An Irish Immigrant Defines the American Dream – 1923
James Reeves, Immigrant from Ireland Arriving at Ellis Island in 1890. Photo by Blank & Stoller. American Magazine, December 1923. GGA Image ID # 14bfdefdef
An immigrant from Ireland, Mr. James Reeves, landed in America thirty-three years ago (1890). He got his first job as an eight-dollar-a-week clerk in one of the pioneering chain grocery stores.
He has been connected with the grocery business ever since that time. At thirty-two, he started the first store under his own name, and today he is the sole owner of a group aggregating over 385 stores, which serve more than 9,500,000 customers a year in New York City and its suburbs.
Landing in America with only $10 to his name, James Reeves set out to learn the grocery business—Twenty years ago he started his first store, which has now grown into a large retail chain.
A sword, a spade, and a thought should never be allowed to rust," runs an old Irish proverb that James Reeves learned long ago on a farm in County Clare. He remembered it in the morning in 1890 when he made up his mind to seek his fortune in America.
Telling his father of his decision to leave home, he set out blithely a few hours later. Reeves was nineteen years old at the time. When he boarded the ship bound for the New World, he lacked even the proverbial bundle on a stick. All he had was his passage money, the clothing on his back, and ten dollars in an inner pocket to keep him going until he could find a job.
This quality of making up his mind promptly—and keeping it made up—has blazed Reeves's trail at every turn. It explains much. When the boat was feeling its way into a New York pier, for example, he decided that he would not look up some people from his home county, who might be helpful to him, until he had landed a job on his own hook.
"A man can fight better if he has nothing at his back," he remarked to a fellow passenger.
"That's a good plan," replied the other. "Ye've heard the old saying that 'many a time the man with the ten has overtaken the man with the forty.' Maybe we'll do that, too. . .. Good luck to ye!"
Reeves looked around until he had found a job in a grocery store as a clerk at eight dollars a week. He worked in this store for thirteen years—during which, under several raises, he saved six thousand dollars out of his salary.
Then Reeves reached another decision. This time he made up his mind that a man could never get very far in the world through working for someone else.
So, at thirty-two, the energetic young Irishman gave up his job and started a grocery store of his own. ... He has been starting grocery stores ever since!
Ask Reeves to throw any light on the events that crowded the years ahead, and he will remark:
"I took chances—and I got the breaks. That's all there is to it. Other men have taken chances and lost."
This might pass as sufficient explanation if it weren't for the fact that Reeves has taken over 385 separate chances and won out on all of them. For today he is the sole owner of a great chain of grocery stores in New York City and its suburbs—one of the most essential chain systems of the country. His annual turnover is around $20,000,000, and more than 9,500,000 customers pass in and out of his stores in a single year.
The great business done by such a chain of stores is almost too much of a tax on one's imagination. The ten million loaves of bread that Reeves sells annually, if stacked endwise, would reach from Manitoba to Mexico; and the seventy-five million eggs, placed tip to tip, would stretch from Boston to San Francisco, with enough left over to furnish breakfast for all the passengers sailing from both ports in the busiest month of the year. Such computations could be carried right down the line.
Anyway, it's some business!
A year after he opened his first store Reeves formed a partnership with his younger brother, Daniel, who had followed him to America and gone into the grocery business for himself. Together they had five stores at this time, the nucleus of the present chain. In 1911, when the younger brother died, the number of stores had increased to thirty-five.
James bought out his brother's interest; and, as a tribute to the latter, changed the name of the company to Daniel Reeves, Inc. It still bears this name.
By 1915 the number of stores had increased to fifty. Today they are reaching toward the 400 mark—with new ones being opened every week or so.
These stores tap every kind of neighborhood in New York, with the significant majority of them in those sections covered by the moderately priced apartment and tenement houses.
James Reeves Shares His Knownledge of the Grocery Business
Reeves knows groceries—and he also knows human beings. Probably the latter knowledge has had more to do with his success than the former. In studying his customers, actual and potential, he has analyzed those motives and impulses, preferences, and prejudices, which make them buy or fail to obtain—and anyone will find both interest ana profit in his conclusions.
We were sitting together in that great group of offices and warehouses, which fill a big part of an up-town New York block when I told Reeves the purpose of my visit.
"Just what do you want to know?" he said, with a quizzical gleam in his blue eyes.
"You might start by telling me what things people buy the most of—and why," I suggested. "Which of the common food products has the greatest sale?"
"Sugar, with butter a close second," replied Reeves. "In a country grocery store flour would naturally be the biggest seller by a wide margin, but in a great city like New York, comparatively few people bake their own bread. Indeed, many housewives never think of making even pies or cakes. They prefer to buy these products from the grocer, the baker, or the delicatessen storekeeper.
"But everyone uses sugar and a lot of it. We Americans certainly have a sweet tooth! In my stores, we sell nearly twenty-two million pounds of sugar a year, which is an average of about two and one-quarter pounds for every time a customer steps through our door. It is also interesting to note that we dispose of four million pounds of coffee a year.
'AMERICANS, however, are away behind the English in the use of tea. We sell less than fifty pounds of tea a week in each of our stores—and a goodly share of this is bought by English and Irish families. Butter sales amount to nearly seven million pounds a year."
"How much of the more common articles of food does the average family use a week?"
"That's a hard question," laughed Reeves, "for we have all kinds of 'average families.' In some of the more impoverished neighborhoods, the average family may run from four to seven children. In comparison, in the exclusive sections, there might not be more than one or two children in the majority of homes.
"But let us take a family consisting of a man, his wife, and four children of school age. Our experience indicates that such a family usually consumes six pounds of butter, ten pounds of sugar, fourteen large loaves of bread, and four dozen eggs a week. Besides, it probably will use three quarts of milk a day."
"What vegetable sells most readily?"
"Excluding potatoes, which naturally are the universal favorite, the balance in vegetables is pretty well divided among tomatoes, peas, and corn. Onions are big sellers, too.
"Regarding eggs, it may interest you to know that most New Yorkers prefer eggs with white shells. In Boston, on the contrary, the brown egg is the favorite. White eggs usually cost from five to ten cents a dozen more than the brown ones, Yet we sell about twice as many of the white.
"Some people assert that brown eggs are quite as good as the white, thin-shelled ones, but this is not strictly true. The brown egg has a thick lining inside the yolk that keeps out the air—a fact that enables it to stand up better under cold storage.
Because white eggs do nor stand storage as well, those you buy are somewhat more likely to be 'strictly fresh.' Moreover, the specialists in egg production, with modern henneries, purebred chickens, and scientific dieting, produce white eggs for the most part."
"Do you find a good deal of difference in the kinds and amounts of foods bought by customers in the poorer and richer sections of the city?"
"Surprisingly, little," replied Reeves. "People in the tenement districts buy as much food, on the whole, and almost as expensive food, as do the residents of the more exclusive apartment districts.
Of course, the poorer people go in rather more for staples and dodge some of the fancier products. Still, the difference is far less than you would imagine. The average New Yorker seems bent upon having enough of the things he likes to eat if the margin between his income and his rent and clothing expenses will allow it.
"As a rule, the poorer people insist on getting strictly fresh eggs. Folks with plenty of money generally order one dozen storage eggs and two dozen fresh eggs, using the cheaper kind for cooking.
Breakfast in the workingman's home usually consists of bacon and eggs—and the best eggs are none too good for him. The more well-to-do classes are inclined to lighter breakfasts of grapefruit, oranges, cereal, and, occasionally, boiled eggs.
"The real differences in what people buy are found among the different nationalities. Our experience has taught us, for instance, not to open a store in a purely Italian neighborhood.
The people in these districts seem to live to a large extent on Italian spaghetti, tomatoes, Italian bread, and meats from the markets. About the only things they come to the grocer for are coffee and sugar.
"The rooming-house sections of a city are also poor places for the location of grocery stores. Sales to two hundred customers in these sections frequently have a smaller total volume than those to seventy-five customers in the family residential districts.
The reason is that many people in furnished rooms buy eggs, cereals, and milk for the light breakfast—or breakfast and lunch—which they prepare in their rooms; then, they go out to a restaurant for dinner, which is the main meal of the day.
"I suppose women do most of the buying in grocery stores," I remarked.
"Between ninety and ninety-five percent of it," replied Reeves. "It has been our experience that fully nine out of ten married men of the so-called working classes turn their pay envelopes over to their wives at the end of the week.
"There are occasional men who take complete control of the family finances and do practically all the buying;—doling out a mere pittance now and then to the wife for the purchase of absolutely necessary articles of clothing. Such a man is almost invariably the 'tightest' of all customers.
"You would be surprised to discover to what an extent people are creatures of habit. If they have been accustomed to buying some product in a square tin, let us say, and you offer the same thing in a round or a rectangular tin, they usually look on it with suspicion.
"Some articles seem to attract people more when they are sold at 'three pounds for a quarter' than when they are offered at even seven or eight cents a pound, 'straight.' Of course, the latter is the lower price, but the 'three-for-a-quarter' phrase seems to carry the idea of a bargain.
"There is another odd trait we often encounter: Everyone should know that just before Easter when fresh eggs get suddenly plentiful, prices take a sharp drop.
Yet often our customers are reluctant to buy these strictly fresh eggs at fifty cents a dozen, let us say because they paid sixty-eight cents a dozen a week before. It is hard to convince them that the eggs at the lower price are just as good, or better."
"How do people size up a store?" I inquired. "What attracts them to one place in preference to another?"
"Next to good products at fair prices, neatness is the greatest consideration," said Reeves. "The neat housewife always prefers to trade in a store where shelves and counters are clean, the floor swept at frequent intervals, and where the clerk who waits on her, wears a white coat and apron and has clean hands.
"I don't know that I should have put neatness in second place, after all," continued Reeves. "Perhaps I should have reserved that honor for courtesy. Yes, I know of nothing that builds trade faster and holds it more firmly.
"The storekeeper or clerk who remembers the little things—such as giving a friendly 'good morning,' calling his customers by name, and talking to the children whom mothers bring to the store—gets the business which his gruff competitor loses.
"There are thousands of these little things. For instance, a mother sends a small child to the store with a list of purchases and the money to pay for them.
Well, the wise clerk wraps up the change in paper, so the youngster won't lose it on the way home.
"I recall the case of a hard-working clerk in one of our new stores who was promoted to manager. Almost at once, the business stopped growing, even though up to that time, it had shown an increase of between fifteen and twenty percent a month.
We talked over the advisability of demoting this man. Still, the district superintendent made a special plea for him on the ground that he was thoroughly honest and intelligent.
"So we sent one of our executives whom we call a 'business builder,' around to that store.
"'Mac, I'm suggesting that we stage a "watching contest" this afternoon,' he said to the manager. 'I want you to tell me whether you find any flaws in my selling methods. If I see anything wrong with yours, you can bet your boots I'll jump on you about it, too. Are you on?'
"' Sure!' the manager answered.
"Presently, a woman came in for a particular brand of laundry soap. 'Sorry, but we're out of that brand,' said the manager, glancing back at a bundle of bills he had been checking. The woman hesitated a moment, then turned to leave.
"The 'business builder' dodged from behind the butter counter. 'Just a moment,' he called. 'How many bars of soap did you want, madam?'
'One small cake,' the woman answered.
"'Fine,' he said, 'I'll run out and get it for you in a jiffy. It'll save your walking farther up-town.'
""Before the woman could protest, he was gone. In a few moments, he had laid a cake of soap, bought from a competitor, on the counter before her, and was apologizing for the error of a stockroom man that had caused the store to be out of what she had wanted. Before the woman left, she had bought more than two dollars' worth of supplies.
"Toward evening, the 'business builder' had a long talk with the store manager, directing attention to certain things he had observed during the day, and explaining the whole philosophy of courtesy.
As a result, the store manager began to make a determined effort to improve himself. Increased sales were reported almost at once. Within four weeks, he had more than doubled the business, and his monthly reports have been showing a gradual increase ever since.
"Speed in waiting on trade is another critical factor. Much time is saved, and the edge was taken off the hurried shopper's temper, if bulk goods such as prunes, potatoes, coffee, and similar articles for which there is a steady demand, are kept weighed up in packages that are easily and quickly handled. This advance work can be done early in the morning and at times when sales are slack.
"I have always instructed our employees not to argue with a customer, no matter what he says or does. Occasionally we find people who gratify instinctive snobbishness by adopting an arrogant and even an insolent attitude to the clerk, knowing that he won't fight back.
Then again, some customers make hasty and false accusations. But these cases are rare. The average human being wants to treat other people as fairly as he expects them to treat him.
"I recall two or three glaring exceptions to the general rule, however. A serious case of this kind happened in one of our biggest Broadway stores. The manager handed a woman customer forty cents change from a one-dollar bill. Thereupon the woman asserted indignantly that she had given him a two-dollar bill—and demanded another dollar.
"The manager pulled out the cash drawer and laid it on the counter before her. 'If you can find a single two-dollar bill in that drawer, I'll admit I am wrong,' he said. She glanced at it, but there was only some small change, a half-dozen fives, and several one-dollar bills.
"' You put my money in your pocket!' she shrieked. 'I won't deal with a thief. I'll have you arrested!'
"If the manager had wanted to steal a dollar, he certainly picked a most inopportune time—for I was standing back of the counter talking to one of the clerks.
I remained purposely in the background and listened. Finally, the woman slammed the coins she had received in change on the counter, left her purchase, and stamped out of the store.
"The next morning's mail brought me a letter in which the woman gave an entirely different version of the occurrence from the one I had seen and heard. The clerk had not only stolen her money, she said, but he had cursed her and ordered her from the store.
Her astonishing communication was full of perjury and slander from start to finish. Not content with writing the letter, the woman spread stories through the neighborhood that injured the manager's reputation and hurt his business.
"We sued her immediately for slander.
Of course, she had to employ a lawyer and pay him a stiff fee. When he had heard her story and conferred with our attorney, he threw up his hands. 'The best thing you can do,' he told his client, 'is to make the cheapest settlement they will let you down with.'
"The next day, a letter came from the woman. She admitted that she had been entirely wrong. She had remembered afterward, she wrote, that before Visiting our store that morning she had dropped into a dry-goods shop and bought a child's hair ribbon—and it was there that she had changed the two-dollar bill. She begged that we drop the suit.
We agreed to do this if she would go to the store in business hours and apologize publicly to the manager. This she did—with rather poor grace, it is true—and the incident was closed.
"Store managers are confronted with a variety of problems in trying to please a great number of people. One of the most baffling is the check problem. The manager is often called upon to cash checks for customers and to accept checks in payment for groceries.
Many housewives get checks from their husbands for weekly or monthly household expenses, and most of them have no banking connections of their own. Invariably they will carry the check to the grocery store to be cashed.
While most of these checks are good, the bad ones have to be watched for, or the man who accepts them has to bear the loss.
"The manager of one of our Broadway stores had been cashing checks regularly for a very good customer, whose purchases averaged three dollars a day. In two years, he probably had cashed a hundred checks for her, ranging in amounts from $5 to $100.
Just before Christmas, she gave him three checks on successive days, aggregating $190. All of them came back. She vowed tearfully that the bank's refusal to honor the checks was her first intimation that her husband was bankrupt.
This was three years ago, and we still have in storage a couple of supposedly valuable paintings that were given us to hold as security for the money until the man could get on his feet again.
"Another, a very wealthy woman, had been paying cash for everything she bought at a Columbus Avenue store. Her occasional checks for supplies were promptly honored.
Three months ago, a check for a fifty-dollar order was returned by the bank with the notation: 'Not sufficient funds.' Instead of communicating with her, the store manager waited a week and again deposited the check. That time it was paid, and subsequent checks were likewise honored.
In that case, the woman was utterly reliable and probably had overdrawn her account by mistake. Had the manager made a fuss, or even mentioned the bad check, it is likely that she would have been angry or ashamed. In either case, he might have lost an excellent customer.
"We have found it a bad business * » policy to quibble over little things. We never insist on seeing spoiled or damaged goods before making an exchange or refunding the customer's money.
It is not reasonable to believe that a woman would lie about the condition in which she found a ten-cent can of corn, or declare that she had found two bad eggs in a dozen when all of them were good. We are perfectly willing to leave that to the honesty of the woman.
"The grumpy male customer is very rare, but occasionally we run across one. On a particular Saturday night, there came into one of our Brooklyn stores a man with whom the clerks had experienced trouble before. He had a habit of watching the clerk and the scales with the utmost intentness every time he made a purchase.
"Through long practice, many clerks become so expert in guessing just how much butter will weigh a pound, or the amount of rice for a two-pound order, that sometimes, in the rush of trade, they will slam a bag onto the scales and jerk it off before the dial has stopped fluctuating. We don't encourage this, but it is often done.
"On this occasion, the clerk, in weighing two pounds of coffee, did that very thing.
"'Stop!' yelled the customer so that his voice carried to every corner of the crowded store. 'I thought I'd catch you crooks short-weighting me if I watched you long enough! There's only a pound and a half of coffee in that bag.'
"The clerk was good-natured under most circumstances, but this charge, and the violent tone in which it was uttered, was too much for him.
'"My friend,' he shot back, 'if there's less than two pounds in that bag, I'll stand up on a box and apologize to you. But if it's the full weight, you'd better run!"
"He put the bag onto the scale again, and a group gathered around the wavering dial. Slowly the indicator settled. The exact weight was two pounds and one ounce.
With a roar, the clerk dodged around the butter-and-eggs counter with blood in his Irish-blue eyes. But he was too late. The crank had stampeded out of the store and was a half-block away, traveling as fast as his legs could carry him. He never bought another nickel's worth in that store, but we were glad of it.
"Sometimes, we find people who are too quick to jump at conclusions. Our clerks have told me that often before they have a chance to make change for a small child, the youngster will grab his parcel and run home.
Presently the mother will come storming in to demand indignantly why the child wasn't given his change. One woman said she was surprised that a grown man would be mean and dishonest enough to steal money from a baby.
"There are a good many funny incidents, too. The other morning an attractive, smartly gowned young woman came into one of our West Side stores and ordered two pounds of rice.
While the clerk was wrapping it up, she came close to him and whispered, 'I'm just married, and I don't know a thing about cooking rice. Should I just put this in a stewpan and boil it?'
"' If you do, you'll have more rice than you thought there was in the world,' said the clerk. 'I guess you didn't stop to think about how much rice swells.' And then he gave her full directions.
"'Oh, thank you so much,' she said sweetly. 'And do you know any good recipes for making hot biscuits?'
"The clerk had to admit that here he was stumped—but he recommended a well-known cookbook.
"Clerks tell me that, as a general rule, they would rather deal with people in moderate financial circumstances than with the very well-to-do. Some rich people are incredibly close buyers.
I know one woman with a lot of money who buys staple products in almost unbelievably small quantities and explains that she does this because the servants use 'more than is necessary' when there is a plentiful supply on hand.
This woman will order three eggs, a quarter pound of butter, and a half-pound of crackers at a time! Usually, she accompanies her order with the remark that the cook 'doesn't want any more.'
"The stingiest man I ever heard of was a retired lawyer living in an up-town apartment, who had made a fortune out of his practice. His usual purchase at our store was one egg and five cents' worth of butter.
"On the other hand, there are many wealthy families who entrust the purchase of supplies entirely to their servants. Sometimes a small family of this type will spend a surprising amount for provisions.
The housekeeper of one Fifth Avenue customer gives at frequent intervals such orders as one case of peaches, ten pounds of butter, half a case of eggs, one hundred pounds of sugar, and other articles in proportion. It is not unusual for her to spend as much as sixty dollars at a time for groceries."
Why Men Are Easy to Wait On
The average man," Mr. Reeves tells us, "is easy to wait on. He usually asks for the best of everything. The man is anxious to get his purchases wrapped up as soon as possible. I want some soap, a loaf of white bread, and a can of peaches,' he will say.
'What kind of soap and what brand of peaches?' the clerk will inquire. 'Oh, toilet soap, I guess—and the best kind of peaches you've got.'
"That's all there is to the sale, unless the man, glancing idly around, happens to see several other articles that strike his fancy. Then he will order them without inquiring the price.
The family budget isn't his concern for the moment—and he likes to stand out as a 'good provider' and thoughtful husband. Sometimes the clerk will suggest these special delicacies to the man, realizing that it will be a good thing for the family to have a little treat in the form of a change in the usual daily diet.
"We have learned that those suggestions have weight with both men and women, often bringing to mind some forgotten article. But the suggestion should be made before the customer is handed the change due from the order he has given on his own initiative.
When a person has once received his change, he is likely to resist further sales suggestions, because they involve going through the process of getting change again.
Neither is it wise to make the suggestion too soon. If a woman has many purchases in her mind, she should be allowed to tell them first, or else the clerk may distract and annoy her."
Robert Norman, "For 13 Years a Grocer's Clerk—He Now Owns 385 Stores," in The American Magazine, Springfield, Ohio: The Crowell Publishing Company, Vol. XCVI, No. 6, December 1923, pp. 48-49, 186-190.