employment and shared the story of her background. Then they talked about their common Yankee heritage.
The owner decided to take a chance. Since his store was cash and carry, the accuracy of money handling was paramount. He emphasized the importance of his employees being honest and trustworthy.
Margaret could have simply accepted the job offer. Instead, she told him how the accident had left her permanently blind in one eye and a glass-eye replica now replaced the disfigured one. Then she assured him her handicap would not affect her job performance. He offered her a cashier’s position.
Within a short period of time, it became apparent that Margaret had a natural flair for both numbers and discerning which stock brought in more customers. Sales soon doubled. When the Civil War ended, Margaret convinced the owner to upgrade his inventory from trimmings and lace, to include military-inspired fashions. They became instant sellers. Under her suggestions, the store also began to offer hat merchandise, apparel, and toiletry items. She became promoted, as the first female store superintendent.
One of Margaret’s most valuable assets was her keen understanding of how to both attract and keep customers. She convinced the owner to install a soda fountain to allow customers to quench their thirst, and then continue with their shopping. During the winter holiday season, she set up doll houses in the store’s front windows. Each doll house was lavishly decorated and people stopped outside to look at the display. Soon, crowds of window-shoppers found themselves entering the store to buy.
In March of 1866 Margaret met Abiel La Forge, a good-looking Civil War veteran and ambitious employee of a competing firm. When Abiel switched his employment to the store where Margaret worked, he also proposed marriage. Within a few years Abiel became a junior partner. Together, they made a successful retail team, although Margaret had to forfeit her salary, since she was now the wife of a junior partner.
Hmm. That tidbit makes absolutely no sense, but back in the day, this custom prevailed.
In 1878 Abiel suffered a series of fatal hemorrhaging attacks and Margaret found herself a widow at the age of 35. She continued to work at the store, supervising all departments and providing marketing advice.
Two short years later she died of a pre-existing heart condition.
Today though, that fabulous store lives on. She did not live to see the move from 14th Street to 34th at Herald Square, or the magical Thanksgiving Day Parade.
However, she died with the knowledge that she had repaid the owner’s original kindness by helping his small dry goods enterprise transform into a world-class department store.
The owner who became her life-long friend was R.H. Macy.
Through the years other owners continued to enlarge Macy’s and enhance its merchandising aura. But, one strong woman, Margaret Getchell, helped to launch its initial success.
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~ Linda ~