You Boomers will likely remember the old Chicago-based mail order company, Aldens, Inc. At the time of it’s closing in the early 1980’s it had been in operation since the turn of the last century; well over 90 years. It was one of the big mail order companies of its day.. along with Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards; founded in 1899 as the Chicago Mail Order Millinary (just CMO after 1906). Chicago, being an established transportation hub in the center of the country since the late 1800’s, became the home for the mail order industry, which catered to the farming communities. Their huge catalogs became common sights around most every home (and outhouse) in rural America.
Aldens was located in a 50’s style building at the intersection of Roosevelt Road and Cicero Avenue; within the shadow of the “famous” Western Electric Hawthorne Works (if you had taken business school you’ll remember that the first experiments in production time studies were conducted here.. and the introduction of the term “Hawthorne Effect“). The building was a combination of huge warehouse space along with three floors of wide open office space. In those days the rank-in-file clerical staff did not have the cubicle partitions in use in offices today but rather were just desks within the large space, separated by what seemed like miles of file cabinets.
After I closed my store and moved back to Chicago from Rockford, IL, 75 miles northwest of the city, I answered an ad for a customer service supervisor. This would have been about 1980. Supervisors’ desks were physically located out on the floor.. and there were about seven of us customer service supervisors under four managers (who had walled cubicle offices). Each manager was responsible for a specific customer service area… exchanges, adjustments, general correspondence, etc. This was a union environment and I learned a lot.. but we shall save that part for another post.
I was responsible for the SRF Unit. It contained 8 ladies (the nearly 100 clerical staff on that floor were female, save for four male supervisors and two managers). SRF stood for “special reference file”; an odd description for being responsible for handling all customer complaints (in written form) to any level of management, most importantly to the president of the company. In today’s jargon it was a kind of “level three” or “tier three” customer service complaint level. We also handled all product liability complaints. Keep in mind, even though this was 1980 there were no specific customer service phone operators that could do things online with a computer at their desk. Hence, the entire floor was a maze of paper correspondence from customers. There were a couple computer terminals scattered about for customer account lookups but this was the time of the old monochrome green screen monitors and the data available was extremely limited. Even by 1980’s standards I found this rather an archaic and limited environment in which to work. My people were generally required to make direct customer contact with customers who complained to the president and the other C-suiters. When I first arrived there we had a single rotary phone.. on my desk. Each girl rotated each day as the one to walk up to my desk when the phone rang to answer it and direct it to the proper adjuster (per union rules, believe it or not). While I could dial out to place customer calls myself I was not to answer a phone call. I was simply amazed. Six months later when they relocated the SRF unit to another location on the floor each girl got a phone on their desk and computer terminal. But I had no terminal on my desk.
Given my relative mid-management position in customer service I had a fairly powerful responsibility. Generally speaking, when customer complaints ended up in my section there was a sincere company effort to “get it handled”; take care of the customer regardless. Besides the company president, I was the only one in the company who had the authority to call the warehouse and get something shipped on my word alone; hell, even without paperwork. Not even my boss or his boss had that authority. If they were working with a customer and had to have something shipped they came to me with the proper paperwork and I called the warehouse. The warehouse manager never questioned me and I often wondered how he managed to ship stuff out without paperwork. But it was playing to the idea that if a customer complaint got to my section then they were truly in some level of customer service desparation, usually after having run the gamut of not getting the proper help earlier in the process; either they didn’t receive the item they ordered, it arrived damaged, they never got a refund for a returned item, or the item caused extended damage (product liability) and we would try to make them happy to avoid litigation.
In 1980 Aldens parent company, Gamble-Skogmo of Minnesota, sold it’s assets, including Aldens, to the Wickes corporation. At the time Wickes was into furniture and the new Builder’s Emporium on the West Coast. The buyout was fairly leveraged and Wickes ended up going into Chapter 11. In comes Sanford C. Sigoloff; “Mr. Chapter 11”, “Ming the Merciless”, and self-admitted toughest man in retailing (some of you West Coasters might remember his commercials for Buiilder’s Emporium). He was the right guy to save any company on the verge of collapse. To the employees at Aldens, who were made up of 50% black and Hispanic minorities reflecting the changing neighborhood of the day, many times for generations within one family given the company’s 90 year history… Sigoloff was indeed the “enemy” when news arrived that he and Wickes were putting us out of business. Just a couple years before there was such hope when Wickes took over that there finally would be some new investment in the company’s infrastructure and management team.
There have been a couple events in my life that I have recognized as being notable wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time events. The first was that man, in some form or another, has been around for nearly a million years and when I show up on the scene there’s AIDS. The second… that Aldens has been a mega-mail order business for nearly a century… I show up on the scene and within three years it’s out of business. Go figger.
But while my employment at Aldens had not been cemented in my way of life I saw that the employees around me.. many having been there for 15+years, were tragically affected. The company had been around for so long that it became an icon of stable employment with good benefits for generations. This was a very “mature” workforce in a clerical union environment, and their union couldn’t help them. It was quite sad.
The actual ceasing of operations was phased. As people were let go I ended up absorbing other customer service areas until my subordinates numbered about 30. On the day the company officially closed is the day the remaining rank-in-file and supervisors were let go, including me. Up to that point many departments closed down in phases and the employees were let go. The warehouse cleared out it’s inventory through discount sales in the company thrift store; for weeks it was a madhouse of bargain hunters. The days leading up to the official closing were very sad in retrospect. The great clerical areas were becoming giant empty spaces.. the desks and furnishings being removed and taken to the warehouse docks for the scrap vendors or sold through the thrift store. Security was nearly non-existant and many management staff managed to remove anything that might fit in the single box we were allowed to remove that contained our “personal” items; typewriters and desktop items like staplers, etc.
Those 20 files cabinets that contained our customer files… protected for decades… and in at least one incident was responsible for getting my boss fired… product liability cases, fraud customers… archival files…. all drawers were emptied into the center of the floor and the cabinets carted away… and the paper hauled to the dumpsters.
The true tragedy was seeing the sadness with the departing employees. Prior to the closing Mr. Sigoloff visited the company for what the employees perceived as a measure of gloting over Wickes “raping” us so that they could stay alive. In reality he came to thank departing employees and tried to personally make sure benefits were intact and severences were in order. I actually recall the rumor going around that he had a “food taster” (or was it “tester”?)with him to make sure the food he ate from the company cafeteria was not tainted, given the threats to his life.
Aldens had been one of those old school companies. Executives were gods; they had their own catered dining room.. large office suites, company cars. The true heyday was likely the 50’s and 60’s as I saw evidence of activity that moved large amounts of merchandise. Railroad tracks leading up to the docks that hadn’t been used in decades, order picking racks and shelving that allowed for greater efficiency when using roller skates for speed in picking orders in the days before automation. A lot of indicators of all the activity of years past were noticable everywhere, like outdated and obsolete equipment. So, by the 1980’s it was apparent anyway that Aldens was just the first in the decline of the old school large mail order houses as a result of changing times.
I did walk away with three old catalogs from the 30’s. I had spotted these books on a shelf in one of the manager’s offices when I was first hired. I tried to coerce the manager to letting me have them but she declined. I outlasted her at the end… and the few of us office scavengers managed to “liberate” some items from her office, and I did get those catalogs.
While I adapted well to finding a new job because I was still young, many ex-employees had a tough time. One post-script to all this is that I ended up working with some of these folks at the next job I had. Life goes on. After having been management purged and divested unprofitable divisions (like Aldens) Wickes Corporation came out of bankruptcy in 1985 after having been at the time the second largest BK proceeding in U.S. history. They remain in business to this day selling building supplies and new home construction markets. Sanford C. Sigoloff passed away just last year at 80, after a long and successful career. Aldens remains just a mail order memory (Montgomery Wards closed its mail order division in 1985, then closed for good in 2001. Sears, now part of K-Mart, does still have a speciality catalogs but they stopped their traditional “big book” in 1993.)
Want the old catalogs? Go here.
MY NEW BLOG!!!
Click on the image below to go there!