A Tale of Loyalty

jwrudin1943.jpg

John Rudin in his mezzanine office.

We have another wonderful story from Kathy Gamble, whose mother worked at Rudin’s. This story is about employee loyalty. What makes an employee stay in a position even if he or she can earn more somewhere else? What motivates an employee to change jobs, or as Kathy describes one employee’s departure as “out the door on a new adventure.”

A quick note: To  differentiate the three Mr. Rudins, employees referred to John Rudin as Mr. Rudin and the two brothers were Mr. Jack and Mr. Walter.

Time:  Mid to Late 60s

Mary Lou was a sales clerk on the second floor of Rudin’s Department Store.  She was a divorced single mom, which wasn’t as common then as it is today.  She loved life and it was evident in her enthusiasm for almost everything.  The other clerk in the department was named Doris Brown.  I still remember Mary Lou singing the old Herman’s Hermits tune “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”  and dancing around when there were no customers in her department.  Mr. Jack was in charge of the second floor, and in my teenaged mind, I figured he tolerated more silliness than Mr. Rudin or Mr. Walter, but that might not have been the case.

Mary Lou liked her job, but she couldn’t afford to be sentimental about it. In the late 1960s a couple of discount stores opened on Coshocton Avenue on the east side of town.  The hourly wage there was more than at Rudin’s, so when Mary Lou was offered a sales position there, she was out the door on a new adventure.  Discount stores and Mary Lou were meant for each other.  After a short time, she was managing the women’s clothing department and having style shows.

One afternoon, Mary Lou stopped by Rudin’s.  Mr. Walter was meandering around the main floor, keeping his eyes on everything.  Mr. Blank, the usual floor walker, must have been on a break.  Mary Lou approached my mother and began telling her the advantages of Big N employment.  Mother had no intention of leaving Rudin’s.  She was satisfied with her wages and appreciated the year-end bonus she received. But Mary Lou was excited and determined to have Mother join her at the new store.  Anyone within a few feet of her could hear what she had to say.

In his wandering, Mr. Walter passed by Mother’s counter just as Mary Lou said, “You don’t have to work for these cheapy wages, come on out to Big N and get a good job.”  Mr. Walter gave a serious glance at  Mary Lou, then to Mother. He had a slight grin on his face.  Mother was embarrassed.  She didn’t understand how Mary Lou could say something like that in front of Mr. Walter.   In spite of this, she felt the grin was an indication from her employer that he understood the situation.

Follow-up: Kathy’s story encouraged me to investigate employee loyalty and reasons for changing employment. Mount Vernon was rapidly changing in the 60s from a downtown centered community to an expanding economy. With that change came more opportunity…and choices.

Here’s an interesting article on the 60s as a decade of change for women.

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The Customer Is Always Right

menswear

Menswear department at Rudin’s Department Store

We have another wonderful story from Kathy Gamble, whose mother worked at Rudin’s. In this essay, focusing on an incident in the 60s, Kathy talks about Rudin’s policy that the “customer is always right.”

In a previous post, I  presented a poll to ask people what trait they most valued in a sales clerk.  (The poll is at the end of this post.) Of the 84 respondents, the majority said, “Greeted me by name,” “was happy to see me,” and “knew the merchandise.”

Olive Huggins was one of the best. She knew the customers and was always friendly, but in the incident Kathy reveals to us, her mother’s vast knowledge of  the merchandise had a temporary disadvantage for a mis-informed customer. Find out what happened by reading Kathy’s story.

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My mother, Olive Huggins, worked at Rudin’s Department Store for many years.  I’m sure Mother never challenged Mr. Walter’s decisions, but there was a time she questioned his judgment.

When she was working in the men’s wear department, a customer wanted to return a shirt.  According to the customer, everything was wrong with the shirt she had purchased for her husband, and she wanted a refund.  In those days sales receipts were appreciated with a return, but not absolutely necessary.  The customer had no sales receipt, and it was Mother’s job to find a shirt like the one returned, check the price, and refund that amount.  As soon as she saw the shirt, she recognized the Towncraft  label as being a house brand of the J. C. Penney Co., a store one block north of Rudin’s.    Mother questioned the customer, asking if she was sure she purchased it at Rudin’s.  The customer emphatically answered “yes.”  Mother knew not to argue with the customer, but thought perhaps Mr. Walter should be advised of the situation.

She approached Mr. Walter with shirt in hand and explained the situation.  “You need to refund the customer a fair amount based on the price of shirts we carry here the store,” he said.

“But it’s a J. C. Penney Co. brand,” Mother protested, “and the brands carried by Rudin’s are a better quality and higher price than the Towncraft shirt.”

In his calm manner, Mr. Walter again told mother to do as the customer requested.  “The goodwill of the woman was worth more than the price of a shirt.”

After dealing with a difficult customer during the day, Mother would sometimes repeat this story at home in the evening.  She appreciated the Rudin policy that the customer is always right, even if the store lost a little money.

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Dress for the Weather

Here is a wonderful story by Kathy Gamble as told by her mother Olive Huggins. Thank you, Kathy!

Time:  Early to mid 1940s

Unlike so many women of the era who took on an active role in World War II and had jobs that previously were held by men, my mother, Olive Huggins, avoided the “Rosie the Riveter” phenomenon and remained in the traditional woman’s employment  role in retail.

The primarily middle class blue collar town of Mount Vernon Ohio was much different in those days.  The retail trade represented a varied component of the town’s economy.  Small business dominated the scene.  Along Main Street there were department stores, clothing stores, drug store, grocers, restaurants, bars, hotels, gas stations and a bank.  One of the town’s department stores, Rudin’s, influenced my life throughout my childhood.

One of the many stories I remember mother telling takes place during the summer in the early1940s.  The story was repeated annually, always during the hottest part of our hot, humid Ohio summers.  Even with the high ceilings and fans, after a few days of such weather, the store became uncomfortable.  The sales clerks all tried to look professional, which included a variety of undergarments and stockings.  The store owner, John W. Rudin, appreciated this, but during the hot summers he addressed the issue of their dress.  As they were leaving the store each day during the exceptionally hot weather he would stand by the door, remind them of the continuing heat wave, and say to them, “Remember, girls, dress for the weather.”

This story made me feel like the old gentleman who, to me, seemed unfriendly, was a kind, caring employer who valued the health and comfort of his sales clerks, over appearance.  It was standard during the hot weather to wear sleeveless dresses and omit the long hot stockings.  Although mother never said so, I suspect open toe shoes were also acceptable.

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That All Important Sales Clerk

Most books on department stores focus on the importance of the sales clerk. Sales clerks have a lot of power–they know the merchandise, know the customer, and are the link between the consumer and the manager. Especially in small town department stores and other independent businesses, they are key to the success of the store. Growing up in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in the 50s and 60s, there were sales clerks at Rudin’s that most everybody remembers because of their personalities, customer service, knowledge, and many other things.

What do you remember about a special sales clerk? Take this short poll to add to our community story.

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Woolson’s Too

Service with a Smile

Post-war and mid-twentieth century America was a time of prosperity and rising affluence in Mount Vernon, yet there was a flexibility in the management of small town stores like Rudin’s that supported the feeling of goodwill. One day in Woolson’s General Store, in the next block up from Rudin’s, my mother held my seven-year-old hand as we looked at the shiny kitchen utensils organized in crocks on the oak wooden counters. Picking up a hand mixer with a handle trimmed in aqua blue Lucite, she casually mentioned that she really liked that egg beater. I loved the way the blades whirred when she turned the crank. The price was $5, worth five long weeks of my allowance. To a little girl who worshipped her mother, this was a revelation worth remembering. After we were home and my mother was out of hearing, I asked my father for the money so I could buy my mother a Christmas present. I admit that I had a certain privilege and did not want for much, although I had, through frowns and raised eyebrows, seen the limits to that privilege.
In 1955 a seven-year old could wander the stores alone, and that’s what I did the next time my mother and I went shopping. I “ditched” my mother, headed straight for Woolson’s and that blue handled egg beater. With the $5 dollar bill in my hand I picked up the egg beater and triumphantly made my way to the cash register to pay. Mr. Woolson wrote up the sale on a little pad with carbon paper between the white and yellow layers. Eye level with the cash register I watched him punch the key that made “$5” pop up in the glass window of the cash register. My pride of a completed sale turned to horror as I watched him punch “tax” then “.15” which also popped in the window. He calmly announced, “That will be five dollars and 15 cents, please.” I froze with the five dollar bill in my hand and just stared at the cash register. With a sinking heart and rising embarrassment, I whispered, “This is all I have.” That dear man hesitated then said, “Oh, that’s OK”, pushed a button that made a drawer open with a cha-ching sound, and he placed my treasured bill in the metal drawer. My “thank you” was soft, but my heart pounded loudly with my good fortune. I have that egg beater now, and every time I look at it, I remember Don Woolson’s willingness to forgo some sales tax because a little girl didn’t know to have it.

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1915 Mail Order Competition – 2009 Internet Competition

Employees of Dowds Dry Goods 1914

Employees of Dowds Dry Goods 1914

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  At least that’s what our parents used to tell us.

Researching the history of Mount Vernon, Ohio’s dry goods stores and department stores, I came across a 1915 newspaper notice that Mr. J. W. Rudin (my grandfather) of the A. A. Dowds Dry Goods Co. led a discussion on “How Can We Meet Mail Order Competition?” for the Ohio Retail Dry Goods Association. Just a few years before, Sears added a promise to its hugely successful catalog – “Your money back if you are not satisfied!”

Small town stores, Rudin’s Department Store included, have always had to fight to attract customers to their friendlier, but smaller inventoried businesses.  I don’t know what my grandfather said at that meeting almost one hundred years ago, but I do recall many family conversations about how to persuade citizens to spend their money in town instead of out of town: customer service, developing loyalty to local commerce,and providing quality merchandise .

In 2009 the competition is the Internet sales -  the medium for seeing the product and for making the purchase.  Internet ordering serves the same purpose that mail ordering did….the customer could  drool over a catalog with limitless items to picture in one’s own home, send the money and wait for delivery. Life is simple.

This time  it’s the retail giants who have to fight mail order a.k.a. FedEx and UPS trucks rumbling up and down our streets delivering all those Internet orders. I am sure that  my grandfather and my father are both relieved that they don’t have to face cyber competition. So… some things have changed, but not really.

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Check out the history of Sears’ catalog.

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Dead Malls DOT Com

Dead Malls DOT Com is a fascinating website and blog about the death of malls as we know (knew) them. In the 60′s , affluence, highways, and shopping malls drew customers away from small town department stores. People wanted more choice and competitve pricing and were willing to give up service, which is the trademark of independent stores. The customer base shifts at light speed it seems, and now traditional malls are closing.

Dead Malls has abundant information about retailing history, including a dictionary of dead mall terms, old store lists, and dead malls merchandise. Do you know what a ‘mallmanac’ is? Or a ‘category killer?’ Visit http://www.deadmalls.com/ .

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