Sunday, December 3, 2017

Chicago's Loren Miller & Company Department Store. (1900-1931)

Before there was an Uptown on the north side of Chicago, there was Sheridan Square.

Centered around the intersection of Lawrence and Evanston Avenue (renamed Broadway in 1913), the area remained pretty much building-free well into the early part of the 20th century even as people started building large suburban-style homes in nearby Edgewater, Margate Park, Buena Park, and Ravenswood. But by the time Loren Miller moved his dry goods business from Wilson Avenue a few blocks north to Broadway and Lawrence in 1915, Sheridan Square was beginning its transformation to becoming the heart of the Uptown business and entertainment district.

Miller knew the dry goods market well. He'd worked for Marshall Field & Company and other large downtown department stores before opening up his Wilson Avenue establishment in 1896. As more and more people moved out of the more congested and built-up parts of the city to the south, little pockets of upscale residential communities began cropping up north of today's Irving Park Road, and Miller catered to this clientele.

The Loren Miller & Co. was founded around 1900. Much of the store’s early success relied upon Miller’s willingness to replace traditional retailing practices with more innovative ones, such as widespread use of newspaper advertising, bargain pricing, superior customer service, and liberal credit policies.

By 1914 Loren Miller & Co. had outgrown its original location, and Miller was on the lookout for a place to move - just not too far away. It just so happened that a Mr. Albert Cook owned a vacant piece of property that he wanted to improve with an income-generating building. The vacant lot was between two existing buildings perched on a triangular parcel of land created by the intersecting streets of Broadway, Racine, and Leland Avenues, not far from Miller's Wilson Avenue store.

A beautiful new fireproof steel structure is nearing completion at 4722-28 Broadway in the Wilson Avenue District (today's Uptown community), which is one of the smartest residence districts of Chicago. This new store is between Lawrence and Leland avenues. It has attracted considerable attention in Chicago because its personnel is composed of men identified with the retail trade of the Chicago loop district for many years.

Loren Miller signed a 20-year lease at $21,000 ($581,000 today) per year for the brand new $150,000 5-story department store, bright white terra-cotta coated. William Klewer designed the loft building between the Plymouth Hotel and the Sheridan Trust and Savings Bank. The annual rent was $21,500, or 430,000 for the term. Mr. Miller had a capital stock of $350,000 ($9,460,000 today).

The five floors and basement give a selling space of approximately 54,000 square feet. 
  • The First floor was devoted to piecing goods, notions, ribbons, jewelry, and men's furnishings. 
  • The Second floor was men's clothing, shoes, and the company's general offices. 
  • The Third floor carried women's apparel, millinery, corsets, etc. 
  • The Fourth floor was reserved as the children's floor with the infants' shop, children's barbershop, playroom, and all children's and misses' apparel. 
  • The Fifth floor was full of house furnishings, carpets, upholstery goods, and furniture.
By the time the doors were ready to open in November of 1915, Miller had renegotiated his lease and extended the term by another 5 years. Loren Miller & Co. opened with a stock of about $125,000 ($3 million in 2017) in medium and high-class merchandise.
"I invited all our neighbors—competitors included—to unite in a common enterprise. I turned our circular into an Up-Town weekly of retail trade, sinking its identification with our store completely and engaging to retain the only one-quarter page." Loren Miller
In 1921, Loren Miller & Co. circulated 56,000 weekly "The Up-Town Advertiser" circulars, which they started delivering in 1916. Miller contemplates adding three stories to the building as the expansion of the business has been so great that it requires more room.
In 1926, the store was enlarged yet again when the Sheridan Trust and Savings Bank building, to the north of the store, was acquired. The neo-classical structure was an important addition to the store, not so much for the extra floor space that is offered, but rather for the high visibility it gave the business. 

For one, it more than doubled the store’s show window space and thus enhanced its capacity to entice passers-by with the latest fashions or unbeatable bargains. At the same time, the acquisition of the bank building gave Loren Miller and Company ownership of one of the Uptown district’s most distinctive and easily recognizable building sites, a triangular strip of land that narrowed to a point not far from the increasingly congested intersection of Broadway and Lawrence Avenue.
It wasn't long after the move that Miller & Co.'s full-page ads in the Chicago Tribune began to carry the banner "The Uptown Store" to distinguish it from the major downtown retail emporiums.

Though always concerned about promoting his own retail operations, of equal concern to Loren Miller was the overall success and popularity of the entire Uptown area as a retail and entertainment destination. During his years as head of the store, Miller was a leading booster of the district and worked hard to inflate its reputation throughout Chicago and the North Shore. Miller, for one, has often been credited as having coined the name “Uptown” as a way to jazz up the neighborhood’s image. Miller also began adding "Uptown" to their address.

Previously, the area had been known only by the less romantic “Wilson Avenue District.” During the 1920s, in the hopes of making the intersection of Lawrence and Broadway into another Times Square, Miller pushed the name “Uptown Square.” 

In 1927 Miller got the Chicago City Council to officially declare the intersection of Lawrence and Broadway "Uptown Square," and the Miller & Co. display ads now carried a prominent banner proudly announcing "The Uptown Square Department Store."
The Uptown Theatre opened in 1925.
Times were good for Loren Miller & Co. In 1926 the store expanded and moved into the space previously occupied by the bank, and Miller had also taken over the Plymouth Hotel - now the Uptown Hotel - for future expansion.

Then on August 2, 1931, a full-page ad in the Tribune declared that Goldblatt Bros. would be holding a liquidation sale at the Loren Miller & Co. department store as they transitioned to Goldblatt's merchandise in their newly acquired Uptown location. Miller was out, and Goldblatt's was in.
Goldblatt's, a favorite of neighborhood shoppers, was able to survive economic turmoils and remain in their Broadway location for the next 67 years. After finally throwing in the towel and closing up the shop in 1998.
The building sat empty until 2002, when the Goldblatt's sign was finally removed, and the trio buildings underwent demolition, restoration, rehabilitation, and adaptive reuse, converting the former department store complex into a three-sided, retail, and residential grouping.
2017 Photograph
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

By Loren Miller, President, Loren Miller, and Company, 
System Magazine - January 1921
The big established concerns seemed to leave no chance for a newcomer in what apparently was a poor location. The fundamentals of selling which these conditions taught the head of the new organization are especially valuable right now with folks inclined to buy less than they were a year ago.
My business career began at the age of 18, as a salesman of blankets and upholstery in Marshall Field’s retail store. I am 42 now, the directing head of my own store, one which, in that earlier day, would have ranked as no mean rival of the leaders in Chicago's dry goods trade. A store then, before the Spanish War, that carried 26 departments and 120 employees—the sales force rising to 200 during the Christmas holidays—was accounted something of a store, even on State Street.

I was 21 years old when the buyer for my department quit and the post was given to me. During the 15 years ensuing, from the age of 21 until I had turned 37, my training in merchandising was probably unsurpassed by any other individual buyer in the country. 

Employed by a house noted for its enterprise, launched into the full responsibility of buying and selling during my formative years, an active participant in the intense retail struggle throughout the period of its widest expansion—all this ripened me for independence in the business world long before my opportunity presented itself.

And that, more than anything else, irked me. The merchant who, today, worries in his small town or city over what the big department stores threaten to do to him, may find it difficult to respond to the feeling that stirred me as a young Marshall Field buyer when I sat, of an evening, in my home in the North Shore district, on Leland Avenue at the Lake, and insisted to R.C. Abt, the diamond merchant, whose home was next door to mine:

“I tell you, Abt, there's a gold mine in this locality for any live businessman who has the money and the nerve to start a real department store here. There's money here, with at least a quarter of a million people all in a bunch, and all drawing good salaries or making good profits out of some business, or just living on the income of what they have. It's plumb foolishness to say that our wives and daughters yearn to travel five or six miles into town to buy dry goods, or even millinery, or coats and dresses. They simply don’t yearn. The ancient fetish of shopping was wished on women in the days when there were so few variations in patterns and prices that getting a bargain was a triumph, and getting one's choice was a pleasure. Nowadays, it’s killing hard work—nothing less. Of course, I’m willing to admit that a trip downtown affords them an excuse for taking out the automobile and feeling distinguished when they alight from it. But with maids becoming harder to get than ever and with traffic downtown congesting until it promises to end in a daily deadlock, women prefer going just around the corner for most of the things they need. Anyway, the majority haven’t cars. The female population of this whole North Shore section is in the mood to want what they want when they want it, and I could ask for nothing better than to be the man to give it to them.”

I kept on crying in my wilderness, and my neighbor could not help remembering, on one day in particular, when he happened to be in the office of W. J. Klingenberg, President of the Sheridan Trust and  Saving Bank, at Broadway and Lawrence Avenue, whose home was on Malden Street, some four blocks distant. “Now I'll call that—,” Abt remarked, as he regarded the design of a retail business structure hanging on the wall—“a mighty handsome affair. New bank building, Mr. Klingenberg?”


“Not yet, Mr. Abt,” Klingenberg replied, smiling. “It’s just a sort of fancy of mine. As a banker, I’ve thought, for some time, that this North Shore district ought to have at least one big, good department store of its own. Then I learned that A. E. Cook, who owns the lot adjoining the bank and fronting 100 feet on both Broadway and Racine streets, just below us here, was looking for a desirable tenant for the entire site. So I had this design made by an architect. You see, it's for five stories and a basement. But the plans call for walls and foundations substantial enough to carry nine-floor levels. Perhaps, when we find the right man to run it, this dream of mine may become a reality.”

“I know the very man,” Abt exclaimed. “Marshall Field has been training him for you for the past 15 years. He's my next-door neighbor, and he almost talks me to death with his ideas for just precisely this store you want to build here. I really believe he's got every department mapped out in advance, down to the cash girls. His name is Loren Miller and he's been one of Marshall Field's buyers for 15 years—ever since he was 21.”

“Sounds genuine to me,” commented Klingenberg. “I’ll make an appointment with him to meet Mr. Cook and myself.” 

Within half an hour after we three began our discussion, I offered this dictum: “I don’t care how accustomed the North Shore is to buy within the Loop. I'll guarantee to clear all-expense here from the women who come to the store with baby carriages, and that will leave the rest of the trade we obtain just so much clear profit.”

The store was built and opened for business on November 22, 1915, Saturday. The weather was the worst weather possible, with slushy snow shoe-top high before the closing hour, 10 p.m. between the opening hour—noon—and the closing of the doors, 22,000 people had passed in and out, most of them making purchases.

The suburban merchant or the small city retailer may regard this windfall of coincidence as one of the romances of real life that do not concern him in his troubles. But from this stage on, our conditions parallel his own right down to date except for the very important consideration that the Loren Miller and Company store, capitalized at $350,000 with the stock distributed among about fourscore North Shore residents, lacked at its start every one of the strategic advantages possessed by him. Thus, it was not distant from a great shopping district. It was very close to one of the greatest of them, with an elevated train fare then of only 5 cents; express service for a 20-minute run; and trains continually going and coming—ideal transportation. It had no status whatever in its locality—not so much as a single customer, friend, or acquaintance, where the average small town or city merchant has thousands. It had not even a foundation in local pride and loyalty. There were no such animals. The very patronage lured within its doors on that first day had been yanked into existence out of the North Shore everywhere by means of engraved invitation cards that were mailed to 30,000 addresses selected from the telephone directory simply because they had telephones and the North Shore location.

The basic plan, devised for the creation of the missing pride of locality and put in operation the first week, would adapt itself-with such variations as expediency should suggest-to the current needs of countless merchants confronting just such competition as the store not merely had to endure but was born to invite. 

From the start, the store disdained the old, time-honored designation of “North Shore” for its neighborhood. Instead of trying to capitalize on the tradition of sectionalism, it carried its war straight into the city as a communal unit and consistently referred to the old North Shore as “Up-Town.”

That particular phrase held a very important trade implication—that uptown was the aristocratic antithesis of downtown, and it brought home to every North Shore resident the sensation of making a needless journey downtown in a manner impossible to attribute to the words “North Shore.” Now, after five years of the up-town propaganda-going stronger than ever since January last, the old North Shore complacently accepts itself as being distinctively up-town; the rest of the city is learning to refer to it in its own terms. Meanwhile, as the protagonist of all that is up-town and aristocratic, our store is indissolubly identified with all its interests and its future development.

The propaganda was carried forward in connection with the store's advertising, which had to do—still has to do—some very delicate balancing along the tight rope of economy. Some small space was ordinarily bought, of a Saturday, in one city newspaper—enough to let up-town realize that its local champion was in the class with the huge downtown Goliaths. But the publicity that was relied on was the circular, of the same size as any newspaper page and corresponding to it in typography. 


This carried the war to the walls of Rome with a vengeance. But it had its precedents. The late Thomas Hunter, among the first and greatest of the pioneers in the chain grocery, beginning his enterprise in Philadelphia when I was a youngster in Chicago schools, fought to a finish the whole grocery trade of his adoptive city by means of just such broadsides until his death and the merger of his hundreds of establishments into the vast corporation known as the American Stores today.

More than that: Our employment of the circular advertising was a seizure of the weapon now most vigorously wielded by central department stores themselves, the very missile that is being hurled against small town merchants today over 50 and 100 miles of attack. 

No better illustration of our method can be cited than appears in the conduct of this circular. The secret of it lies in keeping one's ear to the ground. In contrast with the merchant who adopts what he believes is a good sales help and then lets it run itself, our unceasing vigilance over our circular, and one can understand why our average expenditure on it of $8,000 a year over the past five years has remained continually productive instead of proving wasteful.

We began with our telephone directory list of 30,000 names to which the circular was mailed, at first monthly, then semi-monthly. It became evident that, because our up-town district was composed largely of apartment dwellers, changes of address would be frequent, and, besides, the cost of mailing ran high. As soon as we could affect the transition, we took refuge in the methods of half a century ago—distributed the circulars by means of regular carriers to 53,000 homes, reserving for the mails only 4,000 addresses, made up of charge customers and of families requesting delivery through the post-office. Meanwhile, by request of interested readers, through sales records, delivery of purchases, and various other sources, the mailing list is being persistently expanded and kept up to date. 

I now invited all our North Shore neighbors—competitors included—to unite in a common enterprise for keeping up town trade up-town. I turned our circular into an up-town weekly newspaper of retail trade, sinking its identification with the Loren Miller and Company store completely and engaging to retain, out of the total of two pages of advertising space, no more than one-quarter page for the parent store's advertising as soon as other up-town advertising grew great enough to occupy the 87%% of space remaining.

We charged for this space per line about one-third the rates regularly listed by the city's daily newspapers and pointed out the consideration that the up-town prospects actually reached by the “Up-Town Advertiser” numbered three against one actually reached by any city daily. And we engaged ourselves, as soon as the total volume of advertising should show a profit on the publication, to reduce the rates, thus making it genuinely cooperative as a trading enterprise, and not a source of independent profit to our concern.


In connection with this form of publicity, two features are worthy of special note: one, that the Up-Town Advertiser, progeny of the old circular and born January 17, 1921, carries not a line of matter other than advertisements; the other, that we attribute to the circular a large percentage of all the business done in the store. During the first three weeks of its existence, the new publication carried, weekly, from 9 to 13 advertisements other than the Miller and Company space, with the neighbors' advertising occupying from 37.5% to 62.5% of the total space available. The majority of the advertisers, by the time the publication was two weeks old, came in at the full price entirely without any solicitation.

The manner in which local pride and loyalty are being fostered is well exemplified in the few paragraphs that follow. They appeared in one of the early issues of the “Advertiser” and, be it noted, constituted publicity for the entire group of North Shore merchants, with not a hint of us individually:

“Probably no one has a greater appreciation of our North Shore district than do those who take part in the conduct of its business life. This is the underlying cause for the development of a business center that has trading advantages unexcelled. 

A decided community spirit pervades all of our business institutions with the result that a human element enters into dealings which is at times crowded out by the hurried routine methods of the more congested business districts.

Conservation of time, because of the central location of our business houses is a worthwhile consideration.

The universal desire on the part of our people to serve results in a freedom of choice and opportunity to compare. Certainly, this makes for more enjoyable and satisfactory purchases.

The spirit of the North Shore community has brought banking facilities that are unsurpassed, theaters that are worthy of our pride, hotels that offer every convenience and comfort, business houses that bring almost next door, complete stocks of every needed commodity.

To develop further all these advantages is the ambition of those who in this publication advertise to you.”

As a practical help for any merchant who may be impressed with the effectiveness of the medium, our letter to our fellow merchants of the North Shore is worth reproducing:
“Dear Sir:I enclose herewith a copy of the Up-Town Advertiser, of which we deliver 56,000 each week. This is the sort of advertising that Loren Miller and Company have been putting out ever since the store was opened five years ago, and on which we have probably spent about $40,000 in that length of time. We have found it profitable, as we attribute to it Sales of $500,000 to $750,000, and it has brought us many thousands of permanent customers. 
Having had several requests from business men of the neighborhood for space in the Loren Miller and Company paper, I decided to issue a paper in which any business man in the neighborhood might advertise and reach about three times the number of people in our district that they would be able to reach in any of the Chicago daily papers. 
As my company has had such excellent results in this sort of advertising, there is no reason why other businesses in the neighborhood cannot reap like benefits with advertising in proportion to the size of their business. The only benefit Loren Miller and Company will derive from having the other merchants advertising in this paper, is that they will, without much more expenditure, reach the consumer each week instead of once or twice a month, as we did when issuing a paper for Loren Miller and Company only; and, of course, this same benefit will accrue to other advertisers using the paper as a medium. 
The expense is distributed to all the advertisers, each one paying for the amount of space used, and all on the same basis. There is no doubt in the world, but that advertising pays, and I believe we will all need it more this year than we ever have before.
I would like to have you with us, and if you have any suggestions to better this paper and make it more effective, I would be very glad to have them.” 

So much for the store's advertising, reviewed at length because of our view that so large a percentage of the business has come from it.

The next feature of the enterprise to be considered, and the one nearest to the interests of merchants in like or analogous situations, is that, throughout, it has been a one-man job, with that one man's ear constantly to the ground. Until little more than a year ago, the circulars and all other advertising of the store were written almost entirely by me. Now, with the business expanding beyond my capacity for detail, the bulk of the publicity work is done by an advertising manager selected from among the employees and trained under my eye. But very little copy goes out until it has had my personal supervision.

The circumstance, regarded as hopelessly damning by so many merchants, that there wasn’t enough capital to pay for perfections ready-made, was a handicap as great on us as it is on everybody else. We had to start a business with a force of inexpensive salespeople, for the cogent reason that experienced help was scarce and expensive. Shortcomings were less obvious and less harmful in the sales force, however, than they were in those whom, perforce, we had to appoint as buyers. The average, fairly intelligent salesgirl, especially if she has been handpicked, is not slow in learning her stock and prices; insistence on simple courtesy to customers goes a great way in glossing over minor errors. But a buyer is, to all intents and purposes, an independent merchant, and no one was more acutely aware of some of our buyers’ shortcomings than I.

I met that difficulty by making myself a sort of super-buyer for the whole store.
“I required buyers to bring to me every order; no order became valid until it received my signature. As a buyer proved capable, I slackened the reins.”
I required every buyer to bring to me every order contemplated, and no order became valid until it had received my signature. Then, slowly and carefully, as one buyer after another proved capable, I slackened the rein on each, steadily aiming at the goal of sure knowledge of goods and prices on their part and fostering initiative. But the rule, that all orders must undergo review, remained permanent. Those buyers of ours could have broken us by overbuying in the course of the first year.

Throughout the five years of the store's existence, I have held to one merchandising policy which, defined, becomes at once the obvious policy for any retailer in the position of a competitor against many department stores of vastly greater resources. The policy, so closely paralleling the requirements of the average store in the small city and town, divides itself, roughly, thus:

Carry stocks that shall always be complete for the typical needs of the neighborhood and always of good quality—of quality as good as those handled by the best of the large, competing stores. Eschew equally goods that are cheap and tawdry, goods that rank as extreme novelties, and features high in price. 

Always sell at prices slightly lower than those maintained throughout the competing center. The strongest link binding customers to any store is giving equal value for less money.

Never advertise or boast of this lower price average. Let the store's customers find it out for themselves, and they will take pride in themselves for discovering it and pride in the store as being their favorite high-class store.

Here is a simple merchandising policy that has, apart from its effectiveness under all conditions, the merit of being peculiarly fitted to the up-building of distinctive community trade. It might be the backbone of a local campaign.


The earliest claim I have heard any other department-store management make to the prescience of the fall in prices and congestion of stocks was as of April 1920, and the earliest of the great clearance sales were reported in May of last year. Now, every merchant has reflected time and again that he ought to keep in touch with world affairs in order to forecast their effect on his own business. Here is the reasoning I did with myself on this abstruse subject late in January of last year:

“Everybody is talking higher prices on account of Europe's destitution, its desperate need of raw materials, and the huge demand that needs is creating. But I see by the market reports that there is cotton in plenty on hand and that the warehouses are jammed full of wool.

“I'm on our selling floors every day and pretty nearly all day. I want to find out what our customers have to tell me of their attitude.” Miller, in the photograph, is talking with a customer and a salesgirl.
Now, I'm on our selling floors every day and pretty nearly all day. What have our customers, who must be the consumers, to tell me of their attitude? Most of them are saying that they have reached their limit on prices. A number of them are going without things they did not merely want but need. What's the answer? The only one I can see is that a break of some kind must come mighty soon. It would be gorgeous to have another year of big sales and high prices. But it will be a blamed sight safer for us to carry small stocks.”

That was the ear to the ground, not alone to detect the rumble of the bales rolling into the warehouses, but to catch the previously unheeded protest of the consuming public. What was needed, then, was the courage to act on the conviction they gave in the teeth of trade judgment unanimously adverse to it. 

It was on February 1, 1920, that I issued a general order to all the store buyers to refrain from heavy buying. The spring stocks on hand were larger than any previously carried in the store. Our whole effort was directed towards clearing out those stocks, a large proportion of which had been acquired at the relatively low prices prevailing during the spring of 1919. They were sold on the basis of those 1919 wholesale prices instead of the 1920 wholesale, or replacement, prices. The profit earned was, therefore, only fair instead of being apparently fair but in reality high. The net results were moderate returns on the stocks, well-cleared shelves, and an enormous enhancement of prestige for the store throughout its up-town clients. In its relations with its supply houses, the store was left, at the end of the year, in a wholly enviable condition. It had not canceled a single order arbitrarily.


It is a proper question to ask: How can the enhancement of prestige be demonstrated?

It was demonstrated by the sales throughout the years 1919 and 1920. The year 1919 showed an increase of 50% over the sales of 1918, and 1920, known to retail trade as the hardest selling year, from July on, in recent experience, gave us an increase in the volume of business above the sales volume of 1919. 

By reason of general business conditions, 1920 was inevitably a year of peaks and depressions, through which the high average was drawn for the twelve-month. The rise above 1919 reached 70% in March. It dropped to 15% in December. In January of this year, while the sales total for the month did not exceed that of January 1920—all prices being now markedly below those of last year—the number of sales transactions was 5,000 more.

At no time in the course of our 1920 retrenchment did I shut down completely on our buyers. What we did, from February 1 on, was to buy conservatively as stocks fell low, but always to keep on hand an assortment adequate for current average trade. This policy brought the store several thousands of new customers, and it delighted regular shoppers because there were many other stores that swung from crushing overstocks to the extreme of being “just out” of innumerable staples regularly in demand. 

One may say that this is nothing more than good merchandising. It is nothing more.

But within five years, it has grown to $1,000,000 in sales yearly taken from one of the most aggressive sales centers in the United States, and it has warranted the drawing of plans for adding three stories to the building and for extending it, to an equal height of eight stories, over the whole 138-foot site of the Sheridan Trust and Saving Bank, when the bank completes its new home across the way. 

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