Creating a Human Experience and the Genius of John Wanamaker

Have you ever walked into a bar or restaurant, a health club, a car dealership, a party, or a store and immediately wanted to leave?  Before our brain has a chance to process the situation, our intuition has taken control of our body, turned it around, and moved it back outside.  As we walk further away, our conscious mind comes back online and we feel relieved that we escaped unscathed.

Before John Wanamaker, that’s what it felt like, every time we needed to buy clothing.  The stores were uninviting, austere, and unfriendly.  You had to know what you wanted and if you didn’t make an immediate purchase the clerk kicked you out.  Seriously.  Anyone browsing was deemed suspicious.

Unscrupulous bait and switch tactics as well as no price tags meant that whatever we paid for a pair of trousers came from haggling.  No wonder people wore the same suit for decades!

Then … in 1871, Philadelphia businessman, John Wanamaker visited London (Philly and London are my two favorite cities, by the way).  At London’s International Exhibition, where art, commerce, and technology were on full display, Wanamaker had a vision that would change the retail experience forever.

In 1877, built in stages on the site of an old Pennsylvania railroad depot, Wanamaker’s was open for business at 13th and Market streets, right across from City Hall in Philadelphia.

John’s vision was a single price for all customers, a guarantee for all purchases, cash payment and cash returned.  What we experience as commonplace today, Wanamaker trail-blazed.  Yes, Wanamaker’s implemented price tags.  Price tags!  No more haggling. 

In 1910 he replaced the old building and created a shopping atmosphere that was (is) incredibly human.  A 12-story granite palace the size of an entire city block and still stands as the largest retail store in the world.  But, it’s not just big, it’s opulent, making customers feel like royalty just by being there. 

Inside, a 150-feet-high grand court, featuring the worlds’ second largest pipe organ and a 2,500 pound grand eagle from the 1903 St. Louis world’s fair.  Before cell phones, this was the rendezvous spot, making the phrase, “Meet me at the eagle” so popular.  Oh, and on the ninth floor, the iconic restaurant known as the Grand Crystal Tea Room. 

Why?  Why all of this?

Well, in gold letters on a marble column in the grand court are John’s words: “Let those who follow me continue to build with the plumb of honor, the level of truth, and the square of integrity, education, courtesy, and mutuality.” 

John Wanamaker elevated the human experience and was so beloved, four hundred thousand Philadelphians contributed to fundraise an eight feet tall, thirteen-ton statue of him that stands on the east side of City Hall. 

In business and life, we can elevate the human experience.  Maybe not on such a grand scale, but a lit candle, the right glass for the perfect drink, cleanliness, lighting at just the right temperature for a yoga class, thoughtful music to set the mood and anything that makes us comfortable, invites us in, and makes us want to be there. 


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