Retail all about respect

It was a little bit of a shock to see his obituary since I didn’t know what had become of Mr. Nick or for that matter that he was even still living.

Luke Nichols, Mr. Nick, as my grandmother referred to him, was the J.C. Penny store manager in Portales when I was growing up and probably until the store closed in the early 1980s. My grandmother worked for him as a sales clerk and thought the world of him. But it was clear from talking with her that working for him wasn’t easy either.

He was from that day and time when managers and owners at retail establishments demanded a lot from employees and normally got it. Their demands always had something to do with providing good customer service, even when the clerks didn’t always understand the value of resetting a store layout regularly or keeping items faced and displayed properly.

He wasn’t on the floor himself a lot but when he was he was all business and knew his merchandise and his customers. If anybody at the store moved as fast as grandmother it might have been Mr. Nichols. Neither of them was tall enough to be seen over the displays so you had to keep up if they were leading you to another aisle in the store.

The business office at J.C. Penny was upstairs and clerks wrote out a sales ticket with each sale and those tickets and the money and checks out of the registers would be put on a clothesline contraption that flew the paperwork upstairs where Mr. Nichols carefully kept watch of how the store was doing.

The 1970s and ‘80s were the golden age of retailing as far as I’m concerned. Consumerism had peaked with new products and styles constantly coming out and mass marketers and the Internet hadn’t appeared on the scene. Money could be made fast if a store manager or department head knew what his customers would buy and paid attention to add the new things they wanted while not alienating those loyal to brands and particular products.

Advertising was easy in small towns like Portales and Clovis. If you wanted to build a brand you used radio. If you wanted immediate traffic in your store you bought a newspaper ad and offered a bargain.

I worked with a man who was a department head at Montgomery Ward in Clovis and one of his favorite stories is tricking his district manager into sending him a truckload of C.B. radios back when everyone was putting those squawk boxes in their cars and trucks. He knew if those radios didn’t sell fast he would be in big trouble but he knew his customers and knew how to advertise them and when they sold out quickly he never heard another word. Managers aren’t given that kind of control these days.

When J.C. Penny closed in Portales and Mr. Nick transferred to Lamesa, Texas, grandmother went to work across the square at C.R. Anthony’s but you could tell things weren’t the same.

Instead of being just a couple of years her junior, like Mr. Nick, the managers were the age of her children and even grandchildren. The commitment to customer service wasn’t as important to store management as staying ahead of the big box retailers and malls in distant cities.

The bloom is decades off the rose now but don’t count local business out. Treating customers like cattle just may not be the best recipe for business success.