Margaret Getchell: the first female business exec who revolutionized retail

Because this blog site has yet to live through Christmas, you have yet to experience the pure euphoria the holiday season brings me. Every year, around this time, I start to go through withdrawal and I either fall completely off of the wagon, listen to Christmas Pandora stations like a maniac and watch my favorite Christmas films, or I only take a slight hit by changing my desktop to a snowy landscape and shopping for winter coats.

However, my fail safe is watching holiday ads from the British department store John Lewis. If you’ve never seen their ads, get ready to bawl your eyes out:

When I first saw their ads a couple of years ago, I was immensely curious about the difference in British and American department stores, particularly their history, and why our Christmas ads are so crappy whereas theirs are Oscar-worthy. I found a lot of history about Macy’s, the first major department store in the States and, as it turns out the first to do a lot of things, including promoting a woman to a superintendent position.

That woman was named Margaret Getchell and she was wicked clever. Born July 16, 1841 on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, Margaret showed a real aptitude for numbers. She finished school at 16 and began to teach in Nantucket, in Lansingburgh, New York and at the Lawrenceville Female Seminary in New Jersey. Sometime around here, she had an accident that left her blind in one eye, an affliction that some historians believe forced her to leave teaching for a job that wouldn’t require as much strain on her limited vision.

She moved to New York City and applied for an entry-level job at a dry-goods store on 6th Avenue and 14th Street. It turns out the store, R. H. Macy & Co., was run by Margaret’s distant cousin, Rowland Hussy Macy. There are differing stories as to whether the two realized their shared lineage before meeting or not but regardless, Margaret quickly made a great impression on Macy.

Image Credit: Daily Mail

And boy, did Macy need someone like Margaret. A former sailor and gold and whale hunter, Macy did not find immediate success when he embarked on a retail career path. He had opened and closed four stores in an incredibly short period of time and the fifth store that Margaret joined had only made $11.06 on its first day.

Margaret was an incredibly hard-working employee and, aside from her quick calculations as a cashier, she would often stay late at night to help with the company bookkeeping. Macy decided to promote her to the store’s bookkeeper.

Macy had already created some revolutionary (although today, quite obvious) practices, such as making the prices of products obvious and standard for every customer and creating clever ads to interest those wishing to spend less. However, the store predominantly sold only lace, ribbons and fabric, products only alluring to a select percentage of the city’s population.

While Margaret was training the “cash girls,” she began to evaluate which of the store’s merchandise brought in more customers, as well as what could potentially draw in more. At the end of the Civil War, Margaret suggested the addition of military-inspired fashion. She also began to spot budding trends in gifts, jewelry, clocks, homeware and cooking equipment. These suggestions, as they began to materialize in the shop, transformed Macy’s into the first modern department store in America.

Image Credit: Pinterest

She continued to pass ideas along to Macy, such as featuring the now-famous red star on the company’s letterhead and price tags to brand the store. She also was the inspiration for installing a marble and nickel-plated soda fountain, similar to those in European vogue, in the back of the store, so that thirsty customers would have to walk past aisles of merchandise before their thirst could be quenched.

Her great ideas earned her a promotion to store superintendent in 1867 when she was 26 years old. She was most likely the first female executive in American business. The bulk of her responsibilities involved routine operations and managing the staff, however she continued to pioneer eye-catching tactics such as window displays. Yep, that was her. She would set up lavishly decorated doll houses for people to gaze at and placed cats dressed in doll clothing into baby cribs. So you could argue she also invented the marketing of cat paraphernalia that we can’t seem to get enough of nowadays.

Image Credit: Daily Mail

Her personal motto was “be everywhere, do everything and never fail to astonish the customer.” With her mindset and skill, Margaret was able to triple the size of the company.

In 1869, Margaret met Abiel T. LaForge who had served as a captain in the Union Army with Macy’s son. The couple hit it off at a company dance and married a couple months later. Abiel became a junior partner and lace buyer at Macy’s so the couple moved into apartments above the store.

Margaret continued to work full-time until she gave birth to her first child and switched to part-time duties. However, some stupid dumb rule said that, because her husband was a partner, she could not be given a salary. She didn’t  even make a cent when she was left in charge of the entire store while Abiel and Macy went on a buying trip overseas. Oh, yeah, and while she was in charge of what would become known as “the world’s largest store,” which had expanded to 11 adjacent buildings, she was pregnant with her third son.

Image Credit: Daily Mail

Abiel passed away in 1878 of tuberculosis and Margaret died two years later of heart failure and inflammation of the ovary at the age of 38, leaving behind six children in their passing.

Between the lack of salary and her premature passing, Margaret’s story has a pretty sad ending but what she was able to accomplish is pretty remarkable. Look at what Macy’s has become and the model it has set for stores across the world. All of that is because of Margaret. She revolutionized retail and pioneered some of the most foundational marketing techniques. The only person I feel I can say the same for is the damn genius behind the John Lewis ads. Gets me every time…

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