How Philly’s John Wanamaker became a marketing legend

Dec 20, 2016

How Philly’s John Wanamaker became a marketing legend

Dec 20, 2016

Standing in the massive Grand Court of Macy’s Center City, flanked by perfume counters and women’s shoes, visitors stare up at about 100,000 flashing LED lights, strung in front of the largest musical instrument in the world.

It’s been a holiday tradition for generations of people in and around Philadelphia to see the Christmas Light Show here, which was first started 60 years ago. But if more of them knew the history of the man whom the building itself is named after, they might marvel just as much at his role in shaping the shopping experience we now take for granted.


John Wanamaker was born in South Philly in 1838. He worked at the YMCA and opened a Sunday school before pursuing business as his career, opening a few clothing stores before deciding to purchase a former railroad depot at 13th and Market streets. The grand opening was 140 years ago – perfect timing to coincide with crowds in town for the U.S. Centennial.

Wanamaker had already made a name for himself as an innovative retailer. His stores often had special sales, a concept that was scorned at the time. He also published the first copyrighted advertisement by a retailer, laying out what were then revolutionary principles: “full guarantee, one price, cash payment, and cash returned.”

At his new store, he would continue to innovate, to the point that you can practically say he invented the concept of shopping as we know it today. He sold many different products in one place, effectively creating the country’s first department store; he created fixed prices, whereas stores previously just haggled with each customer; and he staged the first seasonal sales in order to keep turnover high and prices low.

Just for good measure, he was also the first to use electric lighting and pneumatic tubes in his store.


Not surprisingly, he is revered in the marketing world, although he’s probably most referenced today for a clever phrase every business can relate to: “Half of my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.”

It’s easy to simply say he was a marketing genius, but Wanamaker himself didn’t say so.

“No one ever sees the whole of anything at first,” he wrote. “Often it is only the little edges that are in sight.”

Instead, he was simply willing to do what hadn’t been done before, and do it in a way that made his customers and employees the priority. He popularized the concepts of truth in advertising and “the customer is always right,” while also providing free health care and profit sharing to his staff.

Of course, he went to incredible lengths to draw people to his store as well, and the best evidence is the Wanamaker Organ. It was originally built for the St. Louis World’s Fair, bankrupting its builder in the process. Wanamaker had it transported to Philadelphia on 13 train cars, and when it arrived, he decided it wasn’t big enough.

So, he created a section in the store where his own team of 40 full-time workers could expand it to 28,500 pipes, the largest of which is 32 feet long and could fit a horse inside. It’s now a National Historic Landmark, valued at $57 million.

And, oh yeah, it was certainly effective in drawing crowds. One concert alone drew a 15,000-person standing room audience.

Wanamaker died in 1922. The organ, the Wanamaker Building, and Wanamaker’s statue on the east side of City Hall are some of the most visible physical signs of Wanamaker’s influence today. But as people all over the world finish their Christmas shopping this year, Wanamaker’s legacy is evident far beyond Center City Philadelphia, having shaped the modern retail landscape.

Ultimately, though, his story isn’t just a piece of Philadelphia history, or a set of interesting facts business people should know. The lasting lesson of Wanamaker is that thinking big can generate big returns, but a little decency and honesty can go a long way, too. That’s a good holiday message we can all take to heart.

This article was written by Lee Procida. It’s part of our Inside Story series, an occasional, in-depth look at the hidden marketing insights behind historical and current events. Read more in this series.

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