February 12, 2007

Marshall Field's

And the man behind the brand is...
Marshall Field

"The customer is always right!" History does not record exactly when, or even if, Marshall Field, the 19th century's wealthiest merchant, ordered that declaration but it exemplified his retailing philosophy and came to represent the American retailing credo. In an era of "caveat emptor" Field's stores emphasized full credit refunds for any reason whatsoever.

Marshall Field did not carry the stamp on greatness upon him in his early years. After Field achieved unprecedented success in Chicago his first employer remarked about Field's four years as a Pittsfield, Massachusetts clerk, "Well, I'd never thought it of him. He was about the greenest looking lad I ever saw when he came to work for me."

With $1000 saved from his Pittsfield job Field, a slender, handsome man of average height, went to join his brother in Chicago in 1856. His brother got him a clerk position in the largest wholesale drygoods house in Chicago. Field's salary was $400 a year. He slept on the premises and saved $200.

Field progressed rapidly and became a partner in 1860 at the age of 25.
Prices rose with the Civil War brewing and when the war ended Field bought into the store of Potter Palmer who introduced fashion to the rough frontier town of 50,000 that was Chicago in 1865.

Palmer soon concluded that his present Lake Street location did not hold as much promise as a State Street address. State Street was little more than a muddy ribbon flowing through rows of dilapidated shacks but Potter quietly acquired all the property on State Street. He built a street 100 feet in width, erected a 6-story building and opened his doors. State Street was on its way to becoming one of the great shopping streets in the world. Field and his partner Levi Leiter leased the new building.

In 1871 Field was turning over $8,000,000 of inventory each year when the Great Chicago Fire destroyed the city. Field's losses were over $3,500,000 and only $2,500,000 was insured. The firm was caught in the financial panic of 1873 and in 1877 the store again went to the ground in flames. Despite the setbacks of the 1870s the company not only survived but prospered.

In 1881 Field bought out Leiter for $2,000,000. Over the next 25 years sales tripled from 25million dollars to 73 million. Field stressed quality and would have nothing to do with shoddy merchandise. He believed in providing his customers with the most attractive facilities possible in which to shop.

Outside of retailing the merchant dabbled in railroads, real estate, banking and steel. He financed the Chicago Natural Museum of History with over ten million dollars. When Marshall Field died in 1906 his estate was estimated at $150 million. He was the largest taxpayer in the United States.

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