Not above a few days ago I had a pleasant letter from a gentleman in New York City who wanted me to consider his suggestion. He added that "I can make no promises, but," and he signed sincerely as, let's say, Axel Gudgeon, Vice President. I thought of Mr. Williams who owned a lumber business up Eastern Division Townships way and went about the sawmill wearing a cap that said, "I'm No. 1, and don't you forget it!" Mr. Williams would think little of a company whose vice president had no authority to make promises.
My store-keeper uncle, Ralph, who could have been president of Harvard but was too smart to take such an unimportant job, was his own board of directors and held all offices except hen warden, as I shall explain.
My uncle had some magnificent gladiola bulbs, and prided himself on his gladiola garden in front of the store where, in season, everybody admired it.
In the somewhat rural situation of his store, however, he was bothered by stray hens from close-by barnyards that "dusted" among his glads. Hens will do that. They like to snuggle into dry dirt, get their feathers all dusty, and then shake the dust out. This cleanses the plumage, after which the bird will preen. But this puts a strain on adjacent plants, and Uncle Ralph would employ somebody to keep the pesky hens out of his posies. The only connection this had with his general store was location, and the fact that hens caught in the act were offered, after processing, at his meat counter and the warden was self-supported.
In today's retail world, Woolworth's has just gone out of business because it couldn't lick the competition. Uncle Ralph could, and did, lick it and much enjoyed the encounter. His first victim was a branch store of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, which moved in with much pageantry and was poised to put him out of business in no more than a month. Uncle Ralph went in to meet the new manager and offered to help him if he needed advice or an introduction to the banker. Uncle Ralph was a friendly man.
The next week in the Madison Bulletin the A & P offered six cakes of Sunny Monday laundry soap for 25 cents. This was known as "pushing a loss leader," meaning the store was offering soap at less than cost, enticing shoppers who would make up the difference on other purchases. My Uncle Ralph called it contagious idiocy. Smiling all the while, Uncle Ralph endured the nasty remarks of customers who asked him why he couldn't sell Sunny Monday soap six bars for a quarter. And the next week he had his advertisement in the Madison Bulletin:
THIS WEEK ONLY
No, Uncle Ralph didn't sell a cake of Sunny Monday. All his customers had stocked up last week at a bargain price. And they were all mad at the A & P.
Uncle Ralph would explain that stores like A & P have local managers who, like our vice president, can't make promises, are limited in their decisions, and are too far away from the home office to get an answer if they need one. After that A & P closed, Uncle Ralph took care of a First National, a Red & White, and an IGA, and then his store burned and in his seniority he hung up his mittens.
One of those chain stores that Uncle Ralph put out of business had opened with great cry about saving money, and had offered a loss leader of Pacific canned salmon. Uncle Ralph telephoned at once and had a shipment of canned white salmon on his sidetrack the next Tuesday. His advertisement offered salmon at three-cents-a-can cheaper, and he had added to the label a small sticker that said, "Guaranteed not to turn red in the can."
And when Uncle Ralph heard that an efficiency expert for the chain grocery had all the lights in the store wired through one master switch, he ran one of his folksy ads that observed it didn't take much to be a chain-store manager. Uncle Ralph said keeping store was a dreary job and he took his fun where he found it. He advertised that chain stores resort to sly tricks, and the only way he could compete was to be slyer'n they were. "Come in for rancid butter!" he advertised. "But I stock good butter, too! I match competition prices on both kinds."
IT was along in the 1920s that Uncle Ralph told me a story about his father, my grandfather. He said Ralph Anderson opened a big new store in the village and was giving away small favors to all who came in. Grandfather never missed a trick over something for nothing, and he went in. Mr. Anderson shook hands and said, "Well, what do you think of the place?"
It was truly a handsome store, but my grandfather said, "You won't last six months!"
"Why do you say that?" asked Mr. Anderson.
"Because you got no place to hitch a horse."
It was true, no hitching posts had been provided. But Uncle Ralph would say, "My father was looking well ahead. He had a horse, and so did others, but this was around 1929 or so, and an automobile in every garage was close upon us. My father was thinking about parking lots. And he was right. The first store that moved into the first mall put the Ralph Andersons out of business. In six months.
"I was fortunate to get burned out." And then he'd play some more cribbage at the fire station, where he passed most of his time after he retired.