Ben Franklin Stores as Incubators of Retail Success

(p. 192) The chain was called Michaels. I’d never heard of it but, as George related its ancestry, I became more and more intrigued. You see, once upon a time it had been a Ben Franklin store, and therein lies a story.
Back in 1877, Edward and George Butler, brothers from Boston, came up with a new concept for retailing. Instead of setting up a specialty shop to sell one line of items–like shoes or dresses or kitchen supplies–they set up a store where they could sell all sorts of stuff. This was the very beginning of department stores, except that they weren’t yet called that. They were called variety stores, and they carried a large assortment of low-cost goods. Then the Butlers set up a “five-cent counter,” where everything cost a nickel. It worked in Boston, so they expanded westward and called it Ben Franklin Stores.
Three-quarters of a century later, in the days when America was just starting to move westward with the automobile, there were no shopping malls or big national retail chains. What you found in every town, especially in small-town America, was a variety store, like Ben Franklin’s. In Lake Providence, we had Morgan and Lindsey’s, where you could buy everything from paper napkins to thimbles, birthday cards, curtain hooks, and boxes of chocolates. The Butlers’ idea of a nickel counter became so popular and widespread that these places came to be nicknamed “five-and-dimes” or “five-and ten-cent” stores.
(p. 193) While some of them became the heart of Main Street America, others grew to become legendary department stores, like Macy’s in New York, Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, and Lehman’s in Chicago. Still others merged into chains to compete with Ben Franklin Stores. That’s how JC Penney’s was born.

Wyly, Sam. 1,000 Dollars and an Idea: Entrepreneur to Billionaire. New York: Newmarket Press, 2008.

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