Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘Great Fire of 1871’

The Customer Is Always Right

Posted by Admin on January 30, 2021

Many of us have grown up hearing adults say the customer is always right (which may or may not be true) and not given that expression a second thought. It means that if someone is unhappy about a product, a service, or a situation, whoever is responsible for providing that product, service or creating that situation is responsible for fixing the problem so the unhappy person is happy once again.  It usually applies to businesses, but occasionally someone will use the idiom about a social situation.

In 1944, an article titled “Are Customers Always Right” appeared in The Rotarian magazine, authored by Hughston M. McBain (9 February 1902 – 19 May 1977), then-President of Marshall Field & Co in Chicago.

War, with all its ersatz goods and shortages of competent help, has vastly multiplied these problems — raising anew the old question: Is the customer always right?

My own answer — based on statistic involving some 500,000 regular patrons of our Chicago store — is that 85 to 90 percent of complaining customers are definitely and demonstrably right, that 90 percent believe they are right, and that less than one percent are bent on “gypping” the merchant.

The article stated that while sellers had an obligation to the buyer, so too did the buyer have an obligation to the seller. While Mr. McBain was quick to point out that WWII had put the relationship under “almost unendurable strains,” sellers were still running with unwavering policy that the customer is always right even in the face of taking “terrible losses on returns” they were also “holding customer confidence” through liberal adjustments and credits.

So the customer may not always be right, but a good business will leave the impression that this is true even when it isn’t.

In January 1911, the Kansas City Star reported on a local country store modeled after Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Selfridge’s in London.

Scott has done in the country what Marshall Field did in Chicago, Wannamaker did in New York and Selfridge in London. In his store he follows the Field rule and assumes that the customer is always right.

The phrase “the customer is always right” is oftentimes claimed to have been originally coined in 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge (11 January 1858 – 8 May 1947), the founder of Selfridge’s department store in London (and former Marshall Field’s employee). It’s said though that he never intended for the expression to be taken literally. What he was striving for was to sell people on the idea that customers shopping at his department store were special — more special than if they were shopping at some other department store — and by virtue of being special, the staff treated them better than staff would treat them at some other department store.

But did Selfridge really coin the expression? The December 1909 edition of “Good Housekeeping Magazine” is certainly familiar with the expression.

We have made a deep study of all this and our policy of regarding the customer as always right, no matter how wrong she may be in any transaction in the store, is the principle that builds up the trade. She is wrong, of course, lots of times. She takes advantage of privileges accorded her; she is inconsiderate of the earnest efforts of sales people; she causes delay and loss through carelessness or ignorance, but it all goes down in the budget of expenses for running the store and is covered, like other expenses, in the price of the goods.

It’s doubtful, if Selfridge coined the phrase in London, that it would be so casually discussed in an American magazine in 1909. So perhaps the idiom wasn’t coined by Selfridge after all.

A year earlier in 1908, the Swiss hotelier César Ritz (23 February 1850 – 24 October 1918) was quoted as saying le client n’a jamais tort which translates into the customer is never wrong.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: César Ritz founded the Hôtel Ritz in Paris as well as the Ritz and Carlton Hotels in London. His last name is the origin of the word ritzy and what it means.

However, it was Marshall Fields (18 August 1834 – 16 January 1906) who was famous for saying, “Give the lady what she wants” as well as “The customer is always right” when he partnered with Potter Palmer at his first department store in the US. He was quoted by the Boston Herald on 3 September 1905 using that exact saying. A few weeks later on 24 September 1905, he was quoted using the same idiom in the Boston Daily Globe. In fact, what was reported was this:

Every employe, from cash boy up, is taught absolute respect for and compliance with the business principles which Mr. Field practices. Broadly speaking, Mr. Field adheres to the theory that “the customer is always right.” He must be a very untrustworthy trader to whom this concession is not granted.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2: Harry Gordon Selfridge began his career working for the Marshall Field store in Chicago before building his London store. At the time, it was well-known that Marshall Field’s stores prided themselves in putting the customer first.

In fact, in the November 1919 edition of “System: The Magazine of Business” the history of Marshall Field’s use of the idiom was given a clear explanation as to how it came about.

Field, it is well known, was the first to say “the customer is always right.” It was Potter Palmer, Field’s predecessor and for a time his partner, who had originated the practice of accepting returns from any customer who was not satisfied, and refunding the purchase price. This made the customer the sole judge whether he should keep the merchandise. Field’s policy went a long step farther and made the customer the sole judge, or practically the sole judge, of all issues between himself and the house.

Except that the idiom was the first to not only say “the customer is always right” but to put it into practice as the central creed of the Palmer system. Having opened a small store on Lake Street in Chicago in 1852, he set about creating a business unlike any other.

Because he didn’t have much credit or money, and unable to have a large stock for his store, he found a different way to attract customers. He took the time to display his goods in the most attractive way on store shelves and tables, and gook to using the overlooked space in the store’s windows. He catered primarily to women and took the time the educate himself on what items were of special interest to women even if their husbands and fathers disagreed with their wives and daughters.

He hired sales staff and instructed them to memorize the names and preferences of their customers. They were not allowed to use pressure tactics to induce a sale, and were directed to attend to the purchasing needs of their customers. And no matter how difficult or demanding a customer might be, he directed his staff to remember the customer was always right.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Potter Palmer (20 May 1826 – 4 May 1902) was an American businessman who was responsible for most of the development of most of the downtown district and Lake Shore Drive areas of Chicago after the great fire of 1871.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4: Potter Palmer was responsible for a number of innovations in retail business including “bargain days” (which were the predecessors to “sales days”), money back guarantees, and free home delivery of all purchases made at his store.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 1: Potter Palmer’s store was the one store in Chicago at the time where women could go unescorted without concern whether their person or their reputation might be damaged in shopping at a store unescorted.

INTERESTING SIDE SIDE NOTE 2: Potter Palmer built a ball field in 1868 for the Chicago White Stocking baseball club which later became the Chicago Cubs baseball club (not to be confused with the Chicago White Sox which adopted the abandoned Chicago White Stocking name originally in a completely different baseball league).

The spirit of the expression exists in Germany where businesses insist der Kunde ist König or the customer is king. In Japan, the saying is okyakusama wa kamisama desu (お客様は神様です) which means the customer is god.  That expression was made popular by Haruo Minami (19 July 1923 – 14 April 2001).

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier account of the expression than that dating back to Potter Palmer and his store in Chicago in 1852, and acknowledges that the first print version of the adage is credited to Potter Palmer’s protégé Marshall Field. Idiomation therefore puts this expression to 1852 with a nod to Marshall Field with a secondary nod to Harry Gordon Selfridge who worked for Marshall Field before opening his own store in London.

One last note: Remember that when you live by the adage the customer is always right, you are also defaulting to giving that customer the benefit of the doubt which is another idiom for another entry.

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