The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
I Bought It At Polk Bros.
When I took this book to the counter at Half Price Books in Highland Park, the clerk's face lit up. "Oh, I remember when this book came in," he said. "I loved Polk Bros.!" I told him that two of my aunts had worked there, and one had met her husband there. "Well, I'm glad this book is going to a good home!"

I Bought It At Polk Bros. by Ann Paden is the classic tale of the children of immigrants working hard and succeeding in America. Sol Polk (nee Pokovitch), his five brothers, and his sister built a retail empire that once dominated appliance, furniture, and electronics sales in Chicagoland.

They did it by moving high volumes of name-brand merchandise at low prices. That doesn't sound like a big deal today, but Polk Bros. revolutionized the appliance industry in many ways. When they started out, most stores carried only one or two name brands, and the list price was unshakable. In fact, many manufacturers were reluctant to deal with the Polks because they didn't want their brands to be cheapened by discounting. Most manufacturers eventually changed their minds once they saw how quickly the skilled Polk Bros. salesmen turned over inventory.

Promotions were another key to Polk Bros.' success. Many Chicagoans remember the thousands of lighted, plastic "Jolly Super Santa Claus" lawn ornaments from Polk Bros., but that was only one of many premium or giveaway offers contrived to bring people into the stores. They gave away crates of fruit, circus tickets, and just about anything else they could think of. The book begins with Polk Bros.' 20th anniversary party: they bought out Chicago Stadium for a night, gave away tickets to customers, and treated them to a live broadcast of Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" followed by an Ice Capades show.

I learned a lot about retail history from this book. For example, in the 1930s the utility companies used to sell appliances to encourage people to use more electricity and natural gas. Before he opened his first store, Sol Polk sold electric irons door-to-door for Commonwealth Edison.

Polk Bros. deserves special credit for what I call "going out of business with honor." They ceased retail operations in 1992 because their stores were losing money, but they made this decision from a position where they could still pay their employees (including severance) and suppliers. The company never went bankrupt. One could cite many reasons for Polk Bros.' demise, including a changing market with greater competition, antiquated information systems that would have been costly to update, a devastating warehouse fire in 1987, and the death of founder Sol Polk (preceded by his brothers). The company's remaining assets were transferred to the Polk Bros. Foundation, which is still granting millions of dollars (nearly $24 million in 2007) to Chicago social service, education, culture, and health organizations.

Paden discusses such unpleasantries as the stress on the family caused by the brothers' insane work schedule, but the book is generally positive and celebratory. Since it is copyrighted by the Polk Bros. Foundation, I can't help wondering whether that influenced how certain events were covered. The photo section is entertaining but too brief, and I would have liked to see examples of the advertising that the author describes.

I Bought It At Polk Bros. follows a prominent retailer in a rapidly changing consumer environment. I would recommend it to someone interested in 20th century Chicago or retail history, or even anyone who wonders about the source of that Jolly Super Santa Claus in the attic.

Current tally: 19 books finished, 18 books acquired

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Sunday, June 01, 2008
An Abt Description
After hearing about the place for many years, I went to Abt Electronics in Glenview for the first time on Thursday. Although I could have ordered the same stuff online, it was worth driving out there once to experience the place. I'm not really a technology freak -- yet another reason I didn't fit into the IT world -- but damn! Abt makes Best Buy look like a 7-11. Beyond the rows upon rows of TVs and appliances, there is a spacious indoor courtyard with a fountain. The courtyard is surrounded by specialty "shops" (actually, just different rooms in one big store) for featured brands like Bang & Olufsen. Somehow I missed the 7,500-gallon aquarium -- so big that a diver in a wetsuit cleans it! I wish I could say more, but I was so overwhelmed that I went directly to the things I wanted to buy instead of exploring the place.

I'm always curious to see how "mom & pop" retailers manage to compete with the ubiquitous chains in the 21st century. The store was founded in Chicago in 1936, but it moved to Glenview where space was cheaper. Today, Abt has a 350,000 square-foot showroom, covers 37 acres, and features a fleet of 200 trucks and vans providing delivery, installation, and repair service. Still family-owned, the company employs 1,100 people whose hometowns appear on their black uniform vests below their names.

Service was very efficient. A salesperson punched my order into the computer, a cashier processed my credit card, and my stuff was waiting for me when I walked directly to the pick-up area. I was a little disappointed with the salespeople, however. When I said, "I think I want this one," while pointing to an item, I expected the salesman to talk a bit about what made that one better or worse than similar models. I thought I'd get more expertise at Abt than at Best Buy, but I just got an order-taker. I don't know -- maybe I sounded too sure of myself (after all, I had researched this purchase ahead of time) so the salesman didn't think I wanted his input.

Overall, Abt is a place that every electronics geek should visit at least once. Their selection is huge, their prices are competitive, and the building is a temple of technology. On the other hand, a customer doing his/her own research would be just as well served by using their Web site since delivery and shipping are free in Chicagoland.

UPDATE 06/03/2008 - Someone called from Abt this morning at 8:20 to let me know my appliance will be delivered "sometime between ten and four." Sheesh, that's a six-hour range! Why bother calling me at all? The salesman could have said, "Just plan to be home all day Tuesday for whenever our truck shows up." Heck, even the freaking utilities can usually narrow it down to a three-hour window. Is six hours really the best Abt can do?


Sunday, November 18, 2007
Interesting New Books
I have a bunch of reviews to write, but first, here are a couple of new books I found on AlterNet that I haven't read yet.

I'll probably put The Year of Living Biblically on my Christmas list. I expect it to be entertaining along the lines of Joe Queenan's My Goodness. On the other hand, although I agree with the premise of Shopping Our Way to Safety, I don't feel a need to read about it in depth.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007
A Brief Visit to Hell
My wife's cousin is having a baby soon, and somehow it fell to me to procure a gift for the shower.* I don't have kids, I don't want kids, and I don't particularly like kids.** Consequently, I would rather shop for feminine hygiene products (and I have) than for baby gifts.

Friday night, I drove to the nearest Babys "R" Us, which appropriately is located beside my least favorite corporate villain, Wal-Mart. I entered with trepidation. Although I wanted to complete my mission quickly, the bright lights and unfamiliar merchandise overwhelmed me. I fell into a daze.

Fortunately, the registry business is huge at Babys "R" Us. Therefore, it merits lots of square footage. Right in front where no one could miss it was a long, curved table with several comfortable chairs. A woman behind the table stood ready at a computer. I told her the mother's name and that I didn't want to spend a lot, and she printed the registry for me with only the items under $50.

Okay, this shouldn't be too hard. I picked out two $12.99 items to fit our $25-30 budget. Aw shit, where the Hell is this stuff? Confronted with aisle upon aisle of assorted baby goods, I felt like an illiterate in a bookstore.

I tried, I really did. I was even in the right department, but I couldn't find a darn thing. Shit. Maybe I'll get something else on the list instead. I started walking toward the back of the store. Then it hit me. Oh my God, somebody give me a knife! I'll do it now! No, I wasn't feeling suicidal. I've been putting off that damned vasectomy for too long. I swear, someone should open a clinic right next door to Babys "R" Us.

Fortunately, an associate recognized the mix of horror and confusion on my face. He set aside a couple of stock carts and asked if I needed help. I replied that I had no clue what I was doing here, but (pointing at the registry page) I was looking for these. Then he not only told me where the items were, he walked over there with me and picked them off the rack. I was done shopping in two minutes, and I thanked him profusely.

After a very short wait in line, a friendly clerk rang up my purchase and sent me on my way. So although every fiber of my being resisted Babys "R" Us, I have to admit they have really great customer service. But I still hope I never have to go there again.

* Since I work at home, I leave the house as frequently as the post-Vegas Howard Hughes. But I love to listen to CDs in the car. So whenever an errand comes up, I figure the quality CD time -- in this case paired with a visit to the Corner Bakery for a club panini --makes it worthwhile. Besides, this effort excuses me (as far as my wife is concerned) from having to attend the shower, a fate slightly worse than being post-Vegas Hughes' favorite enema giver (Hughes needed help with his plumbing due to codeine addiction -- and yes, he did have a favorite enema giver). When I heard my wife R.S.V.P. on the phone, I could barely suppress my laughter as she said, "Um, no, I don't think Dave will be able to make it that day." Yeah, I'll be washing my hair or something.

** I don't hate kids; I'm not that much of a bastard. But I do hate my in-laws when they drop unsubtle hints about grandchildren. Anyone who knows my ambivalence toward kids ought to realize I'd make an awful father. If birth control didn't exist, I'd be a virgin. And while I'm being overly dramatic, curse you Jennifer for getting me into this ridiculous footnoting habit.


Thursday, October 18, 2007
Bastard of the Day
I've been a loyal Jewel shopper all of my life. One thing I love about Jewel is that they always accept my coupons regardless of expiration date (Walgreen's doesn't, just one reason why I hate those bastards). Today I got my hair cut and went to the nearby Jewel at 2940 N. Ashland Ave in Chicago.

"Uh, this coupon is expired," said the clerk.


"Well, we don't take expired coupons."

"What? I've been shopping at Jewel for 20 years, and I've never had an expired coupon refused." I had a wall-eyed fit right there in the line. I made him call the manager on duty.

"Sir, that's been our policy since I've been here, and I started eight years ago."

"That's bull. I've used expired coupons here before. No one at any other Jewel has rejected my expired coupons. If I wanted that crap, I'd shop at Walgreen's." I shop at six Jewels regularly and a dozen more occasionally, so I am speaking from broad experience (I am somewhat of a grocery store fanatic). Heck, I've used crumpled-up coupons that were obviously long beyond their expiration date, and no one ever cared.

When a local Osco (the drugstore side of Jewel) became a CVS/pharmacy and started enforcing expiration dates, the manager, who had been the Osco manager before, acknowledged that it was a policy change and even accepted my old coupons that one time just to make me happy. The bastards at the Jewel on Ashland obviously are not concerned with customer satisfaction.

If I hadn't spent an hour shopping, I would have left the cartful of bagged groceries and walked away. As it was, I spent $100 there. I told them I was never shopping there again. "Have a nice day, sir." Bullshit. I hate "have a nice day" even when it is pseudo-sincere, so F*** YOU, you patronizing bastards. You just lost a $100 a week customer over a lousy $1 coupon. I hope you're proud of yourselves.

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Monday, May 15, 2006
Bastard of the Day
I'm not really sure who deserves today's award, but it's either REI or the U.S. Postal Service. In today's mail I got a flyer about REI's anniversary sale. Perfect, I thought. I'd like to buy a few things before we go to Colorado later this month, I still have my REI dividend check to spend, and I want to see if they are selling Biking Illinois.

Just one problem: the sale runs from May 5-14. Today is May 15!

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Thursday, March 02, 2006
Free Maxi Pads!

If anyone doubts my love for getting a deal, read on...

The story began last week when I bought some Stayfree maxi pads at Jewel (a grocery store) for my wife. They were on sale 2 for $5, and I had a coupon for $1 off. When I checked out, the machine at the register spat out a coupon for $2 off Always pads, any size. Those machines offer deals to try to get consumers to switch brands, but Always is my wife's usual brand anyway (she said I could buy Stayfree since it was on sale).

This week I noticed in the Jewel/Osco sale flyer that Always pads are 2 for $5. Cool, I'll get a package for only 50 cents, I thought. Today I walked into Jewel and stopped at the Avenu machine. This is a relatively new feature where you scan your Preferred Card and get a page of personalized savings good for one day. I scanned my card, thinking it was a waste of time since the Avenu offers are never for anything I want to buy. At first glance, today's special savings looked to be more of the same. But the eleventh item of the twelve on the sheet caught my eye: "$.50 OFF Always Feminine Pads & Pantiliners."

YES! I combined the 50-cent Avenu savings with the $2 coupon... and I got a free package of maxi pads! I'd venture to guess that there aren't a lot of guys out there who'd be so excited about this, but it made my day.


Sunday, January 29, 2006
And You Thought Check-Out TV was Annoying
Those LCD-panel televisions at the grocery store check-out line were only the first step in a strategy to video-fy your shopping experience.

What's next? ShelfAds -- tiny video players that show commercials as you walk down an aisle. With iPod-sized video screens, they will be positioned right beside the products advertised. By playing only when you pass, they won't be tuned out by shoppers like in-store ads that play continuously. But wait, there's more:

Mr. McGinnis said the system has also been built to integrate RFID technologies and could one day dispense aromas as well. “If you are in the bread aisle, you could release the aroma of fresh-baked bread,” he said.
And when you walk down the diaper aisle... okay, bad idea. (Note: the preceding joke was originally about lutefisk. Then the focus groups showed that not enough people know what lutefisk is, but everyone knows toilet humor. And no, lutefisk is not a Norwegian rapper who hates Bill O'Reilly -- that's Ludafisk.)

These are like child simulators -- you'll be looking at cereal, and one of these obnoxious ShelfAds will call out, "Mommy, I want Apple Jacks!" Okay, not exactly -- a 10-second commercial for Apple Jacks will play instead (for what it's worth, Apple Jacks were never the same for me after they introduced the green Os).

Call me a weirdo, but I love grocery shopping. Why? Because I do it in the middle of the night when no one is around to bug me or get in my way. ShelfAds will encroach on my 2 AM "quiet time" at the grocery store. I can assure you that products advertised in this manner will be less likely to land in my shopping cart. Sheesh, just let me shop in peace!

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Thursday, December 08, 2005
Last Call for the Walnut Room?
First off, Federated Stores says that the famous Walnut Room of Marshall Field's flagship store on State Street (follow link for ironic headline) will survive the store's conversion to Macy's next year. But I cannot imagine our family's December tradition of having lunch beneath the tree in the Walnut Room followed by an afternoon of shopping in this retail cathedral without the Marshall Field's name on the doors and the menus.

Wednesday was the sort of day that those of us who work at home love -- the frigid forecast was an invitation to fix a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the 15 inches of insulation that I finally had installed on Tuesday. Alas, it was the one day when everyone (grandma, grandpa, mom, three aunts, an uncle, a cousin and her two daughters (so I guess that's three cousins)) was available for our annual Field's trip. I had a special responsibility this year. As the one who lives closest to State Street, that Great Street, I was expected to arrive early to reserve our table.

The commute downtown went well. I just missed a Brown Line train, but I scored an instant transfer to the Red Line at Belmont (I swear the coldest spot in the city is on the elevated platform waiting to transfer, with the wind cutting through your clothing and frosting your skin). In the store, a waiting elevator took me to the seventh floor where there was no one in line at the Walnut Room. In recent years they have switched to a beeper system to manage the crowds, but there is still a long line later in the day (just to get a beeper). I was so early that I feared that I would be paged before the rest of the family arrived, so I lurked nearby reading a book (Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists by Joel Best) for 15 minutes. When I took a pager, I was told that it was for the 11:00 seating, the first of the day.

I had given my cell phone number to my mom the night before and assumed that she would at least have her phone on, but I was wrong. I tried to call her at 10:15, 10:30, 10:40 and 10:50. I waited near the beeper line, which began to stretch around the corner and down the hallway. By 10:55 I was getting nervous -- I might be sitting at a table for 11 by myself! Finally everyone showed up, and fortunately my pager didn't go off until 11:15 or so.

Shopping at Field's is one of those things I only do for tradition. While I once followed in my mom's footsteps as a power shopper, I have become less and less interested in "the hunt" over the past decade or so. In addition, the Walnut Room's food and service seem to be a little worse every year. And the Harry Potter-themed tree they had a few years ago was just ghastly. The merchandise has declined, too, especially for Christmas decorations. I usually get the most enjoyment out of making fun of everything. Besides, with more Christmas junk in the basement than we could ever be bothered to display already, it's hard for me to get enthusiastic about ornaments or even the ever-expanding line of Department 56 buildings (every year I am disappointed to see that they still haven't added a brothel).

This year, however, the Walnut Room was surprisingly good. Service has improved -- I said everybody was working extra hard because they were afraid of losing their jobs when Macy's takes over. The BBQ spice chicken sandwich I had was downright fabulous. I removed the too-generous onion topping, but the multi-grain bun was tasty and satisfying. The chicken itself, while a bit drier than I expected (I had misinterpreted "BBQ" to means "BBQ sauce"), was quite flavorful. Even the seasoned fries were good, not over-seasoned like Bennigan's, Friday's, et al. On the other hand, my grandparents seemed less impressed with the chicken pot pie that I've eaten there so many times over the years. Halfway through her meal, my grandma quipped, "Look, a piece of chicken!" We finished with the traditional round of cinnamon toast (a hot drink with apple cider and amaretto that comes with a souvenir Field's Santabear glass) for dessert.

We walked past the Great Tree on the way out, but we went up to the eighth floor to take pictures. This year it was decorated with Swarovski crystal ornaments, a great improvement over Harry Potter. My mom had said it was something-ski, so I took to calling it Grabowski. Imagine a tree full of Ditkas. Now that would be cool.

I have no idea what Blogger did to this photo I took with my cell phone, but if you click on it, it looks normal.

The shopping went as expected. I got to make fun of a lot of goofy stuff and didn't buy anything. The offerings in the Christmas store were odd. For starters, they had evergreen feather wreaths. The weirdest thing is that they were displayed around the waists of sewing mannequins (the kind that go from the neckline down to the hips). They looked like feather hula skirts. There were some neat but way too expensive ornaments, but my favorite was one I called "the food chain ornament:" a cat looking intently at a fish jumping out of its fishbowl. I suppose it would be okay for someone who likes cats, but I don't think goldfish lovers would appreciate it! I don't know -- a predator-prey ornament just doesn't seem to be "in the Christmas spirit."

My grandma waited forever to make her purchase, and my mom waited forever to get gift boxes at the gift wrap counter. Maybe Field's improved the service at the Walnut Room by taking people away from the other departments! While waiting for my mom to get her gift boxes (you've gotta love that Field's touch -- they gave her 15 boxes for 15 ornaments she had purchased for $3.03 each), I noticed that there was a voice mail on my phone. My wife said that our dog had eaten the apple dumpling pie she had left on the kitchen counter. On the bright side, each of us had tried a slice and decided it wasn't so great anyway. On the other hand, our dog would probably get sick later.

The rest of our day was so-so. My mom found a great gift for my brother, and I think one of my aunts bought something. I spent time looking around and soaking up the architecture of the place. Granted, Macy's won't tear down the Tiffany ceiling, but it just won't be Field's anymore. In that respect, it was a sad goodbye yesterday. I don't know if my family will be going to the Walnut Room in 2006, but I can't imagine it being Macy's Walnut Room. The quintessential Chicago temple of retailing will become just another location of the New York store. We might as well hand over Wrigley Field to the Yankees.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Federated Dumps Field's Name
The way Marshall Field's stores have been passed around like a hot potato over the past couple of decades, I suppose this was inevitable. The Chicago legend's latest owner, Federated Department Stores (could that corporate name be any more lifeless?), announced today that they are changing all Field's stores into Macy's stores.

Field's is a Chicago tradition dating back to 1868--three years before the fire. Chicago shoppers have a strong emotional attachment to Field's. The huge store on State Street is lauded as a monument of retailing, and suburbanites visit with the reverence of pilgrims to some holy shrine. My family goes downtown every December for lunch at the Walnut Room beneath the gigantic Christmas tree. And even though sometimes they don't find much to buy that day, they return year after year. Field's patrons are so steeped in tradition that there was a tremendous uproar years ago when the store did something as seemingly trivial as changing the color of its shopping bags.

Chicago has a rich retailing and mail-order heritage, but it has faded in recent decades. Sears moved to the suburbs. Carson's and Field's were swallowed by larger corporations. Montgomery Ward's went bankrupt and closed its retail stores. The legacy of the golden years of Chicago merchandising is found on Chicago's lakefront. Marshall Field himself donated a large sum to start the Field Museum of Natural History. John G. Shedd, the second president of Marshall Field's, gave money to build the Shedd Aquarium. Julius Rosenwald of Sears funded the Museum of Science and Industry (he gave money to build YMCAs and thousands of schools throughout the country, too). Max Adler, who also made his fortune at Sears, bankrolled the Adler Planetarium. And A. Montomery Ward fought a twenty-year legal battle against lakefront privatization and development.

Replacing the venerable Marshall Field's name with Macy's especially hurts. Macy's is so "New York." I cannot imagine Chicago shoppers will ever feel the same about Macy's as they do about Field's. Mayor Daley, however, doesn't quite get it:

"Things change in life," he said. "If you are not willing to accept change, you stay in the past." The mayor called Federated a "very good corporate citizen." Regarding the State Street store, Federated plans to "reinforce that store," making it even more a "destination" than Field's has been.
Mr. Mayor, people come to Chicago to shop at Marshall Field's, not Macy's. Federated could have enhanced the State Street store without renaming it, and they will fight an uphill battle just to maintain the store's status, much less improve upon it.

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Saturday, August 06, 2005
Dick's Ripoff Reward
When Dick's Sporting Goods came to Chicago, I was glad because I never liked SportMart much--their stores were often dirty and disorganized. I know Dick's replaced Galyan's, but I never shopped there because, well, the name didn't sound right. Petty, I know.

Anyway, I went to Dick's this spring to buy a stand for the heavy bag (for boxing) that we've had in the family for years (mostly sitting unused in my parents' garage and later in my basement) and some other things. The store offered a program called "Dick's ScoreCard," and just the Beavis-and-Butthead double entendre of the name was enough for me (almost as good as when Dick's Supermarkets in southwestern Wisconsin offered a card program called the "Dick's Insider Savings Club," which they since renamed to the simpler and less embarrassing "Dick's Savings Club"). Besides, the ScoreCard earned a reward certificate immediately based on the size of my purchase. A no-lose situation, right? In May, my "Reward Certificate" came in the mail. It was good for $10 off my next purchase at Dick's. But wait, look at the thick paragraph of fine print on the certificate, particularly:

Excludes all Callaway, Odyssey, Titleist, Cobra, and select release TaylorMade Products, Levi's, Under Armour, Nike Dri-FIT, Therma-FIT, Sphere and Pro Compression, Merrell footwear, Nike Free, Shox, Impax, Air Zoom Generation, Jordan and LE shoes, Oakley, Maui Jim, Smith, Ray-Ban, Suunto, Arcteryx, The North Face and Columbia merchandise.
Sheesh, it would have been easier to list the qualifying merchandise! To top it off, the certificate was only good for two months. For someone with rare sporting goods needs (except cycling gear, but I try to buy that from local bike shops), the time limit alone irritated me. But after reading the list of exclusions and looking through a recent advertising flyer in the Sunday newspaper, I knew I'd never use the darn thing anyway.

What a bunch of Dick's (apostrophe optional).

P.S. I dug up a photo of a billboard promoting the aforementioned Insider card (probably on US 18 east of Prairie du Chien). The scan is dated October 1997, but the photo was taken a few months earlier:


Wednesday, October 06, 2004
Great Moments In Product Placement
The other day I shopped at a Dominick's grocery store. I noticed that unlike most stores, they had the condoms near the end of an aisle at the front of the store. Then I saw that the liquor department was only 15-20 feet away! I guess they're going for those Friday night one-stop shoppers.

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