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Potter Palmer: pioneering retailer

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As a child, Potter Palmer worked at his father’s dry goods store in a New York village, learning to set up displays and chat up customers. He loved to sell. He dreamed big.

Once he’d apprenticed with another merchant, Palmer opened his own place in 1848. It did well. But he kept looking for a bigger opportunity, for the store of his dreams.

Reading about the western frontier, Palmer struck out for Chicago with a $3,000 family loan.

This was his chance. To take advantage of it, Palmer tried strange new things:
  • Ordering high-end, unique merchandise, much of it coming from Europe and Asia.

  • Holding so-called “bargain days,” cutting regular prices (the first “sales”).

  • Hiring well-spoken clerks who remembered customers’ names and preferences. He also let people browse, inventing the concept of “shopping.”

  • Fulfilling special requests, including home deliveries and special orders.

  • Offering the first money-back guarantee.
Lesson: Think big — really big — on behalf of your customers. So big, in fact, that if you give them exactly what they want, they’ll pay you handsomely for it.

—Adapted from “He Put The Luxury In Retail,” Joanne Von Alroth, Investor’s Business Daily.

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