Marshall Fields: The Store that Helped Build Chicago

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I thought I knew most of what there was to know about Marshall Field’s the still beloved department store that started in Chicago, but I learned a lot more about how the business started, who Field’s partners were, how big their whole sale business was and how subsequent CEO’s like John G. Shedd, of aquarium fame, behaved at the helm. Seems every descendant of a Chicagoan knows that “the customer is always right” and “give the lady what she wants’ were first said by Marshall Field and we know the various explanations for the naming of Frango mints, but there’s still a lot we don’t know and  Gayle Soucek enlightens readers on all aspects of Fields in a pleasant breezy style. It’s a quick read and pleasant till we come to the end when evil Macy’s takes over the store and changes the name.

Field was a good man, and something of a straight arrow. He held true to his credit terms — even after the Chicago Fire in 1871 when creditors wrote him offering to change the terms. He came from Puritan roots and stayed true to them. (His son did not and I for one believe Junior was shot at the Everleigh Club, another interesting Chicago establishment.)  The man was a genius with incredible foresight and respect for people. I wish I could have been in the store when it had a library, offered information (to provide tourist information, ship times, railway routes, etc.)  and accommodation bureaus (which booked theater tickets,made sleeping car arrangements,  checked bags, offered stenographer services, and more). Services didn’t stop there. One anecdote tells how a man told a clerk he was “mourning the accidental estrangement of his brother, who had traveled to Europe and lost contact. The word went out to Field’s foreign buying offices, and in a short amount of time the wayward sibling was located.”

The book mentions Harry Selfridge, the brash man, who worked his way up to partner, a position Field’s was surprise Selfridge had the audacity to ask for (Field’s planned to offer it and was just a more reserved man). It mentions Selfridge as originating the bargain basement and later buying his own store, where he always kept a portrait of Marshall Field in his office. So much of Selfridge’s store is an homage to Field, which is why the book connects with the PBS program.

The book ends with an appendix of famous Field’s recipes.

I still can’t stomach that and haven’t made a purchase in Macy’s since they took over. Marshall Field’s, State Street, was a store you could love in a way current stores just aren’t. We’ve got smart phones so we can make our own travel arrangements or notes on the fly and we can shop online or in person in countless stores, but this personal touch is largely gone or on the way out.

 

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Poorly Made in China

Peter Midland studied Chinese language and history in college before moving to China. After a few years there he returned to the US to get his MBA at Wharton. While many of his peers went into finance, Midland took the path not taken and headed for Guangzhou to consult for US companies keen to find a manufacturer in China.Poorly Made in China chronicles Midland’s experiences helping US companies navigate these uncertain, often turbulent waters. It’s an engaging must-read for business people and consumers. It’ll make you think differently about China and Chinese goods.

I learned so much from this book that begins with an unforgettable anecdote. Midland is outside with a Chinese client and the industrial stench is unbearable. Reflexively, he exclaims in Chinese, “It stinks.” Calmly, the Chinese man exhales from his cigarette and slowly responds. “I don’t get you foreigners. To me this smells like money.”

Well, right, but the N.Y. Times reported that as many as 700,000 Chinese each year die prematurely due to pollution. So it also smells like death.

I learned new terms like quality fade, quality erosion and quality manipulation, that are all rather self-explanatory, but scary that it’s actually a business tactic in China. Dealings with a shampoo and body wash importer reveal how this works. The first order or so that Midland’s client made were fine. All according to spec. Then, gradually, things changed. The shampoo’s ingredients were modified little by little till eventually, there was a problem because the shampoo would freeze when it got a bit cold.

As time went on the molds for the plastic bottles got thinner and thinner, till when squeezed they broke releasing the shampoo all over. The cardboard for the shipment got cheaper and cheaper till it would break in transit. With the shoddy bottles this could lead to a major mess. Retailers like Walgreen’s and CVS sure wouldn’t tolerate much of these hassles so the importer is sure to lose orders. Yet the factory management couldn’t see that the poor quality might effect their own business.

Once Midland went to tour a factory and everything seemed nice. Clean environment, busy bee workers. A few were rather clumsy like they were very new to the job. When Midland asked a few questions he was whisked out. Then they had him waiting. When he got bored he got up and walked around. Through the window he saw that the factory was completely empty. He’d asked about breaks and this wasn’t a break time. When the woman in charge saw him looking out the window, she freaked. It turned out that this was a big charade and that many new factories have showplace factories for the foreign clients. Some old ones do this too and the foreigners never see the real factory.

Every chapter is engaging and revealing. You’ll laugh, cry and think twice about buying so much from China. Interestingly, Midland points out how China is not learning to value quality as Japan and Korea did when they were at this stage of development. Something to ponder.

After working for a US community college in Guangzhou, I could see so many parallels. Chilling parallels.

N.B. As my colleagues and I settle into China, note that two of us have broken toilets. We’re in newly renovated apartments and the plumbing just isn’t up to par. Today I had an agreement with my colleague that I could use her bathroom if need be. I’m happy to report that a plumber came today, but this is an example of the low quality of manufactured goods. It’s not just the items that are imported. It’s pervasive.

Disclaimer

Dear Fellows, The State Department has requested that any Fellows who maintain their own blog or website please post the following disclaimer on your site: "This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows' own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State." We appreciate your cooperation. Site Meter
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