|Photo by Zach Hetrick|
Kenneth L. Turchi developed an interest in retailing while working for a clothing store in his hometown of Crawfordsville, Indiana. He worked for L. S. Ayres and Company while in college and later earned a law degree. He has spent most of his career in marketing and strategic planning in the financial services industry. Currently Turchi is assistant dean at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington. Here he answers questions about his new book for the IHS Press, L. S. Ayres and Company: The Store at the Crossroads of America.
What inspired you to write a history of L.S. Ayres and Company?
I've always been interested in retailing. My first job in high school was as an errand runner at The Golden Rule, a small chain of now-defunct women's clothing stores in my hometown of Crawfordsville. Later I worked for Loeb's of Lafayette and for L. S. Ayres. Researching and writing this book was a way for me to explore an area of interest in depth and meet some great people. It was an easy topic to choose: Ayres enjoyed such respect for its integrity, both as a merchant as an employer.
What made Ayres different from other department stores?
At least two things: Ayres was among the first department stores to anticipate the shift from dressmaking to ready-to-wear after World War I. To help customers make that transition, they came up with "That Ayres Look"--a slogan that signaled to its customers that ready-made fashions were just as desirable as custom-made ones, regardless of price. The slogan served them well for more than fifty years and set the pace for the store's commitment to quality, from the designer salon to the downstairs store.
Second, Ayres saw itself as being in the merchandising business, not the department store business. This broad strategy took them into new lines of business: discount stores, trade sources, specialty stores, all of which anticipated market trends years in advance. I believe that if the company hadn't made a couple of strategic errors in the early 1970s (and the economy had cooperated), they would occupy the space now owned by Target Corporation, which followed a similar growth path to Ayres. (Target was the discount-store arm of Dayton's, a Minneapolis department store similar to Ayres.)
Is there one individual from Ayres that stood out to you while you were doing your research as a person who typified the best of Ayres?
I would name two: Ted Griffith, who married into the Ayres family and guided its growth from the 1920s until about 1960. He was a master merchandiser and by all accounts an exemplary leader. Jim Gloin also comes to mind: he was the store's numbers man who kept things going during World War II and set the stage for its growth and diversification in the 1960s. Other names come to mind, too: Dan Evans, John Peacock, and Elizabeth Patrick.
Looking back, was there a way for Ayres to have survived into the twenty-first century?
As mentioned, Ayres made a critical decision in the late 1960s to continue building its department store franchise, which impeded growth of its Ayr-Way discount stores. If they had cast their lot with discount and specialty retailing, we quite probably would all be shopping at Ayr-Way rather than Target, and at Sycamore Shops rather than The Limited.
But other than that, Ayres as a traditional department store, where you could spend the day browsing for everything from furniture to sheet music to sewing notions to typewriters, could not survive today. Shopping habits have changed, and customers aren't as willing to pay for service over price. A few specialty retailers--Nordstrom, Crate and Barrel--have taken over the high-end general merchandise market. Macy's does a good job as a department store, but not in the traditional sense, and its results depend heavily on promotional pricing.
Are you working on another book?
Yes! Watch this space.