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John Wanamaker: Fixed Prices and Customer Satisfaction

4 min

In a world where many people believe that their business lives must be separated from their religion, it is refreshing to find examples of Godly men whose personal Christian faith made positive changes in the marketplace. One such man was a brilliant retail magnate who lived over a century ago and dramatically and positively changed forever the way that retail sales are conducted.

We have become so accustomed to price tags that we take them for granted. But one hundred fifty years ago, price tags were rarely used in most stores in America. Merchants and consumers were accustomed to the system of barter and trade. If a merchant thought that he could sell you a good axe for ten dollars, why would he let a customer buy one for only seven dollars? Merchants intentionally did not show their customers a fixed price. But this system led to much corruption, and many people were taken advantage of over the years through unscrupulous and greedy “negotiations.”

Proverbs 20:14 gives us a glimpse of this type of barter as a customer belittles a purchase beforehand but then boasts about his purchase afterwards. In contrast to these unjust business practices, the Bible says, “A false balance is abomination to the LORD: but a just weight is his delight” (Proverbs 11:1). We all owe a debt of gratitude to Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker who introduced to the world of commerce the simple but revolutionary idea of the “fixed price” tag.

John Wanamaker was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 11, 1838. He was the son of a brickmaker of German and French heritage. As a young boy, John was industrious and thrifty. He worked for his father in the brickyard, and later he became an errand boy for a local clothing store. While he was a schoolboy, John began editing and publishing a small newspaper. He also began manufacturing his own recipe for cologne, which he bottled and marketed himself.

John Wanamaker was such a hard worker that his health was impaired from laboring long hours, and he was forced to slow down. He placed his faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation as a young man and afterward dedicated much of his free time to the work of the Gospel. He became an advocate against drunkenness and was an important voice for temperance. He became the secretary for a new organization called the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). John married a Godly young lady named Mary Brown, and the Lord blessed the couple with five children.

In the spring of 1861, John Wanamaker and his brother-in-law opened their own clothing store in Philadelphia. Students of history will recognize the date as the same year that the War Between the States began at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. In fact, the store opened just days before the outbreak of the war.

As the war intensified, a market hungry for an assortment of goods arose. Items in great demand included dry goods, clothing, harnesses, supplies, food, clothing, hats, buckles, and every kind of merchandise imaginable. John Wanamaker insisted upon two principles in his business, both novel ideas at the time.

The first principle was a fixed price. He did not believe that merchants should haggle with their customers over the price of an item. He attached tags and labels to all of his merchandise with the exact price that a customer could expect to buy the item.

The second principle was customer satisfaction. He promised to refund his customers the full amount if they were dissatisfied with his product. This courtesy led to a spirit of trust between buyer and seller that was unique in Wanamaker’s day. Customer loyalty was built up over time, and the store became a grand success.

During the difficult years of the Civil War, John Wanamaker supported the work of the Christian Commission, which provided supplies and medical services to needy soldiers. He also gave generously to the work of ministers like D. L. Moody and other evangelists who preached to the troops during the war. At the close of hostilities, many returning veterans were given jobs in his store.

In 1875, Wanamaker purchased an abandoned railroad depot on the corner of Thirteenth and Market Streets and turned it into one of the world’s first department stores. Like any businessman who puts the Lord and His Word first in his life, God worked through Wanamaker in a remarkable way, and the store grew quickly to become the largest and most prosperous retail establishment in the world. At its height, the store had fifty separate departments, employed 3,500 workers regularly and increased to 4,500 employees during the holiday season, covered fourteen acres of floor space, and became the hub of social life in Philadelphia.

Considering the needs of his patrons, Mr. Wanamaker added to his store reading rooms, the first in-store restaurant, public restrooms, and an information bureau. A new granite building was built on the site of the depot, and the grand court of that new edifice contained an atrium that enclosed seven stories. A magnificent organ with 10,000 pipes was installed in the atrium to provide music throughout the department store.

John Wanamaker was one of the first businessmen to provide life insurance and benefits for all his employees. He gave them a portion of business profits, thus motivating them to contribute to the success of the company. He also provided them with a pension fund as well as health benefits.

In 1889, he was selected by President Benjamin Harrison to serve as the Postmaster General for the United States. Wanamaker’s business mind quickly brought in increased revenue for the Postal Service as he made overseas mail delivery more efficient, introduced commemorative stamps which increased interest in stamp collecting, and developed using pneumatic tubes for quicker and more efficient mail sorting. In his post, he also took the high moral ground by banning the sale of lottery tickets via the mail and banned an obscene book from being shipped through the postal system.

John Wanamaker used his wealth for the glory of God and for the benefit of his fellow man. He gave generously above and beyond the tithe to his local church, Bethany Presbyterian Church. He supported the cause of foreign missions. He was a collector of art; in fact, in his collection he owned two pieces of famous sacred art—two historical paintings: “Christ before Pilate” and “The Wise and Foolish Virgins.” Wanamaker was also interested in the preservation of antiquities in archaeological research, especially of the North American Indian.

Although his estate was once valued at $35 million—an enormous fortune in his generation—he always dressed simply in a black suit and tie. Despite any material success that came to John Wanamaker, he strived to give back to God and to his community. Wanamaker gave to the world a new pattern of retail where service, fair prices, and customer satisfaction were prioritized. He forced his competition to rise to the same standard of business integrity, and the world has benefited from his example.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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